07 July 2010

Writing on writing

Back in April Mark Newton was blogging about writing manuals. He makes it fairly clear that he doesn’t like them. I tend to agree with him about the kind of books on writing that imply that the reader has only to follow their instructions carefully to create a bestseller. Mark describes them as exploitative, which seems a very measured assessment. I would be tempted to say that some of them come close to being fraudulent (and the software packages that claim to be able to help you write a bestseller by following a formula are even worse). But there are three categories of books on writing I would exempt from this criticism:
  1. There are the books on the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. I’m thinking here of things like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar and Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves also fall into this category.
  2. There are some very good books of analysis written by first-rate practitioners of the craft. Samuel Delany’s About Writing is a good example, as is Ursula Le Guin’s The Language of the Night. I have recently started reading Robert Silverberg’s Science Fiction 101: Where to Start Reading and Writing Science Fiction, which also falls into this category being a collection of what he regards as the most important SF short stories together with analytical essays explaining what makes them important.
  3. Finally, there is a unique book: Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. It sounds like another ‘how to’ manual, but it is a very different kind of ‘how to’ manual. Brande focuses instead on the psychology of writing and offers the would-be writer a series of exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing and to turn writing into a habit. Instead of helping you to develop your technique, the raison d’etre of this book is helping you to develop the habit of writing something, anything, every day without fail.

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