People vary vastly in their approach to work or play. So when I see a lot of writing advice doing the rounds (including my own), I’m rather skeptical. Unless the advice is really specific, regarding tone, structure, syntax or something else, it serves little purpose for me beyond motivation, which, admittedly, is a huge part of success in any endeavour.
Some of the advice comes from writers themselves, when a dry spell probably compels them to write about something and what better a topic than the one they know most about—writing?
A lot of the impetus for writing about writing comes from a high demand amongst readers, who would be writers, and are looking for some magic recipe that will tell them how write. They expect such instructions to be clear and bulleted, exactly like the ones on how to put a bookshelf together or how to identify nasty weeds in your garden.
Again, such lists serve a purpose, to an extent, if you’re looking to churn out writing that will fulfill a purpose, and in theory, will help the next person write a similar thing should s/he be able to get to the instructions just like you did. Catch the reader’s attention with the intro, use a quote or an anecdote and end with a question or comment. Or, make sure the characters develop and edit out the parts that don’t fit.
But really, if someone has not recognized that they need to catch the reader’s attention or to make the characters come alive like real people from his or her reading of good authors, and is spending valuable reading time on reading a list of five points with clear headings and sub-headings on how to write, is this a person who should be thinking about writing for an audience at this stage?
That is not to say writing about writing serves no purpose. In a discussion or workshop based setting, whether face-to-face or online, talking about craft in a specific manner really helps. Where is this piece not working? Am I failing to connect here? Am I too verbose? But without a specific piece to start from, is it possible to discuss writing?
My problem, at its core, is with the generalization of the idea of writing to a scenario where people start believing in the how-to’s to the extent that they start producing independent texts about it. The furthest a how-to discussion can go perhaps is description or analysis of good writing but it can hardly prescribe or even suggest how to write successfully.
For example, observing a certain number of tragedies or comedies can tell us a few tenets of those genres and by reading a vast number, we might vastly improve our own writing capabilities. The process by which we absorb qualities of good writing and the extent to which we do that and how it all comes back to us when we are writing ourselves is a matter of deep consideration.
But if someone comes up with a book on how to write tragedies or comedies would it help anyone beyond assuring them that they are spending some time and money in the noble pursuit of learning a trade?
Specialization and secret sauces on how to do something by way of instructions work in a lot of areas. But how far does it help writing?
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is how Anna Karenina starts. But can we say the same about writing, that good writing is all alike and that every failed piece fails in its own way?
In fact, I’d contend that it’s the reverse–it’s easy to find plenty of commonalities between bad pieces of writing but it’s really very hard to come up with a set of rules for good writing because writing, by its very nature, has to be set free to succeed.