Lucy-MerrimanFeatured By OwnerJan 25, 2013Student General Artist
I think it's almost a "mind versus heart" dichotomy.
Read writer's blogs, "how-to" books, exercises and critical essays because you want to think about writing.
Read novels, plays, poetry, stories, and whatever else you want because you love reading, because that's how you spend most of your free time anyway, because you tuck books into your purse and jacket lining and ipod when you walk to class, because literature is beautiful and sometimes it's deep and profound, and sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's profoundly irritating, but regardless, you've found that reading makes you more human and you can't stop reading because maybe you wouldn't die, but you'd lose your fucking soul.
Someone who's been a voracious reader since childhood still might not be able to make the connection in their own writing, so strategy books might help. I know some well-timed advice from the book How To Write Fantasy and Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card helped me improve my writing greatly.
Someone who reads once in a while...why even bother? Even if you assign yourself to read a book a week, if the passion isn't there, if there's no love for the art, maybe you're just not a writer?
I dunno, I don't think what you call "learning about the craft" is all that bad. In most cases, people have read enough fiction that they probably have "learned the craft" to some extent. But I also notice that people don't always try to analyze what they read in terms of craft, so reading books of the former variety can be helpful for learning how to think more in those terms. It can also be difficult to learn proper grammatical rules/conventions just by reading fiction. I did that for many years and got a lot of things wrong that I had to learn how to identify and correct by...reading about grammar and style. On the other hand, you may not realize the rules can be broken unless you read a writer who breaks them.
Personally, I have read very few books about writing, especially compared to other writers. But I think you've got to learn some of this stuff in order to figure out how to edit or different ways to think about and analyze writing. To be honest, I've gleaned a lot of this stuff from English and creative writing classes, and it surprises me how rarely people consciously apply this knowledge to their work.
I guess what I'm saying is here that both types of experience and knowledge are useful. Emphasizing the latter ignores the value of the former, and vice versa.
I've always held the opinion that if you're going to consciously follow literary rules, then you need to read a rulebook. If you're going to break rules, you can also make use of guides and references, so you know how to break them. If you want to emulate a successful form, then you have to immerse yourself in it. If you are interested in none of these, and you want to find and develop your own method, then I think neither rule applies.
True, but some people really do need to learn how to write. I'm talking about capital letters and apostrophes and all that boring stuff which people forget about. I don't think anyone should be allowed to jump into a story or poem without an official certificate of general grammatical knowledge.
I agree with virtually all of this. There are people who still make the same handful of grammatical errors all the time (I consider myself a part of this group), and many of these people can tell a really good story. Then there are the people who might be telling a really good story, but you can't tell because you have absolutely no idea what they're trying to say. You think it involves a spaceship and Whoopi Goldberg, but you can't be sure.
Really, the only thing I disagree with is the certificate of general grammatical knowledge. I learned to write largely by producing stories, and I imagine that's true of an awful lot of people. But there are stories that need need the attention of other writers, and there are stories that need the attention of an English teacher. I feel a little sad when I see people who have written the latter and assume it's ready to be the next Harry Potter: no edditing or nuffink!
Fun fact: the online game Kingdom of Loathing requires you to pass a basic English test before you can use the chat function.
True. I was thinking more about stuff on this site. I'll happily read something here and offer feedback even if the grammar etc. is pretty bad: the main things I want to see are that the story is interesting, the author wants to improve, and that it's a matter of fixing specific mistakes rather than teaching the author English. A handful of repeated errors can wreck a story, but it's much easier to offer advice on those than it is to deal with someone whose writing is wildly inconsistent.
Admittedly, books in shops tend to have had serious editing by serious editors. But for self-published books, I still have very little patience for bad grammar/spelling. Any book should meet a minimum standard of quality--especially if you're asking people to pay for them--and the fact that it's usually impractical to get an editor just means you should pay even more attention to basic proofreading.
I think that while both are important, immersing yourself in literature -- reading in your genre, outside your genre, brilliant books, meh books...ALL THE BOOKS -- is inherently more valuable than reading books on craft. And books on publishing aren't going to help you until you have something ready to publish, anyway.
I think the two are probably closer to each other than generally regarded.
But, if this is something that you want to make a living doing, then it's a job, J-O-B job. :-P (hmm, I've tried looking for the tongue sticking out emoticon, and I cannot find it.)
Seriously though, I realize it's semantics, but I liked what Blake Snyder said about it, it's not craft, it's a job. You go someplace to do it for 8 hours a day and at the end of some period of time you hopefully have something finished. In fact, for those who want to get paid, then they had better have something finished.
Personally, I think you need to be doing both. It's inefficient to make the number of mistakes necessary to get better quickly enough to release professional work in a lifetime, so you pick apart other people's work which is much more efficient.
I would say that reading great works of literature, both contemporary and from earlier periods (and if you can do it, in different languages), is about 200,000,000 million times more important than reading anyone's book on how to be a great writer, get published, etc.
Doing a helluva lot of writing is equally important as reading great stuff, of course.
I do strongly recommend getting in a writing workshop and/or finding critique partners who are talented and who won't cut you any slack. Taking part in a small, 10-week workshop (10 students) with Louise Glück taught me more about the craft of writing than everything else I had ever done up to that point put together. It was truly a transformative experience. Any good workshop can help a writer kick his or her game up by several notches, as long as you are willing to accept criticism and look deep inside with a true willingness to learn.
Having done several workshops, the one caveat I should add is that some writers show up wanting to learn, and some are just there to confirm what they already know. The latter kind of writer may as well not waste his or her time.
Yeah, you really have to surrender your ego, because your psyche will be brutalized. In my case (and, I believe, in the case of most writers) it needed brutalizing. It's so easy as a writer to lose perspective on your own work, that getting slapped upside the head (if done in the right way, by someone who really knows what s/he is doing) can be essential.
In the case of Louise's workshop, she was never actually cruel or brutal to anyone. She just taught us the skills, and demonstrated their use, to allow us to see what wasn't working in our own and each others' work. Any actual cruelty was inflicted by the workshop participants on each other or, more often, was self-inflicted.
To be sure, it's not for everyone. But learning how to be ruthlessly self-critical is a necessary step for any writer who wants to break into top-tier publications, and a high-caliber workshop can be a great way of acquiring that skill.
Maybe this makes me an elitist. Well, I wholly confess it! I am an elitist. Too much stuff is out there, and I'm unwilling to waste my time reading second-rate work (unless I'm teaching). If someone isn't willing to learn how to improve his or her work, especially when it comes to avoiding hackneyed imagery, language, figures of speech, etc., then I have no use for it, just as I have no use for CDs of violinists who can't stay in tune and who haven't honed their craft by learning at least some of the established canon.
I get that others may have wholly different goals for their writing than I do, and that's great. I don't belittle that at all. I sometimes get irritated at writers who confuse the caliber of works they have written as a fun/social hobby or quasi-journal with the caliber of work from someone who has been working extremely hard on his or her craft for several years. More and more, though, I don't let that bother me much, unless someone gets in my face with obnoxious criticism of a friend's work that I know to be well written.
I live completely within a cave with no external stimuli and created writing for myself, singlehandedly, with burnt branches of willow and the ass-ends of Chinese ferrets from which I'd plucked all the hair.
I'll be ballsy and say I don't think either's particularly important.
I think people who reject either in favour of the other need to seriously rethink their life. I think treating one method as inherently better than the other is just a way of justifying elitism and the attitude of "I'm better than you" should be punched in the crotch. All people learn in different ways but we can only benefit from a wide variety of inputs.
Also: Are you suggesting that books on writing are not "actual books"?
I do think it's important to do both. Classes and books about writing, to guide you through the process, can be very helpful indeed! But only reading those how-to's isn't going to help you grow much as a writer. There's a reason we were required to have and read stories from an short story anthology for the short story writing workshop I took last fall.