Writing Manuals

Amusing little article in The Atlantic:

no, I’m talking about straight how-to books, most of which claimed to offer shortcut advice, practical instructions on “writing your say the genre,” and even in some cases “secrets” of the novelist’s or story writer’s or poet’s trade. That day, with Delores, I stood among the titles, amazed. Stack upon stack of them.

“These sell really well,” she told me. “You wouldn’t believe how many people want to be writers out there.”

I said, “Damn.” That was what came out of me. We were looking at 50 different titles—a lot. More than I would’ve believed existed. And in the next moment, she offered me $10,000 to write one. “Really,” she said. “These kinds of books sell better than the fiction books.”

“Well,” I said. “Lordy.” I picked one up and put it down, picked up another and turned it in my hand and put it down. “Lordy.”

“Ten thousand dollars,” she said. “And I’ve heard you lecture. You could knock one of these off in a few days, I’ll bet.”

I’ll be honest with you. I am not a fan of writing manuals, and articles like this don’t make me want to change my mind. There’s nothing so annoying as having someone tell you the right way to write a book, right? Because I don’t think there is one, you learn by doing, and I’ve always suspected there’s some kind of exploitative subculture on the fetish of being a writer.

I guess there’s some kind of therapeutic, we’re all in this together kind of value to be gleaned from such books, but hey – when it comes to doing it, there’s just your way, and what works for you, so I say ignore all this distracting white noise. The more time you spend worrying about writing, the less writing you do. Having said that, James seemed to enjoy this one.

How many writers actually use manuals, out of interest, and how useful are they to you? I mean, I could totally rant about how useless I’ve found them to be, but I’m sure I’ve annoyed enough people by now. I’m happy to be humbled and proven wrong on their true value.

I’ve had a few emails recently asking about getting published, and I hold my hands up and shrug. I can only talk about the things you can actually write about, things to increase your chances, but there’s no golden ticket, just years of graft. Admittedly I did write this post a year or so back, but the more I get into writing, the more awkward I feel about giving advice.

Just write.

And enjoy it, yeah? That’s the fun part, the thinking-up-mad-shit.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. While you generally have a point in there, I’d have to disagree a bit. Yes, there are those infantile manuals, where advice becomes a system of rules [sometimes it even grows to be a new set of Sacred Commandments]. Those are the hogwash books and this is the majority of the books out there. They are written like self-help books and consist of many, many exercises. I can think of one author, who fits in that category.

    However, there are those articles, blogs and books, which are less about exactly how to write and simply highlight the problematic areas that pop up as you discover your own self, while writing. Most offer general advice as to how the problem can be overcome, usually by giving examples of their work or the work of others. Writing is individual and the sites I have visited and the one book I have read about writing [On Writing by the way] acknowledge that fact and are far from instructing people with guarantees for success. Instead, they simply broaden the writer’s horizon, but let him/her do all the work and discover himself/herself as such.

    Preachy [for which I am sorry], but as far as written advice for writer’s go, it’s a mine field.

  2. In the past I’ve been terrible for buying them, reading them, feeling I need them, knowing full well they won’t tell you HOW to write, but how that writer writes (something I still find fascinating but now out of curiosity). I can stand from where I look now and say I don’t need them and no longer buy them, but can I say they were of no use?

    Writing is a journey, not a destination, we’re a product of our experience and those books we read in some smaller or greater way have added to that. Sometimes some of us read things that matches our own process and helps make sense of the chaos. I’m also convinced that writing is about confidence and those books can help prop up a delicate writer and persuade them to write.

    Don’t get me wrong I’m not a big fan of those books now and they are an industry in themselves. But I’m in a different place now and can see them as the follies they were. If you get something out of them, more power to you, but I’ll wager what you get out of them isn’t what the books preaches.

  3. I would agree there is an exploitative aspect to a large part of the “how-to-write” market (I CAN MAKE YOU THIN! I CAN MAKE YOU RICH! I CAN SHOW YOU HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLER!), I don’t think you can lump them all together like that.

    The writing guides worth reading can be divided into two categories – the practical side, and the experiencial side.

    On the practical side you have things like The Elements of Style and various (very good) guides on grammar, language and structure. While it is easy to scoff at the idea of someone who wants to be a writer not knowing their basic grammar and form, you may be surprised at how ill-served a lot of people have been by their high school English education. When I took high school English in New Zealand in the early nineties, all grammar and form had been removed from the national syllabus, entirely.

    Also, I think there is something to be said for knowing the rules of writing well before you attempt to break them 🙂

    The experiential kind of manual includes things like On Writing by Stephen King, or The Secrets, an on-going email newsletter from NYT best-seller Michael Stackpole. They’re not so much how-to guides, as a collection of notes, observations and thoughts from people who have forged long and successful careers in writing. If we can learn from our own experience as a writer, as you say, then we should also be able to learn from the experiences of others. I would actually consider On Writing an essential read for any writer, whether just starting out or with their own established career.

    Of course the key thing to remember is that writing is an individual experience, everybody writes different, and the only way to improve and learn is to write, and keep writing, and write some more. But there is nothing wrong with knowing the foundation of writing to begin with (eg, The Elements of Style), and there is nothing wrong with picking up some tips and pointers from those who have gone before (eg, On Writing).

  4. Only one sf writer has made a career by following the advice given in a how to write manual: AE van Vogt.

    Bob Shaw’s How To Write Science Fiction basically contained one piece of advice: read lots of science fiction.

  5. I like to classify any form of advice (or point of critique) as: addressing language, or narration?

    Language is quite important, certainly for a non-native like me, because I want to be sure that when people congratulate me with inventing a wonderful new word, the word is actually what I intended to write (the whole Flemish-English-French language triangle sometimes makes me wanna poke my eyes out!).

    Narration I find intriguing, because storytelling is something I never had to work hard on to get the basics right, so I strive to understand what makes people scratch their head and ask: how do you do that? And with this I’m not claiming to do narration particularly well; someone with an ear for rhythm might have a leg up when becoming a drummer, it doesn’t mean they get to fill in for Lars Ulrich without a lot more work.

    If we’re talking language, I’ve found Elements handy up to a point (but any English grammar book will tell you the good stuff, and this without cramping your style into “essay”-writing). The Oxford Style Manual has a wealth of information, not only on the basics of the industry (formats, proofing,…), but also the really difficult stuff: how you English types capitalize, or derive from religious/national/racial etc names, insights into different languages (which is always handy when inventing Martians or fantastic tribes).

    Now, I’ve read quite a few books and articles on the “art of writing”, written by writers of whatever genre, and find most on the whole not as interesting as they promised to be. They usually try to define *The* process instead of trying to define *their* process, which only works when you have either no process at all, or if your process aligns with theirs. Also, the hubby and me sport this theory that whenever an author starts writing about writing like this, in too serious a way, his/her own writing sort of bleeds to death. So: don’t you give in to the pressure, dude!

    But some books/articles I felt were useful; they stand out because they are written from that specific author’s point of view, using her/his own voice. They help me see how narration works *for them*, which in turn helps me to understand how mine works, which in turn helps to refine and improve my writing.

    And of course there is a vast body of very interesting literature on writing that I’ve found strangely lacking in every discussion about “books on writing”: the scholarly work. If I ever need to suggest a good book on writing, it would be Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s “Narrative Fiction, contemporary poetics”.

  6. I enjoy reading books on writing. I’m like that though — if I enjoy something, I can’t read enough about it.

    I look at these books as a way to explore how other people do what they do or to round out my understanding of a concept.

    Occasionally, there are bits and pieces that I can take for my own, but I don’t use them as manuals. I can’t sit down and write a best seller in 30 days or follow a writing schedule made by someone else. Even so, I did find the Ken Follett’s outlining methodology to be illuminating even though it was presented in a book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel.

    Some writing books are better than others, but even in the not-so-good ones there are usually useful things.

    These days, books on writing just make me anxious to get to the writing, so I usually put them down and get to it.

    For what it’s worth, Jeff VanderMeer, over at http://booklifenow.com/resources has an annotated bibliography of books on writing that I’ve found interesting useful.

  7. …interesting AND useful.

  8. I think it’s unwise to make generalizations. Some writing books suck. Some do not. All of them, even by reacting against the advice, can be valuable. It’s exceedingly dumb for a writer to out of hand reject the possibility of improving his or her writing by deciding not to check out a particular type of source of information.

    That said, “get rich quick” writing books, so to speak, tend to be useless.

    Personally, I’ll be happy if writers and would-be writers decide not to pick up Revising Fiction by David Madden or Carolyn Bly’s The Accurate, Passionate Story, or Tucci’s Maps of the Imagination. Just means those of us who do gain an advantage.


  9. Jeff – was that a generalisation? 🙂

    I can understand your thoughts there, but I still think when you say source information, that’s a different thing entirely. Source information in my personal world – and I’d hope many others – is looking at other writers. Jimmy Page didn’t improve his guitar and song writing technique by reading a book, he studied other amazing guitarists like Bert Jansch.

    Though there is a whole bunch of “business” advice, all the non-writing stuff about being a writer – which I’d conceded is indeed useful. Dealing with various folk in the industry, that kind of thing. Of the actual technique though, I just feel very uncomfortable with one set of rules.

  10. Older post, but I just got around to reading it.

    I’ve read a handful of these writing manuals and never really learned anything from them that I didn’t pick up in a highschool senior english class.

    That said, there are a number of short posts that I have found of great use, or collections of said posts.

    But rather than rely on these, I prefer to find writing classes or groups and hear how others view writing, what works for them and discuss what works for me.

    Manuals, really, are just spewing how one particular writer writes and to be honest, there are a lot of writers that really can’t write, lol.

  11. This is interesting. I agree with you about there being no ‘right’ way to write a novel. It really is all about doing it, learning what works for you, and finding your voice. However, as someone who is, first and foremost, a screenwriter, those manuals do come in handy since it’s a form that very much depends on knowing and following the rules, and being unable to break them until you know them like the back of your hand. For prose though, manuals are very limiting, and, I find, have you focusing too much on what you could do wrong, rather than what you are doing right. I’d say that their biggest value is in consulting them after you’ve written a first draft to see what huge mistakes you should keep an eye out for while redrafting.