Can you write about writing without sounding like a tool?

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An increasingly popular topic (and, arguably, increasingly popular faux pas) is writing about writing. Now, there are certain people who can and should write about writing. For example, when a Doug Wilson or Stephen King writes about writing, it’s going to be worth reading. Why? Because they have wisdom to impart that’s based upon decades of experience.

But most of us aren’t these men. We lack experience and are short on wisdom. So when we write about writing, it’s usually about stuff like calling and destiny and dreams and such things. But writing this way has an unfortunate side effect: more often than not, we come across a bit pretentious.

While sometimes we might feel as though “here I write, I can do no other,” when you actually say it, it just sounds kind of, well, dumb.

So is there a way to write about writing without sounding like a tool? Sure.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Don’t write about it often. Let’s just be honest: the best kind of writing about writing is the kind that doesn’t happen too often. (And as a friend pointed out recently when curmudgeoning about this very subject, it’s telling that few exceptional writers actually write about it at all. Instead they just write. That’s good advice for us all.)

2. Keep it practical. If you’ve been reading helpful books on writing, like Wordsmithy, On Writing, How to Write Short, or even Bird by Bird (though I’m not a huge fan of Anne Lamott’s style), write about that. If you actually learned something useful while working on a big project (like a book), share something like that every once in a while.

3. Keep it honest. An example will be helpful here: Every time I’ve been asked about why I started writing, I’ve said the same thing: I started writing out of pure desperation. It wasn’t a perceived calling. I didn’t have a fire in my bones or any such thing. I was thrown into a writing job and needed to figure out how to not suck at it. When I say “keep it honest,” that’s what I’m talking about.

And that’s pretty much it. If you write about writing and don’t want to sound like a tool keep it practical, keep it honest and don’t do it very often.

Unless I’m wrong, in which case you’re on your own.

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  • nmcdonal

    The key to writing about writing without being a tool is this: don’t be a tool in the first-place.
    Also, if I hear one more person say how much they love Doug Wilson’s unnecessarily obscure, stream-of-consciousness unorganized bull-crap which he apparently thinks is high-quality writing, I think I’m going to scream.
    It’s an evangelical case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Yeah, it generally helps not to be a tool in the first place. But accidents happen…

      I get the disagreement over recommending Wilson. I do enjoy his work (although I think he needs an editor), mostly because it’s fun for me to read, but I might be odd. Anyone you’d recommend in place of him, not necessarily someone who has written on writing, just someone you enjoy what and how they write?

      • nmcdonal

        Well, I guess I should qualify my sharp dislike of Wilson by saying: writing is in some measure subjective, right? I like people I like, and you like others.
        I think F. Scott Fitzgerald embodies what an American writer ought to sound like – personal, poignant, vivid, clear and concise. For what an American in the 21st century ought to sound like, John Green is a genius. For somewhere in between, Flannery O’Connor is a master. Sinclair Lewis has a great, creative and properly chosen vocabulary. For fun – the short stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are amazing. Humor – P.G. Wodehouse Douglas Adams and A.A. Milne. Storytelling – the masters: C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and Roald Dahl. For penetrating insights and profound characters, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. T.S. Elliot for amazing word usage and depth of Christian insight – unbeatable, for language.
        For non-fiction, I’d say R.C. Sproul is underrated as a writer. He’s great. He’s like J.I. Packer, but with imagination. A.W. Tozer is great, but again, he lacks imagination. C.S. Lewis is unbeatable for non-fiction, but not to be copied – he spoke in conversational high-brit tones, and his stuff is a little dense for the common person today. Same with Chesterton. Ralph Waldo Emerson has mastered the essay, but of course, it’s all secular-humanist garbage. The sermons of Jonathan Edwards read like high-quality essays: organized imagination. Brilliant.
        And, always read Shakespeare – cliché, but true.
        And still so much to explore…

  • Matthew

    I’ve written about writing a couple of times on my blog recently. But it’s not about writing in and of itself… more what I’ve learned about myself since I’ve started writing.

  • Amber

    I think there should be a response post to Piper’s entitled, “Can you write about not writing without sounding like a jackass?”

    I have at various times said that I have written because I felt a fire in my belly. I don’t say it lightly and I don’t usually talk (write) like this. It’s me being honest. (Note: I don’t always feel that way. Right now the only thing in my belly is a peanut butter waffle.) But there have been times when I genuinely believe God gave me an unstoppable desire to write and I believe he has used that. In my mind, that isn’t pretension, it’s an honest, beautiful piece of my life that I haven’t experienced in the same way in any other area of life. God might use others in various ways – as counselors, as nurses, as teachers – and I doubt we would forbid them to speak of their experience lest they sound pretentious and make us “gag.”

    I don’t think you have to have decades of writing experience to write on the craft. That sounds elitist to me. Am I Stephen King? No. But as a lover of words, I naturally turn ideas over in my mind and want to process and explore them in the way that I think best – in writing.

    I’m going to go eat my feelings in the form of another peanut butter waffle now.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      As someone who knows you, Amber, pretentious is the not a word that I connect with you in any way, shape or form.