Reviewing books on writing has been a game changer for me. My ten takeaways (the last ten thing list I made was about a yakshi, my favorite mythical character) would be:
#1. There is a time for everything: I felt a weird synchronicity when Zen Scribe said, ”Let’s do some reviews on books on writing.”
I wanted to read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing down the Bones years ago, but I delayed it, and now I am glad that I waited this long. When you read many books on writing in quick succession, you see patterns that can help you write.
#2. Reiteration helps: Every book on writing says a lot of the same thing in terms of plot, characterization, dialogue, and theme. These reiterations make it crystal clear that there is no such thing as too much hard work. A glorious idea may grow in your brain for several years but a book happens when you turn the idea into chapters.
#3. Books on writing are never a never: Somebody told me Never read books on writing as they are written by people who haven’t made it big as writers. Of course, this is not true. Only writers can write about the writing process—every book on this subject that I’ve reviewed so far is by a writer who is aware of the craft.
Each of these writers has written with authority and compassion. They are kind and demonstrate their craft with a great deal of generosity. Which chef shares the secret ingredient? All these writers lay down their toolboxes and let us pick out the tools they have sharpened over years of hard work.
Nothing horrific about Stephen King’s generous On Writing.
#4. Learn to read if you want to write: The book called How to Read a Book by Mortimer J.Adler and Charles Van Doren changed my haphazard style of reading for good. The change was instantaneous like the fever that abates with the right dose of antibiotic.
Now I always read with a pencil in my hand and use a highlighter when I read e-books. I read the TOC with a lot more attention than I used to—it’s an instant insight into the book. I try to complete every book I start, unless the book is impossible to digest.
#5. Be an owl or a lark: You have to be one or the other. If you want to write, you have to make the time to write, even if it means you have to pull yourself out of bed early or stay up when the rest of the house is fast asleep. Like I’m staying up now! Even when the excuses are genuine, you will benefit when you make the time to write.
If you can’t be an owl or a lark on some unfortunate anti-writer days, write a few sentences every day. A friend once came up with this idea—if inspiration strikes when you are on your daily commute or when you are at work, just tap the words out on to your phone notepad—who knows what gems your phone could be privy to?
#6. The only tool is to write: Gone are the days of typewriter ribbons and Remingtons. Gone are the editors who chew their pencils. The good old days of writers who displayed a flourishing handwriting are all gone. Yet the tool which can never be ousted is the ability and the will to write down the thought, idea, and the story. This takes immense self-discipline and is most often sacrificed for distractions. Books on writing can change the effect that distractions have on you.
#7.Keep a notebook: Now I have several notebooks—this can be an impediment. There is a notebook for my novel, for poems, for morning pages. Too many notebooks dilute the thought process. However, Lamott’s advice on carrying a notebook everywhere on all occasions is an insight into how much you need to observe to write. Without observation, writing becomes dull. The notebook tells you a lot about yourself, particularly about whether you observe your inner life or your outer life. This tells you what kind of write-ups you would be better off creating.
#8.Punctuation has a history: You can never get over the Eats, Shoots & Leaves virus. The squiggles that change free flowing text into contoured expressions have a life of their own and a history— it’s a wonder that you can call yourself a bookworm and not know about the origins of a comma or semi colon.
I’m no punctuation stickler, but you can never be too wary of how you punctuate sentences even now while your fingers are whatsapp frozen. If you write essays, novels or emails, you have a responsibility to create a plausible pause. Not because of unsuspecting punctuation vigilantes out there, but because they have a point; one must pause to create wonder. You may have recited this line, “What is this world if full of care, you have no time to stand and stare?”
Sounds like a punctuation function to me.
#9. Be a Planner and a Pantser: Both these are important when create a book. I’ve been an ardent fan of the free write process (pantsing) as it is one of the most liberating ways to write. Writing groups use this technique effectively. Writing with a purpose, however, keeps you focused. If you plan the beginning and the end of your story, it’s motivation enough to get writing. Planning can be very non-art, but it’s worth a try if being a pantser gets you nowhere.
#10. Grammar books are better off illustrated. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style illustrated by Maria Kalman shows you how any subject, even grammar, can be made pleasurable reading. No topic is off limits for good writing and good illustration.
The relationship that a writer or a book shares with an illustrator is a special one. I enjoy working with Sara for the books on writing blog post illustrations as much as I enjoy creating the reviews.
#11. Read your own review: As part of this post I went through the reviews I had written. It is always a good idea to look at what you have written after a while. I was touched by the sweet humility of Ruskin Bond in Landour Days and the calm methodical approach by Peter Elbow in Writing with Power. It’s also a self-exploratory exercise to read your blog posts once they are done.
What lessons have you learnt from reading any book on writing? Has it helped you on any way? Share in the comments section.