Why is it that some professions are the ones everyone thinks they know how to do? I mean, I do not assume for a minute that I could just walk inot the local firehouse and be a firefighter, or pick up a stethoscope and be a doctor, and yet plenty of people, maybe most people, assume they could be a published writer or a teacher -- can't be that hard, right? And yet if you put those people in front of a blank page or a class full of students waiting to be taught, it quickly becomes clear that people who do these jobs have expertise, experience and methods that aren't just pulled out of the air.
I bump into this with teaching more than writing -- many people are clear on the fact that that they can't write, but just about everyone who knows anything believes they can teach. But teaching is a profession, and those who have done it for many years will tell you, in the same way we learn about writing over the course of years, this is not a profession for the weak of heart, and it requires experience and specific skills. No, not just anyone can do it -- in fact, even experts in a field may be lousy teachers because they may not be able to communicate what they know in concrete ways that other people can grab on to. Knowing something, and helping someone else to know it, are vastly different things.
That's not to say we can't each share what we know and help others -- of course we can, and we should, we all have knowledge to share -- but when someone takes on the job of teaching in any kind of formal environment, it's a whole different thing.
For instance, I just bought a new writing book that people have raved about for years. I was hopeful, as it seems to address some of the issues I am facing in my writing life at the moment. I don't want to name names because I'm not that far into it, but within 40 pages already it has me annoyed. Typically, I don't buy a lot of these kinds of books for exactly this reason -- the writing industry is awash with "how to" books that make all kinds of promises to tell you how to do something, but in the end the books don't live up to their promises because they don't know how to teach. In my most cynical moments, I think they know they are duping me out of $25 with their "how to" promises; in reality, I think it's just that good people want to share what they know, but they don't really know how to do it in a useful way.
After teaching writing for so many years, I find the downfall of many "instructional" books is that they really aren't instructional at all, but more like motivational speaking. I crave the concrete. I know many of you out there have also taught, and you know that teaching means breaking things down to method, not just describing a general quality. It's not enough to tell a student their writing needs to "flow" -- you need to describe flow, show them examples of flow, and then help them to work in order to see flow in their own work in concrete ways, through transitions, linked passages, themes, etc (and of course, you may have to back up, show them what a transition or a theme is, how to find it, how to execute it, etc -- this is not easy analysis). Only in this way can someone really learn to do what you're trying to show them how to do.
Disappointingly, most writing books that advertise themselves as "how to" with "how to" titles end up really not telling you "how to" at all. They don't live up to the promises of what they say they are going to help you do. They lack the concrete. Part of the problem is that they attempt to do everything within one book -- how can you teach someone, really teach them, to write a novel in 180-300 pages? This is a comment we writing teachers make on the part of new writers: you are trying to take on too much, do too much within a short space, and so it forces you to fall into generality. Narrow, focus, be more concrete.
There are books that do this. Elements of Fiction series actually came up with a nice series of little books that focused 150-2o0 page books on just one element, or a small set of closely related elements -- plot, character, beginnings & ends, etc -- these are very good books, with exercises and examples. Taught by writers, and often by writers who have also taught professionally, and I think it makes a big difference. I could imagine seeing this series drill down even one more level, and have an entire book devoted only to writing romance characters, or how to set clues in a mystery -- really digging in. These are my fantasy writing books, I guess.
One of my very favorite writing books of all is Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which appears to be a literary meditation on writing (which it is), rather than a "how to," but there are loads of concrete lessons housed in beautifully crafted paragraphs that demonstrate good, sharp writing. I also like Joseph Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which actually is a "how to." These two writers are also teachers. They know how to break it down.
I also find most books address a general or beginning writer audience -- for many of us, we don't need a lot of the beginner stuff, we need things that talk about writing and publishing at a more advanced level, but most writing books are targeted at novices -- am I missing some secret cache of expert writing references?
However, perhaps the real truth is that all the how of writing is OTJ (on the job) training -- you learn as you go, the lessons come from failures, hard work, and screw ups, and there really are no books that will take the place of that, because in the end, it comes down to figuring out what works for you, and making it happen. Dammit. While some may try to take this experience and teach it to others, the truth is, we all have to find our own way through it.
So, there's a lot of "how to" out there -- how do we know what to listen to? Experienced writers will know what they need, but it might be hard to find. What about new writers in the field? What advice to give them when seeking information and lessons? What are your favorite qualities in a writing "how to"? What's your opinion of writers using "how to" books, and what are the qualities of good ones?