Revisiting the Classics of Writing Advice

Revisiting the Classics of Writing Advice


There is something unshakably universal about the fundamentals of writing. School children are taught how to construct a sentence - subject verb (sometimes) object - and that forms the basis for every sentence out there, from the simple one-word "Go!" to the most convoluted page-long missive. It’s used regardless of genre or context - from a quick text message to a formal invite to the president to a 1,000 page fantasy epic.

However, there's always an element of personal style in writing - and just because someone knows how to write a sentence doesn't mean that they know how to craft that fantasy epic. So writing advice books entered the market, offering tips and tricks on how to put words down on the page in a way that will appeal to readers and publishers alike. These books promise to help writers take their ideas and put them onto paper, flesh them out and then navigate the publishing process until they too have a shiny new hardcover with their name imprinted on the front.

Like many things, the face of the publishing industry has changed rapidly with the rise of new technologies and the cultural shifts that come with it. It's impossible to ignore the rise of popularity in ereaders, the lowering barrier for self-publishing, and how traditional publishing houses have become more insular due to the Great Recession. Despite this, it seems like every list of recommended writing books remains the same. Books like On Writing, The Writer's Journey, On Writing Well, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing and Writing Down the Bones seem to make it onto every recommendation list ever despite their publication dates ranging from 2012 to 1986 - and that's being generous and looking at the most recently published edition. The first edition of On Writing Well was published in 1976. With first editions only, the age of the books is pushed back to 1976-2000.

If storytelling has stayed the same, this would make sense - once a classic, always a classic. Sure, the rules of grammar have changed, drastically even, but basic narrative structure and plot hasn't changed all that much - which is the entire thesis of Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey. In the forward of Writing Down the Bones, Judith Guest wrote, "'Anyone can use [this book],' I kept thinking. 'And everybody needs it!'[...] It is simply the best aid and comfort around today." With the way critics rave about all of the books, it feels as though those words could be lifted from any of them. But do those words still ring true today, in 2018? Does everybody really need these books on their shelves to help them become published authors of a book?

Technology & the Publishing Industry

Technology is changing at a rapid pace, to the point where even books published as recently as last year are outdated in some ways. While seeing Stephen King rant in On Writing (2000) about TV and not having a phone in your writing space was amusing, the fact that none of these books give too much advice that is dependent on the technology of the time is no doubt the reason they've become the cornerstone classics of the writing world. However, as time marches on, even passing references to typewriters and CD-ROM (versus the now more-common CD) can pull a reader right out of a book, just like any anachronism might pull a reader out of a piece of fiction.

Surprisingly, though it's easily the oldest book on the list, On Writing Well (7th ed. 2012) holds up well to the test of time. Though it details methods for writing about a variety of non-fiction topics, including technological advances, it holds up to the test of time because it sticks to general statements about tone and flow without going into where to publish it. By leaving out specific details, it sidesteps the problem of failing publications and publishing houses as well as how technology has evolved from typewriters to cloud storage.

Christopher Vogler navigates this issue in the same way in The Writer's Journey (3rd ed. 2007), by not touching on the topic at all, while both King and Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, 1994) discuss the publication process briefly in their books. King tries to offer up solid advice on finding an agent that has already become outdated. He provided a sample query letter to accompany a fictitious scenario in which an author sent out letters to agents long before their fiction manuscript was completed - something that would get the letters binned today. Lamott simply discusses her own feelings at the time and the process that she went through, making it a much smoother read even if it involved outdated practices, such as repeatedly sending an unsolicited short story to her father's agent and still being able to successfully query a full manuscript down the line.

Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, 1986) and Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing, 1990) both integrate memoir with writing advice as well, making the discussion of the publishing process a lot less "this is how to do it" and more about their own experiences. Bradbury's discussion of technology has a certain amount of old-fashioned charm to it - dime-operated typewriters earned their own chapter title - but it didn't detract from the information on writing at all. Even though he was talking about an outdated technology, the idea of writing quickly and editing later still rings true today - even if writers are no longer limited to the dime-operated typewriters of Bradbury's age. Goldberg, on the other hand, only includes passing mentions to typewriters and other technologies that are no longer in common use.

Of course, the fact that these books skirt around the issues of technology is probably why they continue to make their way onto writing advice lists as the time-honored classics they are, but technology is a trivial aspect of these books when compared with the actual advice they provide.

Writing Advice

The fundamentals of writing a story have remained the same over the years. Even when the rules of grammar have changed, the core ideas of how to construct a good and cohesive story haven't. This is why we can still enjoy tales as old as the Iliad even today.

However, as with anything, there can be too much of a good thing. The Writer's Journey, originally published in 1992, and based off of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell, 1949), sought to boil down the basics of story structure into a cohesive set of ideas. The book itself outlines a series of archetypes, such as the 'mentor' and the 'reluctant hero', and a basic framework into which most - if not all - characters and stories can be slotted, from romantic comedies to epic fantasy.

But in this day and age, when media is so widely available, the structure of the mythic journey can be a trap. Even though Vogler warns it's a form and not a formula, it can be easy to rely too heavily on the structure or archetypes given in the book. This isn't a problem, necessarily, until you consider two of the most famous examples of media that rely both on the plot structure and archetypes given: Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. When it boils down to it, they both follow a very similar story structure and characters fit a similar role.

If you're writing genre fiction, it can become quite easy to be dismissed as just another knock-off of one of those two more famous media due to cultural changes that make readers look for more unique stories. So, in a way, even with the warning in the introduction of The Writer's Journey, the book itself has become less relevant in today's world due to the mass consumption of media and the tendency of social media to crucify authors they think may have been too heavily influenced by another, more popular, piece of media.

The other authors, by combining writing advice with memoir, tend to skirt around this issue by making more sweeping statements of advice. King advises readers to work on building their toolbox - focus on vocabulary, grammar etc. - without providing advice on how to go about it. A common thread through all the books is to write more - Goldberg says she fills a notebook every month with writing; Lammot has index cards on her all the time to make note of various lines that flit through her mind at any point in the day. Bradbury uses his tale of a dime-operated typewriter to encourage writers to write as much as they can in as little time as possible.

These are concepts and ideas that can be applied to any author in any genre, which is how these books keep getting recommended over and over.

Cultural Taboos

As progress marches on, society has become more aware of bigotry and discrimination, and what things are and are not okay to publish has changed drastically. Words and phrases that made their way into movies and books in the early 1900s would never make it past an agent today - even though it was never acceptable, conscious and subconscious bigotry is called out more harshly and stopped in its tracks in this day and age.

Unfortunately, bigotry colors every aspect of society, creeping into places where consumers least expect it - including writing advice books.

Probably the most painfully obvious is Anne Lamott's use of disabled athletes as inspiration porn. A whole chapter of Bird by Bird is dedicated to how she was assigned to cover the Special Olympics and how she found her inspiration through watching the athletes. She waxes lyrical about how she was more interested in lunch until she saw one last athlete in a track event working her way towards the finish line, describing the athlete as having a "normal-looking" face.

On Writing is still a book by Stephen King, famed horror author, and it shows. Due to its partial memoir nature, it goes into graphic detail about medical traumas he experienced, , has  casual sexist overtones, and uses ableist language ("...crippled writer, psycho fan…" he says about the premise for Misery and includes a vulgar description for tampons when talking about his research for Carrie, though a quote from someone else, it was still included as is). It makes a reader wonder if such attitudes would be tolerated even from Stephen King in a manuscript submitted today. (There was also a certain irony in King ranting against unnecessary words while religiously using he/she instead of they for a single person of undefined gender - something that has become far more common in recent years and almost certainly would have been changed if published today.)

Christopher Vogler, on the other hand, acknowledges his shortcomings as a male author and makes note that a female perspective on such topics would be very different - and that even though The Writer's Journey sought to address the universal nature of certain struggles, it was extraordinarily male-centric. "There may be some masculine bias built into the description of the hero cycle since many of its theoreticians have been male, and I freely admit it: I'm a man and can't help seeing the world through the filter of my gender," he admits. Would a modern editor and publisher accept that an author barely attempted to cover the unique struggles of almost half the human race? The second edition also claims that "hero" refers to both men and women, and then two pages later refers to the "hero and heroine" - clearly contradicting himself.

It would be easy to dismiss these complaints, as many with privilege are wont to do, as the books simply being a product of their time - whether it's a product of the author's time or simply a product of the time period in which it was published. Most of the authors are in their 60s or older, having been born in a vastly different generation and therefore cultural understanding of what is and isn't offensive.

However, Ray Bradbury, who was in his 70s when Zen in the Art of Writing was published, stands out from the crowd in this respect. In the very first chapter, he writes about how he was offended by a magazine's racism and how he used that to fuel his writing. This doesn't excuse some of the issues with sexism and ableism that crop up later in the book, however, it certainly puts the other books into perspective when a white man born in 1920 is more aware of issues of discrimination than some of the more modern authors.

Moving Forward

Here's the thing: these books are classics for a reason. They all have value, particularly in an academic setting because they've been so influential on the way modern authors write. However, it's important to remember that they aren't the Bible and aren't infallible. As a collected body of work, they have the most value, providing a combined knowledge of multiple writers with varied backgrounds and journeys.

So where should writers go to find solid advice for their day and age? Well, there are books being published every day, both through traditional means and through self-publishing, but those will eventually run into the same issue as the time-honored classics.

The best source of information for publishing in the modern day is invariably going to be the internet, even if it sometimes contradicts itself. While print books will always contain nuggets of wisdom, their static form means that they'll become outdated quickly (even when looking at the books that get updated yearly, like The Writer's Market). Even though articles on the internet can become outdated, things like submission guidelines are updated regularly. Also, with such a low barrier to self-publication, there's more information on the internet than there will ever be in books.

Get information from a diverse platform of sources - whether it be the internet or the writing advice books covered here - and figure out what works best for you. No one book or source of information is going to work perfectly for every writer out there for an indefinite period of time.  Read a variety of voices from a variety of sources and figure out what works best with your style and your goals. And, just like they all said, never stop writing.

Lydia Rogue is a genderfluid writer based out of Portland, Oregon. They earned their BA in Environmental Studies/Journalism through WWU's Huxley College in 2012 and have been writing consistently ever since. When not writing, they're spending time with their girlfriend and their three rats. You can read more of their writing at their own site or support them on their Patreon at  

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