I’ve read plenty of books about writing over the years. I’ve even tried writing a few (the keyword here being “tried”). I’m fully supportive of authors publishing books offering advice to other writers.
What I’m not the biggest fan of is this idea that a book about writing can teach you everything you might ever need to know about writing.
Here’s the thing about books: They’re great. But they’re supplements, not the whole meal.
There are a lot of good writing books out there — you should read them. Expert writers have a lot to offer when it comes to suggestions and advice. They’ve found success through writing, after all, which usually follows many years of hard work, trial-and-error, and plenty of mistakes and takeaways.
When writers write books about writing, they usually have the absolute best intentions for their desired audiences — usually made up of aspiring writers (and often even actively working writers) who want to increase their chances of getting published and making writing their full-time career.
There is nothing “wrong” with writing books. There are always going to be some that are better than others, and in almost all of them you will find advice and suggestions you don’t agree with or that don’t work with you. That’s fine. That doesn’t mean the book is “bad” or that the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Giving advice based on individual experience that’s catered to the masses is HARD. Coming from someone who gives writing advice daily on a blog available to anyone around the world who wants to read it. You can’t, in most cases, say that one way of doing things is the “right” or “only” way to do it. The only thing you can do is write from your perspective, include as many different viewpoints as you can while you do that, and give suggestions.
At that point, it’s up to anyone reading or listening to your advice to go off on their own and try it out … which is exactly why no matter how many books or blogs or videos you collect and analyze, it’s all meaningless if you don’t take things from those pages/files and do something with them.
Reading a book about writing does not count as writing ‘practice.’ I know, I know. It’s so exciting to finish a book about writing and feel like you’re now equipped with all the tools and knowledge you need to succeed … that is, until you sit down to write and realize you haven’t actually made any writing progress yet.
The problem with reading a bunch of books about writing is that this activity tricks your brain into thinking you’re actually learning. Once you finish that stack of books, you’re convinced you can all of a sudden conquer the entire publishing industry in one day. You just read all this great advice! You feel powerful! That’s exactly what many writing books attempt to accomplish.
But you’re not suddenly an expert writer simply because you’ve read an expert writer’s thoughts and suggestions about writing. When it comes to creative things like writing, you can take in information through these kinds of sources, you can truly enjoy and find value in them. But the only way to truly learn how to write better — the only way to actually get better at writing — is by actually writing.
Writing books are not meant to substitute for actual writing time. They are supposed to be resources that offer a variety of tools and strategies that you — the aspiring writer — can pick up, carry over to your desk, and try implementing into your real-world writing time all on your own.
Don’t seek out writing advice if you aren’t going to follow it. Or try it out for yourself, at the very least. Writers are always asking questions, always wanting to know how writers who have found success managed to find that success. But sometimes I’m not always sure why certain people are asking. Perhaps they’re looking for an easy answer, a solution that’s as uncomplicated as possible.
What they often want to hear isn’t what they hear in response — and that’s why so many aspiring writers never move on to the next step. Writing is hard. It takes effort, and a lot of time and patience. Anyone who wants to write can write. Anyone who wants to succeed in writing has to first understand that they just aren’t going to “figure it out” the first time they try to sit down and do it. I’ve been writing regularly for about 16 years, and I’m still in the very early stages of my career. I still have a lot to learn and figure out. I’m still a student, in the most basic sense of the term.
When other writers give out advice, you don’t always have to follow their suggestions line by line. Some authors swear by the idea that you have to write every day. Most writers don’t do that and still find massive success in their chosen fields. But they do write regularly, meaning they don’t go weeks or months without doing work and expect to reap results from doing it that way.
If you’re going to seek out advice through a book or similar resource, approach its content with a willingness to learn and a realistic view of how this all works. It’s not going to be easy. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You just can’t always do it as easily or as quickly as you might want to.
So keep reading books and blogs and other resources about writing (please?). Keep asking questions, keep interacting with other writers and try to learn as much as you can from others who have the level of writing skill and experience you hope to have someday.
But don’t forget the most important part of all this: To actually practice what you are learning. To figure out how to make writing happen for you. To try things and mess up and do things right and give yourself the chance to have fun, accomplish a little (or a lot!), and be proud of yourself.
The only prerequisite for calling yourself a writer is that you actively write.
Not every day. But often. Consistently, so that little by little, you’re always working your way toward sharing something amazing of your own with the world.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.