Why all writing advice books are bad—and good, too

A while back I finished reading a book on writing, which I picked up when a friend referenced it in a post on Instagram. It’s a book that’s received loads of accolades and is often referred to in the same breath as Stephen King’s On Writing (which I haven’t read yet, but really want to). So, I had high hopes for it.

I won’t say I hated it, because I didn’t. But it left me… disappointed. And I figured out why when I turned to the bio. The writer was a former Marine. (OK, first of all, my dad’s a Marine and you never say you’re a former Marine. Marines don’t retire, they just stand down. But anyway.) And it’s not like Marines are automatically disqualified from giving advice on writing; hell, some of the best advice I’ve been given on that topic (or any topic) has been from my dad.

But.

I think (of course I think this) that my dad is a particular kind of Marine, one who didn’t quite drink all of the Kool-aid, if that makes sense. He doesn’t have the tendency to impart his advice as battle knowledge, thankfully. There was a lot of combat metaphor laced throughout the book, and while it was full of good advice, the pacifist in me wasn’t on quite board with the delivery.

Not every book is for everyone, and I think that’s especially true for books of advice on any topic. That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. It just might not be what I needed at that particular time. Any book on writing may not be what you need, either. Don’t feel like you’re not doing it right if that’s the case. Just keep looking.

And with any book on writing, there’s a point beyond which any of its advice won’t work. And that’s the fact that you have to do the writing yourself. You can read those books ad nauseam (heaven knows there’ve been times when I have), but eventually you have to put them aside and pick up your own pen (or your laptop, or your pencil—whatever you write with) and work on your own book.

And the thing about that writing book that wasn’t right for me? In his preface the writer said a lot of people probably wouldn’t be able to relate to the last part of the book, and that if they stopped before they got to that, they would still find the book useful. I’m glad I didn’t stop, because that part, where he delves into his spiritual connection with his writing, was the part that clicked the most for me. Just goes to show, you never know.

What’s your favorite book on writing? E-mail me and let me know! I’m always updating my list for my own reading edification, and I share it with my students, too.