When is enough, enough?

Some writers argue that you don’t need how-to books, just practicing writing. Yet, many writers write beautifully but are incapable of producing a publishable novel, while mediocre writers sometimes sprout best-sellers . Some great lirerary writers seem to lack knowledge of essential story craft techniques.

while writing is an art, the dramatic form is a technical art. A technical art implies learning the techniques first.

@ what argues in Are 'how-to write fiction' books full of it?

Buying and (maybe) reading how-to-write books is a symptom of procrastination. Wannabe writers have shelves of them. And every time they feel afraid of starting to write and making mistakes, they go and buy another one (or post questions on forums such as this one), thinking that before they can begin their masterwork, they need the secret knowledge that all writers share and that will enlighten them and turn them into a writer. But they are mistaken. There is no secret to writing, just as there is no secret to walking or speaking, only that
you have to do it until it becomes second nature. And that is all the truth there is to it. You learn writing by writing. And by making mistakes.

and in Pirating books, taboo?

reading how-to books can be a sign of procrastination and an obstacle to actually writing your book. Recommending a download (and possible reading) of hundreds of books seems counterproductive to me.

@John Smithers makes a similar point in What are some online guides for starting writers?

If you read about starting writing, you are reading, not writing. Because you are still not writing, you'll decide you should read more about it, and well, you are still reading. There is interesting stuff out there to improve your writing, but that means you have to start. Grab your pen/keyboard and start. Just write. If you have filled your first three pages with "I do not know what to write" it will become boring and you will write something meaningful.

I do to some extent agree with @what that procrastination and going overboard are real dangers, yet some learning seems required. Some writers seem clueless about structure, tension, plot, dynamics, or climax.

For a “pantser” who writes junk and rewrites, rewrites, rewrites, and reformat it later into a coherent story whose final draft bears no resemblance whatsoever with the initial draft, writing as a technical occupation may seem anathema.

Yet, for “plotters” lacking even one tool or technical advice before finishing the story can be counterproductive and greatly damaging.

On one hand, yes most writing books say the same things in different ways; on the other there is often a snippet of information that is original and enlightening in each book.

Another arguments for reading as many how-to books is also that while the same info may be paraphrased, a different version can bring sudden clarity to a nebulously vague concept and click everything into place.

Also, being a writer is a profession, for most specialized profession going to college to get a degree is needed. Sure most classes are useless and redundant, but there is some need of formal education.

Maybe writing can not be taught, but techniques and style certainly can.

So, I am a believer in reading as many how to books as you can get your hands on. Yet, to validate @what point, I am also a procrastinator who much prefer developing stories ideas, structured outlines, and detailed scenes in sumary form rather than writing books.

So, is there a good balance between learning and doing, dreamer and writer, procrastinator and author?

I understand this may be subjective, but is there evidence of an optimal length of time or volume of books, as in no more than 6 months or less than 30 writing books.


for book choices, i just "found" this SE Q/A What are good reads about writing?


the debate continues In Answers that are off-topic @what resates a succinct version off his answer here about writing books:

I used to believe in how-to books, but have found that they don't work for beginners. That is both my personal experience and what I gleaned from reading what other, professional writers wrote or said about their career. I am absolutely convinced that you can only learn writing by writing a lot, and that trying to learn writing from books is in fact detrimental to your goal of mastering writing. You have read many fiction books (I guess), so you know what a book must be like, and all you need to do is try to write such a book.

here is a longish comment

What you say about writing books is full of wisdom, yet i don’t feel it is the whole of it. Drawing books are mostly for people who don’t know how to draw; they are stylized, proportionated, ideal versions of human beings. They are there to be a crutch supplemented by live drawings and observation.

Writings books are not the same, mostly they are not a bunch of do it like that, "paint by number", formulaic types. They give suggestions, concepts, methods, and then your own writing style and preferences determines what you write.

Yes, you are right that many people trying to make a quick buck try to copy, or fill in structures, i saw that a lot with movie scripts, but i don’t think it is the case for genuine wanabe authors.

About just learning by writing, i can’t agree. When i was a teen i wrote a lot of prose and poetry and started several novels. I was an avid reader, and had already read hundreds of books. These writings never became anything because i had no clue on how to dramatize, how to build tension, how to build characters, how to work on dialogues…..

Later in college i meet a lot of literary types and their writings never amounted to anything either, because they were clueless about craft and though you could sprout a novel from the sheer brilliance of your writings. Worse, some tried to emulate classical styles that they loved and read about, with disastrous effects.

Now that i am more mature, i am humble enough to admit i don’t know what makes a book tick, so i believe in learning all you can about technique.

here the issue is not about learning how to write but about crafting a good novel. To craft an entrancing narrative dream you need to meticulously plan, tap here and there, chisel this facet, polish that, to make a good novel emerge from your imagination. Yes, some great writers can do without, but that’s because they have an intuitive grasp of the same techniques.

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    I think you have two kinds of procrastination now: how-to books about writing and Q/A sites about writing. I agree with what and John Smitter. Just write. You'll develop some sort of "instinct" that will come out automatically when needed. – Alexandro Chen Jun 15 '15 at 3:38
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    At what stage are you at with your writing? I'd say the simple answer to your question is that it's never enough (because you should never cease learning/reviewing/refining) but that you should also never use it as an excuse to not write. – tanantish Jun 15 '15 at 11:44

I have been drawing for thirty years and published a few comic books. I draw reasonably well. When I was beginning to learn to draw – you can always get better, so you are never "accomplished" – I bought a whole lot of how-to-draw books. Strangely enough, following their advice to construct human figures by following their schemas of proportion never worked. The figures I drew looked like they were drawn by someone who had never seen a human being: stiff, disproportionate, and lifeless. Then I started drawing from life. I visited a nude figure drawing class and drew the people I saw on the bus. My drawings were awful scribbles at first, but even those scribbles looked powerful and vigorous. And with time my lines began to resemble my models more and more. Until I was able to draw so well that people began to accuse me of tracing photographs (which I didn't). At that time I began to go over my how-to-draw books again, and at that time I was able to profit from them and implement some of their advice into my process. With the help of the how-to-draw books, I began to detach myself from my models and learned to draw from my imagination by abstracting the implicit knowledge about human anatomy I had gained during the years of life drawing.

From the experience I have gained through my own writing, and from what I have read and heard from published professional writers, writing works the same.

Stephen King did not study how-to-write books. You might contest that he is not such a technically brilliant writer. But I will counter that he developed his own style, and that his style works for his readers, and that is all that counts. A technically brilliant writers who is not read is no proof of anything.

In any art, if you try to learn by following how-to-books, the result will be something flat and lifeless. Some of the most intense stories I read where badly written amateur writings. Why is that so? Because these amateurs wrote. They did not try to construct a plot by following the three act structure or the hero's journey or any other advice expounded in how-to-write books. They wrote from the center of their own being, completely ignorant of any craft, simply using what they had learned about stories by reading stories and by being experiencing the "stories" of life.

Sure, those amateur writings had plot holes and bad grammar, just as my scribbles did not look beautiful at all. But they had a story that was true and that touched me (and, as you can see from all those amateur writing sites, that touches others). All they needed to get good was to train their writing, and you only get better at doing something by doing it.

How-to-write books are bought and used almost exclusively by people who are afraid of failure. When I was beginning to draw, I wanted my drawings to be perfect. I did not want to learn, I wanted to skip that step, and I bought and read those books searching for the secret knowledge that would magically transform me into a master draughtsman. But there is no such secret, neither in drawing, nor in writing, nor in music or sports or any other ability. The secret, if there is one, are diligence and perseverance. You have to turn out a lot of bad writing or bad drawings or awful sounding tones before your writing or drawing or making music gets good. Sure, how-to-write books do contain useful advice. But it is about as useful as telling someone who learns riding a bike to keep their balance. That is, it is useful to discuss the craft among advanced learners, but not useful if you have no feeling at all for what balance is. You must first make some writing experiences that help you understand and apply the advice, and those experiences can only be gained by writing.

So write.

Learning to write does not mean that you have to go to school before you are ready to go out into the real world and take up a job. In writing, you learn on the job. Everything you write is meant for publication. You do not do exercises for your professor, you always write to submit to an agent or publisher. Of course you should get feedback from peers so evaluate your writing and not actually submit anything that is not ready for submission. But you should write for submission nonetheless.

Getting published is not a decision you make when you feel ready. It is something that happens when an agent or publisher notices that you are ready. This readiness will likely take time (see the notes below), but there is no curriculum of core knowledge that you objectively know when you have learned it, no exam in writing that will get you hired as a writer.

To answer your question:


You are ready to write now. You will get better as you keep writing. If you keep at it, eventually you will get published.


Also read my answer to How does the 10,000 hour rule apply to writing?, where I interpret statistical data.

Jim C. Hines went a bit further and actually asked authors how much they had written before their first professional publication. The following is taken from his summary of his findings.

On average, professionally published authors had been writing for more than eleven years, before they made their first professional novel sale. Before their first professional sale, they had written an average of three to four unpublished novels. 58 of 246 authors sold the first novel they wrote (but the survey does not ask wether these authors had experience writing non-fiction, e.g. academic papers or newspaper journalism, so we don't know what this number means).

In all, while there are overnight successes, the majority of professionally published writers need to learn their craft, and the better approach is to assume you are one of them.


Spend 100 percent of your time learning the craft. Spend at least half of that learning by writing.

(If this sounds overly pithy to you, please understand that my pithiness is an attempt to break through the thick skull of someone who desperately needs this advice: Me.)

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    I would go so far as to say: Write all the time that you have to write. You will read and do other things that influence your writing at other times anyway, so there is no reason to reserve time for studying how-to-books. All the time that you have to write you should spend writing. (This advice only applies to those that don't have all their time at their disposal. If you got the whole day, you might profit from limiting your writing time to three to five hours by finding other productive activities to occupy you. You need time to regenerate your writing muscle. Get out and be alife.) – user5645 Jun 15 '15 at 7:00

Take a minute to think about this: If someone knows so much about writing that they can write a brilliant book about it, why aren't they writing best selling novels or literary classics? Occasionally a brilliant writer will take the time to write about writing (I have a list of rules for short stories by Edgar Alan Poe), but mostly the books appear to written by people who can't make a living out of writing the type of texts they are telling you how to write.

Obviously, you have to learn how to write and you keep learning, but if you've read enough books to know they are repeating each other, in my opinion you have read too many and just need to get on with writing. Of course each one will contain a gem, but why not discover a diamond mine for yourself by actually writing. Instead of digging over other people's dirt hoping to find something they have missed, start your own mine in unexplored territory. Be prepared to look in how-to manuals when you find you're getting too many cave ins, but look for an answer and then get back to digging your shaft.


In general, people look for a writer who can integrate craft, creativity and depth in his or her writing. Out of the three, craft is the only one that can be gained in a systematic and predictable manner through hard work, practice and dedication. It is the one that is easiest to teach, most visible on the surface, and most universally admired. However, it is far from the only thing important in writing. How much time you should spend on it depends on the extent to which it is the main thing missing in your writing.

With that said, there are many people who have put the time in to polish their writing craft to an exemplary level, so the bar is set very high for anyone who wants to excel in the field.


As so often in life, this is a question where it's probably best to avoid the extremes.

If someone only writes, ignoring the advice of others, it seems likely that their learning and development will be slow, because they must work out the principles themselves, for everything. It's often said that one must learn from one's mistakes, and no doubt this is true; but it's often faster and easier to learn from the mistakes of others! Besides, how arrogant must one be, to decide that no-one else has anything to say worth listening to?

(There may well be examples of successful writers who never learned from outside sources; but even if there are, does that mean it's the only way, or the best way? We'll never know if Stephen King would have been more or less successful if how-to-write books, blogs, and websites had existed in 1970 - but they do now, so surely it seems only sensible to take advantage of them?).

If, at the other extreme, one only ever reads the advice of others, never finding time to put pen to paper, it seems unlikely that that person will ever truly understand what they're reading about; direct, intimate experience will always be superior to pure abstract theory. In any case, there's not a publisher in the world who will sign up a so-called author who has never actually written anything.

So, the middle way is to learn, then write, applying and developing those skills. Get feedback on what's been written, and learn how to improve the parts that were weak; then write something else - and repeat the cycle, over and over again. Hear the wisdom of others, add in ideas they may not have thought of, put it into practice and reflect on how well it went. This is how almost any skill is learned most effectively - and I've never seen any evidence to suggest that writing might be different.

Exactly what proportion of time should be put into each? That will change from person to person, and for the same person throughout their writing career. If in doubt, it's probably best to write. But there's plenty to learn (for most careers, even experts admit that they never stop learning); so take the time to do that too.

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