Have any of the successfully published writers here found the various best selling "How To" books dangerous, in that they guide aspiring writers into producing cookie cutter works?

I'm currently reading "How To Get Published" and "How To Write A Book Proposal" (Those aren't the EXACT titles). While full of useful information, I find myself frequently wanting to veer off the beaten track detailed in these types of books. Any advice?

2 Answers 2


What you shouldn't do

Construct your plot, characters, or story based on a schema or formula from a how-to book. The result will be schematic and formulaic instead of original and vivid.

What you might find helpful


Read how-to books and put them away.

When you want to write Fantasy, you don't have The Lord of the Rings open beside your laptop and faithfully copy its characters and story into your own. What you do is you read it, put it on a shelf, and go on to do other things in your life, while what you have read works in the back of your mind, combining with other things you have read, experiences you have had, and knowledge that you have acquired, until an idea of your own grows from all that you are. Similarly, a how-to book should not become a blueprint for your book, but should be considered input.


Use the information in how-to books to identify weak spots in your outline, concept, or draft.

When you are unsure about your characters, or your beta readers have pointed out plot problems and you do not know how to overcome them, read around in some how-to books and see if they can illuminate the problem and suggest a solution.

But remember what you shouldn't do and what you might find helpful, and put the how-to book away before you resume writing.

What you might find even more helpful


Read a lot of what you want to write.

That is, do not (or not primarily) read how-to books, when you want to learn to write, but examples of the kind of text you want to write.


Write the next book.

That is, do not dwell on your first attempt, but rather attempt another.

You learned to speak your mother tongue and ride a bike not from a how-to-speak or how-to-ride-a-bike book, but from observing other speakers and cyclists and trying what you saw on your own. The way that language and skills are taught in school, by memorizing lists of vocabulary and rules of grammar is unnatural and ineffective. Do not use it as a model for learning when you want to acquire a skill on your own. Find a master to observe and practise what you see.


There are a LOT of writing books, and their quality and usefulness (and potential for harm varies greatly). Personally, I've found the following kinds of books most useful:

A) Books on technical aspects of presenting and selling your writing. Writing a book proposal, query letter, or screenplay in the correct and expected format can be a big gatekeeper. Every once in a while, someone will break the rules and make it out of the slush pile that way, but the odds favor doing it the standard way. People are looking for creativity in your writing, not usually in your presentation (unless you're pitching a novelty book). Make sure the (writing) book is current, and that the writer has a track record of success.

B) Writing advice by authors I personally admire. For instance, I constantly refer back to a writing book by Samuel Delany, whom I consider to be a genius. His book is idiosyncratic, his advice is not intended to be followed blindly (or capable of that) and his opinions are controversial. But his insights are amazing. A book like this should be taken with a grain of salt, because otherwise you'll just be imitating the author.

C) Books on structure or themes: These are probably the most "dangerous" in terms of the cookie-cutter effect. But used wisely they can help you tap into themes that people respond to, and to avoid basic structural flaws.

It probably goes without saying, but stay well away from writing/publishing books that are poorly written, or that have authors you've never heard of (and/or no demonstrable expertise in the field). If there's one commonality to good books on writing, it's that they all are well-written and presented. And don't buy a self-published writing book (unless it's actually about self-publishing).

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