No More Model Airplanes: Essential Writing about Writing

February 23, 2011 | 7 books mentioned 16 5 min read

In his essay,  “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals,” Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own.  He asserts, and rightly, “The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction.”

I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period.  The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing.  In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply.  A good reader isn’t necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader.

In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique.  I’ve found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it’s when I’m having trouble with my work–or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision–that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I’ve dug myself into. I haven’t read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with “the aesthetics of task,” as he puts it.  I’ve read and enjoyed–and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with–such books.  I’ve also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics.  It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it’s the step that allows the dancer to do everything else.  One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won’t make one a spectacular dancer–or even a dancer.   There’s technique, but there’s also passion, soul, grace, daring.

covercoverThere are a few books on writing that I’ve not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally.  They  have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that’s the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects.  Aside from the usual suspects–The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor–here are some of my favorite books on craft:

coverHow Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person.  The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood’s way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity.  I also love the short chapter breaks–often only a couple of sentences long.  They’re pleasurable to read.

coverNow Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn’t a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others.  I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students.  I’ve also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project.  A couple exercises a week–from “Why I Stole It” by Robert Anthony Siegel, to “The Photograph” by Jill McCorkle–will hone anyone’s powers of imagination and description.  I’ve done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained.  This kind of writing feels as fun as reading.

coverLately, I’ve been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press.  In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective.  Baxter’s own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn’t make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules.  My class had a great time discussing Baxter’s analysis of the great J.F. Powers story “The Valiant Woman,” which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer.

coverI’ve recently been re-reading Joan Silber’s The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott.  One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students.  Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, “Five years passed”?  Is there nothing juicier than  crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters?  Silber’s discussion of “selected concreteness” in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely.

Lately, I’ve been reading the series’ books on poetry.  A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty’s The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction:

What descriptions–good ones, anyway–actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking

If that’s not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also found a few essays on writing online, which I’ve taught with great results:

Zadie Smith’sFail Better,” an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue’s Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching.  The essay asks: What is voice and truth?  What does it take to write well?  How can one refine one’s consciousness?

William Boyd’sBrief Encounters” is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners.  I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one.

Elizabeth Bowen’sNotes on Writing a Novel” is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: “What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.”).  The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold.  Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen’s confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here:  “Nothing can happen nowhere” (when she’s discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): “Speech is what characters do to each other.”

Now, I’d like to know–teachers, students, writers and readers–what are your favorite books on writing?

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I’m currently teaching a beginning fiction workshop using Alice LaPlante’s METHOD AND MADNESS. It’s the best book on writing I’ve come across. And my students love it.

  2. Lovely essay, Edan. I like the Art Of series a lot too, especially The Art of Time in Memoir, by Sven Birkerts.

    One of my favorite craft books is by fiction writer David Jauss, Alone With All That Could Happen. It’s so insightful it can make you rethink your ideas about point of view, the use of epiphanies, the very definition of prose rhythm. Genius.

  3. I thoroughly enjoy reading essays on craft! It’s always interesting to see how other writers approach their craft, and these pieces are usually well written and marvelous in and of themselves. That said, one of my favorite books on writing is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, great for writers and readers alike.

  4. I second the JAmes Wood (often mistaken for ‘James Woods’ by friends)
    Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream” is lucid. poetic and also deals with the nitty-gritty.

    For absolute beginners, I recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing” because its good to hear it from a writer who has shifted millions of books.

  5. First of all, I love that you know about Elizabeth Bowen’s fantastic essay on the subject—I teach it often. And then second, many thanks for the name-check. I’d add to that list Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction, and E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.

  6. It’s ludicrous to read books about writing written by writers — it’s similar to asking the race car driver to describe the quantum physics involved in his lunging through the tracks. Forget the writers: they know not what they do. Only philosophers have the tools necessary to analyse with any profundity the writing process itself; writers are only capable of scribbling on surface matter.

    Here is a small quote from a philosopher (from George Santayana’s Sense of Beauty):

    “…language has its function of expressing experience with exactness, and the poet — to whom language is an instrument of art — has to employ it also with a constant reference to meaning and veracity; that is, he must be a master of experience before he can become a true master of words. Nevertheless, language is primarily a sort of music, and the beautiful effects which it produces are due to its own structure, giving, as it crystallizes in a new fashion, an unforeseen form to experience.”

  7. I agree that the James Wood book is pretty useful, as is the Stephen King ‘On Writing’ for its (occasionally corny) no-bullshit attitude but the one I return to most often when I’ve written 40,000 words of a novel and can’t seem to find my way through the remaining thousands is Margaret Attwood’s ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ – it’s wise, funny and thoughtful and actually assures me that what I am attempting is actually *worthwhile*.


  8. I can’t get enough of Charles Baxter’s “Burning Down the House,” which predates the Art of Subtext and shares its incisive intelligence. His essays “On Defamiliarization,” “Counterpointed Characterization,” and “Stillness”–I’ve read them over and over. Brilliant writing not only about the art of fiction, but the effects of contemporary culture and politics on the way we think and read and write.

  9. Robert Boswell’s “The Half Known World.” Something brilliant in that one. And a third recommendation for “On Writing.”

    And I have to disagree with Fabio Franco above. While philosophers and thinkers have much to say on the impact and wonder of the written word, they can not speak to the mechanics of writing, which is something that needs fleshing out beyond freshman composition. It is great to keep the end goal in mind, as to what your writing should achieve, but you still need to learn how to do that effectively.

    Comparing writing to racing is ludicrous. The best thing to compare it to, is other forms of art. In music and visual arts it is an accepted and encouraged practice to learn technique by copying the greats. There are people (like Fabio Franco) who believe this sort of learning is not necessary, my guess is they are one of those extremely talented people who already know how to do it instinctively, or they do not know of what they speak.

    To even examine the least “rigid” art form most people can immediately think of – jazz improvisation – shows that the artist in that area has to learn a very rigid structures (one way or another, from a teacher or by ear) in order to even begin to be proficient at their art.

    And those that break through those structures, it’s too often said: you have to know the rules before you can break them.

    All that is not to say that you couldn’t just take what you considered to be the five best works in writing and examine them closely to see what makes them tick. You can. But just because you’ve read Book X one thousand times means you know how to create a book from scratch. Reading about the beginning of the process from other writers, way before the finished product, is something many people need to see, as a means of encouragement to keep going.

  10. Give away all your how-tos, now. Go write. And go read, constantly, helplessly, hungrily, from age six on. Write more. Edit. Read more. Edit. Apply seat to chair, eight, ten, twelve hours a day, no weekends off. Type, type, type, edit, edit. It takes twenty years to make a style.

  11. @Sarah T. I disagree with the “twelve hours a day, no weekends off” mentality. That’s not what’s necessarily required to write well. Yes, you’ve got to write more, and edit, and apply seat to chair. But there are so many examples of people who’ve learned through experience, and then applied that experience to their writing, and done quite well. I think of Anton Chekhov, who practiced medicine throughout his short life. So does contemporary Chris Adrian, a pediatric oncologist. And then there’s a non-writer who was recently profiled for her win at the Golden Globes (Natalie Portman.) A different example, but a good one. Not only an actress, but a talented scientist. Yes, perhaps, to write the Great American Novel, one must devote herself to it like a banshee. To get good at anything requires focus. But I’m sure it’s disheartening to many people to hear that to become good at writing requires the typical obsessive personality. To some extent, it does. But mostly it doesn’t. Passion and desire and skill set are all that’s needed.

  12. If there are so many writing manuals, workshops, instructors, seminars,, then where are the great writers? Why is literature today a marginalized art? Why as the short story, once THE popular American art form, little read outside the academy and The New Yorker? Never has a society invested so much money and energy into literature.Never anywhere have there been so many writers. Yet the result is distinctly mediocre. Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald were treated by the culture like rock stars. They had bigger personas than any popular musician then, and any sports figure outside Babe Ruth. Scott Fitzgerald, for what’s worth, in the Twenties was as scandalous as Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga are now. Could writers be doing something wrong? Are the ideas being taught in the manuals flawed? Just asking, ya know. Thanks.

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