Why That Writing Improvement Book Won’t Help You

This will sound like I’m going against the message of the site, but I like to be honest with readers. There are a lot of books and sites out there that want to tell you “writing is easy!” and “just follow these steps and you’ll be a great writer!” I try to stay away from these kinds of messages here at the Corner because I don’t think that is what can be taught about writing. It’s tempting to spend a lot of time burying your nose in these ubiquitous books, but here are a few reasons why reading “How to Be a Writer in Ten Steps” won’t actually help you.

They are Often Vague.

It’s easy to give advice on improving a creative discipline. “Find your center”, some books might encourage. “Learn to let go of your fears,” say others. These writing advice books can begin to sound like cheesy self-help manuals, trying to apply enormous sweeping statements that have little relevance or actually advice in them. Beware of these vague statements; they aren’t what the real writers used to hone their craft.

They encourage homogenous writing

Some of the books may give specific guidelines on technique, but all they are encouraging at that stage is to write like a competent version of everyone else. The way you are going to be a great writer isn’t to gradually make your writing as blank and adequate as you can, and it isn’t just to do a good style imitation of someone else. Reading these books too much, however, will only get you just that.

After the jump: another reason to stay away from writing help books

They are telling you how to sell, not improve, your fiction

Another thing that these books are essentially going for is how to make your writing marketable. They will tell you the rules that the paperback romance writers follow. If you want a rubric for publishing success, this could actually help you; but it won’t lead you to your best writing. To find your own voice and hone and sharpen it, you’re going to have to throw away the books. You’ll have to read a lot and write more; practice, fail, and practice more; think, wonder, question, and experiment. Following a “writing is easy!” guidebook is fundamentally missing the point of writing to me, so don’t fall into the trap.

6 comments

  1. Janny C says:

    Amen Sister!!! I am so happy Im not the only one now. Much of what I learned of writing and found valuable is basicly from reading other writers books. Not only do I read their novels for enjoyment but I also learn from how they wrote it. I think every writer has their own flow to writing. I look at theirs and look at mine and see what I need to improve on in my own writing.

  2. Darn! I was certain that the book “How to write a bestseller in 10 days” was going to help me achieve my lifelong dream of being published!
    Seriously, though, you make a good point. It’s easy to get suckered in by books that claim to mechanize creativity. What an oxymoron!

  3. mary brady says:

    Recently, you wrote a blog in which you extolled the wonders of spending time (& money) in an MFA program. Most of us out here, for various reasons, cannot do this. Money is the primary obstacle, along with many others–e.g., I am disabled & cannot sit/stand upright longer than 15 minutes without debilitating pain.
    Hence, books on writing are my only alternative.
    HOWEVER–I agree with you that reading LOTS of them gets you nowhere.
    The first (and best) book on writing I bought was called “Immediate Fiction,” by…some guy. I can’t recall his name.
    From that paperback, I got the info that setting up a conflict was necessary for a good story. The author also had basic exercises, such as “choose two characters from column A and a location from column B and write for 20 minutes.”
    I got my very first REAL short story from that exercise! I’m still proud of it. Many more followed.
    I also bought “Beginnings, Middles & Endings” by …some woman. It’s part of a series, I understand. That book also emphasized having a main character going through “doors” or obstacles, finding a way out,resolving it, blah blah blah.
    I should have stopped at these two books. They were enough. I only bought two more, but they were just repeats of these first two.
    So, in my opinion, reading a few books when you are a beginner who cannot enter a writing program is not a bad idea. But once you get the basics down (& the books begin repeating info you’ve read already), spend your time writing.
    You’ll know when your writing is working and when it isn’t.
    Nonetheless, had I not read “Immediate Fiction” (Cleaver? I think that’s the author’s last name), I’d still be stumbling around in the dark wondering why none of my stories worked. The man spells it out simply and effectively–but never tells you how you “ought” to write. L&K, Mary B

  4. DeidraK says:

    I agree with Mary in that some books, and even blog posts by others, written on the game of writing can help you a great deal but I think the point of the post was that many writing improvement books give you a formula to write with as opposed to exercises to help you develop as a writer. In my opinion there is a big difference. There is a difference between cookie cutter, bland, and “o’rly” advice and tools given to you to help you actually put your mission statement as a writer into action.
    I find much more value in the type you are referring to Mary.

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