1. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Instruction vs. General Reading - The final showdown?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by EdFromNY, Dec 14, 2013.

    Nearby, @Duchess-Yukine-Suoh asked a simple question - should she scale back a planned project because she expected that the final work would be rather long? As often happens, here, a simple question becomes more complex, and a whole new fight breaks out. This one concerns what has been a somewhat persistent theme on the forum in recent weeks: whether novice writers are best served by reading "how to" books on writing, or by reading a lot of high quality fiction of varying types.

    @JayG has stated on several occasions his preference for the former. He points to the fact that, at least in the US, formal secondary education does not instruct students on anything but general expository writing, and therefore the only way for the aspiring writer to learn the elements of successful fiction writing is to read books written by established professors of creative writing at respected universities (or else to attend such university programs).

    Others, myself included, have pointed to the fact that, up until the last few decades (for the sake of argument, let's say mid-twentieth century), there were no creative writing programs or "how to" books on writing, and yet the realm of literature has been rich, indeed. Moreover, as one's tastes in writing emerge, one will focus on those writers with whom they feel an affinity and whose techniques "work" for them, while no creative writing course or "how to" book could possibly offer such a wide range of approaches.

    That's important, because, even if the authors of such books do not intend it, many novice writers will take the advice imparted as "rules" and apply them uniformly, which would be anathema to quality writing.

    I'm not saying that "how to" books are worthless (although some are). I think they have value, as JayG himself said in the Duchess' thread, as a way of showing why certain things work. I certainly would not advise writers to abjure such works, but, like other works of literary criticism, such as Erich Auerbach's classic Mimesis, they should be part of a wider reading program.

    Alternative views are always welcomed...courteously.
     
  2. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It all boils down to success. If you're not published, be willing to try everything.
     
  3. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I took up English Lit with an emphasis on creative writing at my local U and one of the required reads was "Word Painting," by Rebecca McClanahan. Good book. I recommend it. However, along with this book were some works of fiction "The Sound and The Fury," "Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Midnight's Children" and some others.

    I believe a good book the teaches the concepts is a must so you can recognize them in the works of others. Leave the high art until later, when you have a full grasp of the concepts and know when and how to break them. It's the same idea as grammar. Know the rules/ideas so you know when, where and how to break them.

    Break them too soon, you may be in for a disappointing reception because you're not established.
     
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  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I grew up reading how-to-write books. Though they are handy giving good advice - the importance of character, they can be pretty stifling. The problem I have with them is that they're often written by genre fiction authors and they reinforce the patterns of genre fiction. Pushing the breezy beach read. Not totally useless, but not the most beneficial for someone attempting literary/general fiction.

    Plus, I've only come across a couple of how to write books that even mentioned a writer's voice, which is by far one of the most important aspects of a becoming a writer, without one you could get overlooked by a swamped publisher. But maybe they felt mentioning that would be counter productive as one aspects of finding your voice is to play with preconceived notions and bend rules.
     
  5. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I'd also recommend 1-2 books on crafting stories to learn the concepts of plot, themes, reveals and revelations, critical flaws/weakness, inciting incident, etc. Learn to craft stories, learn to write stories. Then when you have it down pat, start thinking of ways you can create art.
     
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  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I guess I'm in the minority here because I don't think how-to books help very much. I've always believed that writing fiction is a process of discovering things for oneself. *shrugs*
     
  7. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think it's necessarily the how-to books that are so important as it an aspiring writer's ability to accept his /her work is trash, to modify and change things even when he/she doesn't want to.

    "Self discovery" is sort of a bad mentality to have. It implies lack of structure and delusion, something of which I find very, very, prevalent among us.

    Example: What's one of the most common no no's beginners like to try. "The sun was just setting over the gentle hills, casting it's ephemeral glow across the valley," as first sentence in novel. A how to book will certainty tell you not to do this, and I think all of us in this thread would agree.

    You don't NEED the how to book to tell you this, but the how to book WILL tell you this, and presumably, if you're taking the time to read it, you're going to listen.

    Never follow anything blindly. I think that's pretty obvious, and doesn't really apply as an argument against how-to books.
     
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2013
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  8. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    As I've mentioned, I think how-to books are fine after one has been reading and writing for a while. That's when you know what has and has not been working for you, what sort of things you like in reading, and therefore can better determine what advice to take/try/discard - as well as understanding that it is, after all is said and done, only one author's opinion (or possibly some professor's who's never written anything outside his field).
     
  9. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'm with you, Ed. The opportunity cost for holding to one and only one way is too high, especially when there is no need to exclude other choices, which is when opportunity cost truly shows itself. Had I listened to the rhetoric that MS Word "is the industry standard" (it's not, .doc is) I would never have discovered the beauty of Scrivener. In the same vein, I gave in to some curiosity not long ago and have been playing with a platform called Dramatica Story Pro, and I have learned many things about the art of planning from it. It's the kind of thing that would give a purist the vapors, or at least a profound case of snide condescension. I think half my curiosity was born of that very dynamic. ;)

    What do we miss out on when we say no out of principle?
     
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  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    How is it a bad mentality? How does it imply a lack of structure? Hundreds of great writers have learned to write fiction by reading fiction. All of them learned to write by discovering for themselves what works and what doesn't.

    The question is why beginners like to write like that. My guess is that it has to do with the books they read in school (classics that may include prose that we would now consider "purple"). If you read only older books, then of course you're going to write like that. Reading a little contemporary fiction should solve the problem.
     
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  11. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    WARNING: False Dilemma!

    General Reading gives you strategies: plans for where you want your writing to go.
    Instruction gives you tactics: plans for how to make your writing go where you want it to.

    Strategies w/o tactics: destination but no roadmap
    Tactics w/o strategies: roadmap but no destination

    Either way, the number of wrong turns you take means that you run out of gas long before you actually get anywhere.

    Both, not one or the other ;)
     
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2013
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  12. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't understand why it must be either one or the other. Can't we both read a lot of novels and short stories and read how-to-books? I don't see why those who find inspiration and guidance must stop reading these books just because there were no such books around when Shakespeare wrote. I mean, obviously they can't substitute the reading of other writers work, I see them (the how-to-books) more as a complement, plus they can be quite interesting too, as long as you don't read just one and consider it the Bible.
     
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  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    We're in a quick fix world, and part of that is the mindset that you can become an instant expert if you find the right how-to guide. The real benefactors of this are those who throw together how-to books.

    There are no short cuts to becoming a writer. It takes hard work, experience through practice, and study - not how-to books, fiction. Fiction from a range of authors, different genres, even from fifferent decades to understand how writing styles have evolved.

    How-to books are a waste of time and money. By the time you know enough to distinguish the bullshit from the brilliance, you won't need the advice books. Even the good advice, you can't put into practice until you develop the skills the book is trying to teach you.

    Read the forum threads. Many of them are, "I'm trying to do this technique, but I don't understand how. Please help." Invariably, the most useful response is to read books in which the technique is used.
     
  14. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    :confused: … Because you'll have learned from them, and some of them will have been brilliant. That's the point.
     
  15. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I have posed this as an "either/or" question because that is the way the positions appear to me to be evolving here on the forum. I agree that there is plenty of room for combining the two approaches. That said, I also think that the wider one's reading spectrum, the better equipped they will be to be a writer. But that's just me.

    I am hoping that @JayG will chime in, as he seems to have been advocating only the "how to" approach, and I'd like to get his views on the alternative view.

    I disagree with this dichotomy. One can derive the "tactics" of writing from general reading as well. To the extent that "how to" books have been helpful to me, they have highlighted what one can find on direct reading, if one makes notes.
     
  16. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I could not disagree more. By that same line of thought, calculus books are a waste of time and money because reinventing the wheel is...I don't know...fun? As with all disciplines, you can save time and money and grief by learning the foundations. Save art for later when you have a better understanding, but really, most here aren't going to create high art, ever. Myself included.
     
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  17. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    That is probably the worst thinking in human history. It's partisanship, no better than the current state of US politics. That there is no compromise, no balance is destructive and defeating.
     
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  18. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Ah. Here, I see a problem. There is only one way to "do" calculus. It is very specific as a discipline, with a very narrow function. Writing fiction is not - there are many ways to get to the same place, and the variety of ways enriches the whole. There any number of commonly held "rules" about writing that are routinely violated by successful writers, which is why the more experienced voices on this forum routinely fulminate against the notion of "rules" of writing. Again and again, we hear that any "rule" can be violated if the writing is good enough. The thing is, what makes the writing "good enough"?

    Can we please be a little less melodramatic? Just because a question is posed as an either/or alternative in no way limits the conversation to two mutually exclusive alternatives. Moreover, I went out of my way to state that I, for one, do not consider them mutually exclusive. The goal here is to find the best course for the novice writer. And, in the end, that will be a matter of personal choice. My goal here is to examine what each arm of that choice implies for the individual.
     
  19. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    My position is not either/or - it's "when". Other than grammar and spelling books, which contain actual rules (and their accepted exceptions), reading other how-to books is like reading books by car owners about Fords and Chevys. Until you've actually driven them both, you won't have any idea which books are full of baloney and which actually have a few tidbits of value in them for you as an individual.
     
  20. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Good point. My own reading of "how to" books suggests that the writers of these books usually advocate whatever techniques have worked for them. My own favorite book on writing was My Lost Mexico by James Michener, which was not a "how to" book but rather a memoir of his experience with writing one book, his novel Mexico. The book is extremely valuable in its discussion of the relationship between a writer and his editor and the ways in which a young writer can lose forward momentum in a project (Michener stopped working on Mexico in 1961 and did not take it up again for 30 years). It resonated with me because I have read and loved a great many of Michener's books, Mexico in particular. But if one does not read Mexico, then My Lost Mexico will be meaningless.
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2013
  21. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    That's not true. Actually, as a case, there are to ways you can derive an equation. Using straight derivative method or the limit method (which is how Newton created derivatives and how a derivative is defined mathematically).

    Also, determining area under a curve: straight integration or limits of min/maxing rectangles.

    There are many ways to integrate. U substitution is one I remember.

    As with all disciplines, there may be only one way to do it or there may be several ways, some easier than others.
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2013
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  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, but if memory serves (and it may not - it's been decades since I took calculus), the choices are based on circumstances rather than the personal predilections of the mathematician. It is not a matter of creative preference. In any event, creative writing, by comparison, offers a limitless number of options.
     
  23. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My view is that one of the things that a writer needs to learn is that there is no source of advice that is guaranteed to be right, and no 'right' advice that is guaranteed to be right in every situation. Given that, I feel that rejecting how-to books because writers who haven't learned that lesson yet may take them as gospel, is overprotective.

    A writer absolutely has to read plenty of good writing. But there are also plenty of things that may be non-obvious. I read hundreds of books, but someone had to point out that I was using two different points of view in the same couple of paragraphs, before I truly understood point of view and the associated choices. I learned that from someone who was looking at my writing, which is the best way to learn, but not everyone is going to have that opportunity for every useful fact.

    IMO, a writer who's smart enough to eventually get published is also smart enough to eventually sift through, judge, and choose the advice that he's going to take.
     
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  24. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    There is a finite number of ways to solve a math problem, whereas there are, for all intents and purposes, an infinite number of ways to write about a particular topic or theme. Also, math and creative writing are two very different beasts.
     
  25. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    Not really. If you read the avatar trilogy from TSR publications (now owned by WotC), you'll see a big fail. I think I made it 1/3 of the way into the first book. I should have burned them, but I sold them to 1/2 price books. Limitless does not mean equally good.

    Someone tried to tell me all books are art. They haven't read the crap I tried to read.
     

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