Most of us have a collection of “how to” writing books on our shelves. (Heck, my aunt has a closet full, and she doesn’t even write. She just likes reading about writing.) There are certainly a ton of them out there to choose from, everything from craft to the business to getting published to memoirs by writers about their own experiences. A few are useful. For my part, I’ve found that practice usually trumps theory and most of what I’ve learned has been by hard-earned experience. (Maybe that’s why it took me 10 years to get published…) But I appreciate the memoirs. I like comparing my process to others and finding validation that maybe I’m not actually crazy. Occasionally I find a gem and a lightbulb moment.
I encountered Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft when it first came out, about ten years ago now, and I liked it then. It’s a simple, quick read focused on the building blocks of writing — word choice, sentence length and structure, point of view, verb tense — rather than more macro, abstract concepts like character and plot. It includes lots of examples from classic novels to illustrate points, as well as short, useful writing exercises, a paragraph to a page or so long, to help put theory into practice. All in all, this is a practical book.
I’m getting ready to actually teach a workshop, so I re-read Steering the Craft looking for ideas, and I’m once again in awe of the simplicity and back-to-basics approach. While reading, I found myself wondering what bad habits I’ve fallen into and what steps I can take to make my prose more powerful. Le Guin takes common concepts and discusses them at a slightly different angle, bringing new light to them. For example, one chapter is called “Crowding and Leaping,” and it discusses when and how to pack in the information and exposition, and when and how to skip (or leap) and let the reader figure things out.
I’ve definitely learned a lot about writing over the years, but lately I haven’t had much time to think about writing, if that makes sense. The way words work and how good prose comes together. I’m reminded that it’s always worth stepping back and reassessing. Even Olympic marathon runners still need to stretch. Le Guin has opinions, and freely admits they’re opinions, but she also clearly discusses topics like point of view and exposition with the authority of her forty years of fiction and essay writing experience. Take a look, I think you’ll find some ways to steady your own craft.