The Problem With Reading Books On Writing

When the CCWA Board decided to start reviewing writing books, I volunteered to review Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting” for the blog. I promptly found myself experiencing, yet again, the whole problem I have with reading books on craft: isn’t at least some of the time spent reading about writing better spent actually writing? and isn’t it at least a little bit more enjoyable and plenty educational to read great writing or watch a great movie? At least, it is for me.

I’m not a non-fiction reader. I try. Every now and then, I succeed. If you counted all the web articles I read, it probably amounts to dozens of non-fiction books in a year. But an actual, published work of tens of thousands of words on a given topic? Nope. Can’t do it. I get bored. I will own that this is at least partially my fault; a failing of discipline or attention span, certainly. But it is also my experience with even well-regarded works of non-fiction that the topic at hand doesn’t merit tens of thousands of words. What you get instead is a chapter or two or three of throat-clearing, of repetitive examples of why the topic is just so gosh-darned important. If you can get through that (I usually can’t) that’s when you get to the chapters where you might maybe sort of learn something? Except once again you find thirty pages of non-specific platitudes espousing some pithy piece of branding that was more effective before the writer tried to explain it for twenty-nine and a half more pages.

I don’t mean to dismiss an entire genre. Only jerks do that. However, I do want to stress that writing a rock-solid work of non-fiction, particularly on writing, is very, very difficult. Now, whether it says more about me or about “Story” that I couldn’t get through McKee’s classic screenwriting bible in time for this blog deadline, who knows. (It definitely says more about me). But the bottom line is this: you can very easily Google what a three-act structure is. You can find online lists of cliches, archetypes, and more. What can’t you Google? Putting your butt in the chair and actually writing. Trust me, I’ve tried.

One final thought before I go: there are two approaches to non-fiction reading that can save time. The first is to read the introduction and the conclusion first to get the gist, then skim the chapters. The second is to skip the intro (and often the first chapter) because that’s where the philosophy is laid out, which is easy enough to intuit and is probably covered by the jacket copy. You then proceed to read the chapters you’re interested in, and only the chapters you’re interested in. Thumbing through the meat of McKee’s classic book, I think I would have been better off with the latter strategy.