The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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D-I-Ys or “do-it-yourself” manuals are a mammoth industry. D-I-Ys could be about anything: fixing a car, first-aid tips “When There’s No Doctor”, household chores, physical fitness or cookery titles and so on. Not so conspicuous is the vast range of “how to write” manuals that extends all the way from postgraduate degrees in creative writing to writing for specific markets like advertisements, drama,television serials, and so on.

Throw in writing circles, mass communication and journalism departments and you have an awful lot of people eager to improve their writing skills. A huge market exists, but do they benefit from their efforts' Academic opinion says not much. There is no objective formula for a prize-winning novel or any other literary masterpiece. The art of stringing together the best possible words in the best possible order cannot really be taught; it must come from within. What makes one writer in a thousand click cannot be explained — much less taught.

Malcolm Bradbury, one of the pioneers of creative writing courses, put it simply: “The essential qualities needed by the writer are independent of anything that can be taught…Writing is a solitary, obscure, frequently disappointing way of pursuing a life, and it must be driven by a profound commitment… And since a form of exploration and discovery, there must be an instinct to discover and explore the world and human nature.”

Yet there are basics of narrative and dialogue that may be learned. The nuances of language may be taught by analysing sentence structures, and developing sentences into paragraphs. Artists, composers and actors have special schools where they can benefit from the experience of mentors and be inspired by peers. Why not writers'

This argument is taken further: “If imagination cannot be taught, the craft of writing can be taught.” A working distinction has to be drawn here between the art, and the craft that D-I-Y manuals teach. Art is a slippery word, subject to many definitions, while craft is a homely word that holds you to the thing and to the manner of its making. “The whole of the matter has to be contained in the finished form of the thing and that was fashioned from by the craft.”

Writing manuals stress on the craft. For, the story (it could be a novel or a simple story) is a complex form and its making, a complex process. The ways of putting across a story can be learned by analysing the work of others, especially the great practitioners. “The complicated history of narrative and its various forms and possibilities have to become an instinctive part of the repertory of the serious writer. And this is an important part of the business of teaching,” says Bradbury.

In other words, D-I-Y manuals tell you to read — all provide copious reading lists and extensive extracts — and then write. Especially the latter. To illustrate, one of the manuals tells this story of the American Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, who, after a few drinks, asked a group of incipient writers at a university seminar: “Hands up all those who want to be writers.” A forest of hands waved back at him. “Then why the hell aren’t you at home writing,” he demanded and staggered from the room.

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