How Many Books On the Writing Craft Do We Really Need On Our Shelves?
I just did a count and discovered I have more than 50 books on writing. Some are dictionaries, thesauri, grammar books, and other word books, and others are about procrastination and writer's block. Then I have books on the art of writing – how to write great dialogue; how to add emotion, tension, and conflict; how to polish the first five pages. It's clear I have an addiction to writing reference books, and not surprisingly, I love to read them.
That makes me wonder: how many books on the writing craft do we really need?
So far, I have not found the ultimate guide. Learning to write takes years of study and practice. You can't possibly find a writing reference book that covers detailed information on every area of storytelling and writing.
It's easy to look at a published novel and pinpoint all of the things it's missing or where the author fell short. But writing down the words in a way that covers all the bases is near impossible. No one becomes a master at writing because there are so many different aspects to writing a great novel. And part of those things is subjective, so what sounds good to one person may sound off to another.
Another variable is the writer's specific skill set. Writers' strengths and weaknesses vary. Some of us struggle with dialogue, while others can write it flawlessly. Some writers spell out details to the point of patronizing the reader, while others are too subtle. Achieving that perfect balance is impossible – we're always going to have readers who think we could have done better. And it's easy for them to say that because they haven't seen how much our writing skills have improved. They have no idea how far we've come.
One other thing to consider is: how much of the information in the writing craft books are we absorbing? Are we taking time to study them like a college course or are we reading them from cover to cover and sticking them on a shelf to be ignored?
If we take the time to study each book on the writing craft, we won't need so many taking up space on our bookshelves. We'll get more out of them and our writing skills will improve more quickly.
So, to get back to our question, it really depends on what our skills are and how much time and effort we're willing to put into each book. But getting our hands on as many books as we can is valuable as well because, over time, we do absorb information that is beneficial to our writing skills. The trouble with this route though is that it's easy to get overwhelmed with the endless supply of books on the writing craft and think we have to read them all before we're comfortable with publishing our work.
The most important thing I've learned over the last six months since I started treating writing craft books like writing courses is that small, steady progress can lead to exponential growth in our skills. It's not how much we read, but how well we read that makes a big difference. Giving priority to learning the writing craft is just as important (if not more important in the beginning) as giving priority to the act of writing.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Do we really need 50 books on writing? Or can we get by with just a few?