How to Process Writing Advice, Redux: Diversify Your Sources

Another day, another terrifying number of people showing up to read Tuesday’s post about wasting time as a writer. I think it’s the first thing I’ve ever written on this site that got more views the day after it was posted than it did on the first day.

This means I’m still brooding on the whole writing advice thing, moving from point to point like Pac-Man trying to reach a power pellet, extrapolating outwards from the acknowledgement that I don’t know fuck-all. And I’ve realised a few things I should have put in yesterday’s post about processing advice, but didn’t have the brain-space to consider when I wrote it.


I have a shelf full of how-to-write books that are chock-full of advice. Many of them are really good and I’d heartily recommend them to folks who are looking to develop writing skills, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of figuring this writing thing out.

Advice, by its nature, tends towards the general. It’s someone trying to distil their ideas and their process into something pithy and easy to understand, which hides the fact that process and business are actually enormously complicated.

The most useful books in my collection, in terms of learning about writing, aren’t actually how-to books at all. They’re collections of interviews and biographies and writers talking about their specific process, places where there’s no need to be general. Where the assumption is people are interested in their work, rather than writing in general.

My copy of The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler are among the most well-thumbed pages in my book collection. Not much writing advice there, but there’s so much that can be learned by looking at Chandler’s process up-close, the way he’d think out his glorious metaphors and similies and scrupulously track their usage.

The Art of Neil Gaiman? Fucking awesome book for any creative interested in the fantasy genre, because it’s a writer sitting down and responding to questions about how he does what he does over the course of a whole career. There’s something similar going on in The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, which is a meandering tour through Davies thought-processes as he scribed his forth season of Doctor Who.

And it’s not something that’s linked to writers, specifically. I’ve picked up great advice from writing by reading interviews with artists and pro-wrestlers, film-makers and actors. Some of my most repeated writing advice comes from conversation with my friend Allan, where we went looking for common ground between what he does and what I do.

The single greatest resource I have, so far as editing (and, weirdly, editing poetry) is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, where Michael Ondaatje sits down and talks to the guy who edited films like Apocalypse Now, Ghost, and The English Patient. There’s nothing how-to about it – they basically just talk about whatever shit they find interesting at the time – and because of that it goes into areas you’d never cover if you were putting together a how-to-edit-film thing.


That’s great, when you’re starting out, and the minutia is just going to be a distraction. It’s less great, as you advance through your career and start to master the basics of writing. After a while, the minutia is what keeps you going. You want to fine-tune your craft and you can’t do that with larger, clumsier tools that are designed to cut through great swathes of audience.

We are in a business about ideas and making connections.

If you’re serious about writing – hell, about any art – don’t limit yourself to advice and how-to. Look further afield and diversity the points where you’re getting


I’ve put up links to some of my favourite process books above. It’s not the full breadth of my collection – more a representative example – but it does occur to me that it’s very masculine and very white.

And, now that I’ve actually sat down and formalized my thinking on this, a somewhat smaller collection than I’d like.

So…help me out here. What are your favourite books about art and writing that aren’t necessarily how-to guides? Which bios get you fired up and eager to create? Where have you found strange epiphanies about the way you do things? Send me your recommendations, peeps, and I’ll check ’em out.

  6 comments for “How to Process Writing Advice, Redux: Diversify Your Sources

  1. Charlotte
    27/11/2015 at 9:11 AM

    I’m going to nod and agree with everything you’ve written in these last few days, so much so that I was tempted to print, bind and issue as standard reading for aspiring writers … but then sometimes it’s good to learn these things after you’ve flailed around for a while first. Keep writing this shit – it’s gold. Also, advice that wasn’t advice … it’s just listening to the words other writers use to describe things. For ages I didn’t understand “conflict” … I mean, I pretended to, but it was always kinda an abstract concept. Then a writer at a lecture used the word “uncertainty” instead and bam! I got it. The unbalance of the person’s world, however big or small that is. That worked for me; maybe not for other people. But it’s longitudinal learning – things make sense at certain points when you are ready to understand that part of what you’re doing.

  2. 27/11/2015 at 9:55 AM

    I love Time Without Clocks, Joan Lindsay’s memoir of Australian artistic/literary bohemia between the wars. Writing and art as an outspringing of community and vice-versa. For the same reason, I still reread Edith Schaeffer’s The Hidden Art, which is written from a viewpoint within a religious community and therefore not for everybody (also very of its time in its insistence on mobiles as a popular form of high art) but also about how people can live an artistic life in any context, in any job.

    Books about creative community and lifestyle are great, because they are the contexts out of which many stories spring. You often talk about cohorts, and I think they are valuable for this reason too. Many of us are in this line of work because we like hanging out with storytellers and I really want to be back in NYC/Mass/Dartmoor right now.

    Also: Dear Genius, the letters of Ursula Nordstrom. These are the letters of an editor at Harper & Row from the ’40s to the ’70s to her authors, illustrators, librarians, etc, and they are a wonderful portrait of a literary life and also of an editor finding, cultivating, bully and cajoling her people to make great art.

    • 28/11/2015 at 4:02 AM

      Kathleen, those sound really interesting – thanks for the recommendations!

  3. 28/11/2015 at 3:57 AM

    Peter, love the recommendations – off to check them out. My two favourite writing books are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Both are more about hanging in there through the process than anything else – which I think is often the problem! Well, at least for me. Another great book on writing with the most God awful title is Ensouling Language by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Don’t be put off by the fact that he says it’s about nonfiction – it’s about all writing and it’s brilliant, especially if you get through the first couple of chapters and get into the meaty stuff.

  4. 28/11/2015 at 1:37 PM

    Thanks for the recommendations! Two books I found eye-opening about writing (and creating art in general) are actually fiction books. The first one is Martin Eden by Jack London. I loved his depiction of the slightly manic writer, whipping out fiction to submit and then struggling to recover afterwards, the pang of continual rejection, the obsessive desire to better oneself, and his flippant attitude towards the success of already-written works as the only stories that matter to him are the ones he’s currently writing. It was an interesting idea, and one I loved. It got all that award/review success-fever out of my young 20s brain, which was a little too obsessed with how any given story might be received, to the point of neglecting the production of new work. It helped me get over that hang-up. It’s fascinating, if you haven’t read it yet!

    The second one is Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maughm, specifically the Paris segment, in which Philip is in Paris attempting to become a great painter. I love books about painting when it comes to thinking about art (I discovered the “Unconscious Incompetence/to/Conscious Incompetence/to/Conscious Competence/to/Unconscious Competence” concept of stages of developing mastery of a mode of art via a book on oil painting and composition, and it’s really helped me gauge my progress, which is kind of neat.) Back to Of Human Bondage, though–it’s a heartbreaking segment, and really shook me up at the time because it deals with the whole “you just have to believe in yourself, even when others tell you you don’t have what it takes, just keep working hard and believing, and you’ll succeed!” idea that even now bounces around in writing advice columns. There was a documentary about kids going to Hollywood to attend seminars and workshops in the hopes of becoming a huge child star in film, and some of their agents call it being “killed by encouragement” because everyone thinks they’ll be that *one* breakout that defies all the odds. Stephen King being told in college that he sucked as a writer and would never have a career could certainly be the modern version of that. It’s a beautiful, terrifying read, though, and well worth checking out, in my opinion, if you haven’t already!

    Loved Bird by Bird, too, as mentioned by the commenter above. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I was pretty hooked. I also really enjoyed John Gardner’s book on The Art of Writing, once I got over how his slightly snobbish tone sounds a little like Jafar from Aladdin. 🙂

    • Maggie Slater
      28/11/2015 at 1:40 PM

      Oh, and another non-book: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the acclaimed Michelin-star sushi chef from Tokyo. I’ve seen it at least three times, and it never fails to completely inspire me.

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