The first how-to write fiction book I ever read was Rita Mae Brown’s Starting From Scratch. That book led to an addiction to how-to write books. I gobbled them up. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which introduced me to creative nonfiction/literary journalism), Josip Novakich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, and on and on and on.
In The Atlantic‘s current fiction issue, writer Richard Bausch critiques writing instruction manuals in an essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons”.
“My quarrel,” he writes, “is with the implication in the how-to books market that one can merely read them to find the magic secret for writing well enough to publish.”
Bausch argues the writer’s manuals promote being a writer without the need to do the work. He tells a story of a student who “with great pride” said “he had ‘over a hundred books’ in his library — I [Bausch] could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books . . . . He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role.”
The argument is similar to the one John Aldridge makes in Talents and Technicians, a critique of MFA writing programs. Aldridge argued that MFA programs created cookie-cutter writers whose prose was so similar the only difference was the byline. The writing programs, Aldridge said, produced writers for the sake of being writers. These writers didn’t come from reading other writers; it came writing in the writing programs.
Bausch addresses this argument:
I know an assumption exists in certain quarters that writing programs do damage, mostly by causing a so-called cookie-cutter effect, everyone sounding the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and you need only look at the work to know it. Allan Gurganus, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, and I were all at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at roughly the same time. Allan and I had classes together. We hung out. I went horseback riding with Jane Smiley . . . and we talked about everything under the sun, including writing
You would have trouble finding four writers who are more different.
If a cookie-cutter effect ever develops, it will come from people keeping to the manuals and how-to books.
And writing that comes from those whose reading is confined to the how-to books is cramped and obvious.
My experience with how-to books has, overall, been decent. I don’t view them as negative, cookie-cutter mills. Bausch says there are classics in the genre such as Gardner’s Art of Fiction. These books, he says, deal with the “aesthetics of the task.” But, I’ve never viewed the manuals as substitutes for reading and learning to write from reading novels, essays, poems or plays.
Bausch says the manuals steer would-be writers away from reading and learning from other writers. Reading the manuals has helped me become a better reader, even better, I think than the reading I did in graduate school. I read deeply and learned to analyze texts in grad school, but much of that analysis was fueled with theory.
After reading a manual I could go back to the books I loved and pick up on the techniques the manuals had taught. I could see what was bad and what was good. Those books also introduced me to writers such as Bausch and Boyle.
The other thing I learned from were the exercises and prompts. I learned to apply the techniques, and I would practice the techniques, not only at home, but at work when I was writing feature stories. Those exercises were important, too, because they got me to place ass in chair and write.
Of course, the manuals are full of the standards: write what you know; use active voice; show, don’t tell.
But many also go beyond those standards with practical advice like considering journalism as a way to make a living and actively write.
Still, the manuals won’t make you a writer, any more than an MFA program. They can only give you a tiny amount of instruction. Some of it useful, some of it trash.