Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Useful guides and useless advice / Follow-up: Useless guides on writing

with 6 comments

Recently, I lamented the quality of guides on writing ([1]). A few remarks based on my later readings and thoughts:

  1. Speaking of “guides on writing” was not ideal. I should have used e.g. “guides on writing fiction”.

    While many guides on writing (in a more general or more mechanics-of-writing sense) are poor too, the chance of finding a good one is fairly large. Strunk’s The Elements of Style, briefly mentioned in [1], is a strong example and gives excellent value for the invested time. I have recently re-read it for the first time in about ten years, and intend to do so again in the near-by future.* Another long ago read that I have in very positive memory, and intend to re-read, is The King’s English, which improved my ability to think** about language considerably.

    *I do not agree with him on all points, but he can stimulate thought even where I disagree. I urge the reader to pick as original an edition as possible, however; ideally, even pre-White. I note e.g. that a much more recent edition that I leafed through in a book store seemed very far from the original in insight and attitude, and e.g. even spoke of the need to replace an original “she” for “America” with “this country” (or similar), and included example texts by e.g. Toni Morrison, who, I strongly suspect, would not have met Strunk’s approval in terms of grammar and style.

    **Something that far outweighs the risk of encountering outdated rules.

  2. I have since found and read a few works on Wikisource more worthy of attention than those criticized in [1]. The most notable is The Craftsmanship of Writing, which is another good source of thought and understanding, as opposed to the canned, pre-chewed, follow-my-instructions-without-thinking advice of many modern guides.

    A lesser, but still positive, example is Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing. Stevenson, of course, was himself a best-selling author (cf. a complaint in [1]).

    I give an honorary mention to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition when juxtaposed with another discussion of “The Raven” (note the skepticism as to whether Poe should be taken at face value).

  3. Outside of Wikisource, I have also read Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”, which can be quite helpful in understanding the limits of literary criticism, the benefit (or even need?) to see a work from the author’s perspective, and Tolkien’s own approach to writing fiction.

    Indeed, combining Tolkien’s text with earlier thoughts of my own (notably, [2]), as well as some library readings on literature, I am growing skeptical to literary criticism as a field and profession. There are differences in accomplishment between authors;* however, a discussion of an accomplished author might fail through a too limited understanding of the author’s intentions, and disapproval might say more about the critic’s understanding of the work than about the work. A particular complication is failure to understand what results from a deliberate artistic choice and what from lack of ability.

    *As demonstrated e.g. by comparing short-stories by typical school children with short-stories by typical professional authors.

    (But I doubt that this will keep me from writing the odd critical piece of my own.)

  4. Even non-book advice can be quite poor. I recall e.g. the border-line idiotic writing “process” that we were force-fed in school: Write down (by hand) a first draft. Write it down again as a second draft, making whatever changes are wanted. Write it down a third time, making only minor changes (e.g. to correct spelling) and with a main focus of legibility of hand-writing. This is both inefficient and boring, turning writing into mere busy work bordering on taking dictation. For someone who struggled with hand-writing, like yours truly, it was a disaster, killing my interest in writing for many years.
  5. One extremely good piece of advice that I have encountered repeatedly: Read own texts out loud.

    I have so far limited myself to “reading in my head”, but have still seen a considerable improvement in my ability to spot language errors ([3]). This likely for the dual reason that I am forced to read considerably slower than when reading normally, and that differences in “sound alike” words are enhanced, reducing the risk of accidental confusion. (The latter is a particular problem of mine, cf. [3].) A third explanation might be that I have now have two cognitive systems working in parallel, the “reading” and the “hearing” ones.


Written by michaeleriksson

August 30, 2019 at 8:53 am

6 Responses

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  1. Writing fiction well is not an easy task. For one thing, there is no one right way to do something. Styles and techniques vary from author to author, so telling you to write a paragraph like I do would probably be of little use to you.

    What I do find useful is focusing on what my goals are and then determining what style/technique will help me reach those goals.

    My first goal for my writing is to capture the reader’s attention and not let go. To do this, I:
    – Use close POV
    – Include tension in almost every scene
    – Keep the pace fast
    – Write cleanly, avoiding distractions that will pull the readers attention to the words instead of the story
    – etc

    Learning how to achieve that first goal was not easy. It took me a lot of writing, a lot of having my work critiqued by readers and other authors, and a lot of just plain hard work.

    That being said, I think I’m in a good spot concerning that one. The second is much more difficult.

    My second goal is to leave the reader feeling a sense of emotional satisfaction. I’m still working on figuring out how to achieve that.

    The point of this comment, obviously, isn’t to try to convince you that these two goals should be important to you. The point was to emphasize that there are many possible goals and that efficient learning requires you to figure out what you want to achieve.

    Your posts on writing thus far seem to focus on words and style, etc. This is great for accomplishing a goal of creating a pleasant reader experience. The far harder objective, however, is learning how to write something that the reader finds memorable or gets something out of or experiences an emotion because of.


    September 3, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I count on needing years to get where I want to be, myself, and one of the problems is exactly that there are so many ways to skin the cat. Pick up two books by two different great authors and they will often turn out to be great for so different reasons that the right lessons are hard to extract, let alone master. The conclusions might even be contradictory, e.g. in that one excels through cutting to the chase and the other through interesting detours.


      > Your posts on writing thus far seem to focus on words and style, etc. This is
      > great for accomplishing a goal of creating a pleasant reader experience. The
      > far harder objective, however, is learning how to write something that the
      > reader finds memorable or gets something out of or experiences an emotion
      > because of.

      In a coincidence, the intended topic of today’s post was partially overlapping: the benefits of learning the craft before giving artistic aspiration a too free reign. (Short version: Monet might have been a controversial rebel, but he had a solid grasp of the craft of painting.)

      Unfortunately, other things got in the way, but I will try to get it done during the weekend. (Cf. https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/2019/09/03/my-current-noise-situation-renewed-renovations-ii/)

      Otherwise, your second and third sentences are partial explanations for the first: my own understanding of e.g. how to write something memorable is a lot weaker than when it comes to more “mechanical” or “basic” aspects of writing. (Other reasons include a personal background with a lot of math and programming languages, which makes comparatively low level aspects of writing a natural interest.)


      September 3, 2019 at 4:46 pm

      • I get you completely. I, too, found it a lot easier to focus on the technical aspects to start with as they are so much easier to get a handle on. Best of luck to you in mastering writing the way you want to write.

        If it helps at all, the only way I found to improve was to try my best to write a scene and then find as many people as possible to critique it. I used online sources like scribophile, in person writing groups, and paid editors that I found at places like Upwork.

        A brief note on getting critiques: Having people take apart your work is a frustrating and painful process. To put it bluntly, it sucks. When I went to my first writer’s meeting, I expected praise of how wonderful my writing was. I left with a river of red ink marring my pages.

        Some of the remarks were on the money. Some were recitations of common writing rules that weren’t as helpful. Some were outright wrong. Learning to figure out which is which is a skill that I had to develop. The key is to a) not react emotionally, b) give each comment due consideration, and c) take to heart only the comments that you feel are useful.

        Though an excruciating experience, getting critiqued was a very necessary evil. I think it’s almost universal that authors are blind to our mistakes, especially when starting out. We know what we meant to write because the entire story already exists in our head. The reader only knows what we put on the page. It’s crucial to gain understanding of how readers are interpreting what we put on the page.

        I hope that some of this advice helps.


        September 4, 2019 at 1:28 pm

      • Some of what you say here might be a topic for another later text (and I have touched upon it some older ones):

        I am growing increasingly skeptical to there being a right or wrong way to do writing (movies, whatnot). While the level of mastery of an approach, technique, whatnot can vary wildly, much of evaluation boils down to personal taste and much to having or not having understood what the author is trying to do. I do not know the details of your experiences, which makes it hard to judge applicability, but a scenario is quite conceivable where someone writes something good, this something is torn to pieces by critics who do not understand it or who have a different taste—and where the author, in turn, does not appreciate potentially valuable suggestions, because he has a different taste or follows a different purpose—or even does not understand the critique.

        Of course, depending on the author’s purpose, much of the critique might be validly discarded and, for at least this first book, I take the attitude that I write something that (a) helps me develop, (b) I, myself, would enjoy reading—critics and best-seller lists be damned. (But I will still follow your advice on getting feedback, once I write well enough that problems are no longer obvious to my own eyes.)


        September 5, 2019 at 9:43 am

  2. I get you regarding the right and wrong way to do something.

    I found, though, that, especially when I was first starting, I’d write something expecting the reader to understand exactly what I meant and subsequently found out that my words had been completely misinterpreted. This problem is exacerbated by “Show, don’t Tell,” as I not only have to worry about communication well with words but also through actions.

    If I could give a new author one gift, it would be the ability to experience his own words through completely new eyes.

    The true value of feedback is gaining an understanding of how others are interpreting what I wrote. Once I know a segment isn’t being read the way that I intended, I can figure out how to make the passage more clear.


    September 5, 2019 at 3:26 pm

  3. […] to break the rules”. As the implied sub-topics grew, partially influenced by a few comments on an older text ([1]), I decided to split it into two parts (of which this is the first). There might be overlooked […]

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