Books on Writing: Worth It?

Before we begin, a disclaimer:

The following is my opinion and my opinion alone. Your mileage may vary, and that’s okay.

Now, with that out of the way…

I’ve said it before, but for the purposes of this essay, it bears repeating: books on writing, en masse, do nothing for me. The vast majority of them either bore me to tears or make the act of writing sound so intimidating that part of me wants to never see another keyboard.

There are a few exceptions—Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story and Stephen King’s On Writing are personal writing bibles, tomes I revisit when I need a creative boost—but for the most part, this sub-genre of the ‘how-to’ is a waste of space.

In my experience, most books on writing suffer from the same flaw: they typically act as if whatever writing wisdom they’re imparting is gospel. As if whatever they have to say is the only real right way to do things. Which…no.

Writing doesn’t work that way. No creative endeavor does.

You would never tell a painter there’s only one right way to paint. Same for a sculptor or an actor. The artist’s process is as personal as it is vital, and those who act like they know the one true way how to create are, more often than not, trying to sell you something. Something you’re better off without.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is guilty of this, on top of being a slog of a read. Remember what I said above about these things being boring? Same goes for Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. I won’t begrudge anyone who gained something of value from these books, but they suffer from the same flaws in my eyes.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Damn Fine Story so much was because Wendig made it clear—early and repeatedly—that the vast majority of writing advice is bull. Even a lot of what he has to say. Wendig’s goal in Damn Fine Story was less telling you how to write and more getting the gears turning in your head.

Think less how-to and more make-you-want-to.

On Writing is largely the same way. Sure, King has his hard-and-fast rules—no adverbs (I disagree) and writers need to be readers (wholeheartedly agree)—but much of what he says about his own writing, he couches in terms of “this works for me, but it might not necessarily work for you, and that’s okay.”

The cardinal rule of writing is that there are no cardinal rules of writing. Aside from this:

Get the words on the page.

That’s it. It doesn’t matter how you do it. How often you do it. How well you do it. As long as you’re sitting in front of your manuscript, putting one word after another, your process doesn’t matter.

Writing isn’t a math equation. It’s not some paint-by-numbers or connect-the-dots exercise where you’re supposed to go from Point A to Point B to Point…you get the idea. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing, and you’re better off wandering with one of those old-school folding maps than your smartphone’s GPS.

There is some value in books on writing that focus more on the structure, the nuts and bolts of writing. Story structure, character creation, the three-act format…there is educational value in that, but at the same time, I find most writers already know those things. Intrinsically. Without even realizing they know it.

Whether it’s something we absorb in reading or watching TV shows and movies, most writers already have some deep-seeded understanding of how stories are supposed to work.

Still, there is value in seeing those “rules” laid out (even if it feels occasionally intimidating). Especially if you’re one of those writers who likes to play with convention and subvert the reader’s expectations. After all, you have to know what the rules are before you break them, right?

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether books on writing are worth your time. Most of us are strapped for time, what with day jobs and writing and other interests…you should never waste your time with a book that doesn’t speak to you. And that includes this particular sub-genre.

Ultimately, these books are largely unnecessary, because the answer to the question “How do I write?” is deceptively simple:

You just do it.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.