Has the art of writing become a dirty secret?

Has the art of writing become a dirty secret?

Why is writing no longer considered an art form? When did writing a novel, the study of grammar or the craft of copy writing become separated from the broader creative arts — even literature itself?

Because if you were to go into certain bookshops these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the creation of all those books was a guilty secret. It’s as if booksellers want us to believe all those thousands of books on the shelf somehow appeared as part of a highly innovative breeding program between some trees and a sex coven of typewriters.

Well, that’s the only (rather whiskey-addled) reason I can think of.

Case in point: I entered a major book store in Sydney on the lookout for anything of interest to a wordsmith like myself. (Yeah, I read about sentence structure for fun. Deal with it.)

The screenwriting section was huge as usual, with untold books on everything from screenplay structure to scene format to advice on selling scripts. Next to it was a mountain on poetry, literary criticism and more. Behind me was shelf upon shelf of classic literature. Next to that was a section containing dictionaries and reference works of all kinds. Surely within reach would be a decent volume on the structure of the novel, modern word usage or how to get a book published or…

But no. I wandered the shelves for ten minutes, convinced I was overlooking something. When I relented and asked an assistant, he pointed to the other end of the store. As far away from the sections mentioned above as it was possible for a bookcase to be, was a small, untidy and forgotten shelf next to the store manager doing his accounts in a makeshift office. Clearly this was a part of the store not usually visited and he seemed almost surprised as I browsed the shelf. Here was Robert McKee’s Story, Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words and the usual Dummies Guide… to everything from speech writing to authoring children’s books.

And then a few days later — another major bookseller, another frustrating search. Again, on asking the shop assistant, he indicated the opposite end of the shop from all the other creative arts and literary sections. “It’s down there next to Animals and Wildlife.”

Does that mean dog lovers have better grammar than the rest of us? Why is screenwriting always awarded a massive section to itself while writing the novel, journalism and more are hidden away? It’s not hard to find the books on how to paint, act, play music or knit tea cosies, prominently displayed with handy signage.

Why are book stores laid out and sign posted so that it is easier to find a book on goat husbandry than it is to find Strunk and White’s Element of Style?


  1. David Crossfield says

    Great to see you back – I’d been missing your blogs, (even those that were a bit too marketing technical for me) and thought you must be brewing something up! As for my own book-chasing, you don’t find “How language works” in many local Charity bookstores – but I did find Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” recently – must now find the time to read it, instead of the books Sue gets from her book club (both titles I picked up from you two visits ago). Right – “Sentence structure” – something I need to improve; Strunk and ~White, here I come.

    • Kimota says

      Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is considered the classic and the essential book for students of writing. However, it is about 50 or 60 years old now so is rather dry and in some places archaic.

      On the day in question in the blog post, I eventually bought the new book How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One by Stanley Fish released last year and was a New York Times bestseller.

      I didn’t find it in either of the bookshops mentioned above but at Gleebooks near where I live in Glebe, which has a great writers section.

      Now I’ve just got to find time to read it.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    I’ve shared your experience so many times. I’m a book lover – and I particularly love bookstores – but I’ve given up. I got straight to Amazon for the writing books I want including things like dictionaries and thesauruses. It’s a crying shame if you ask me.

  3. I too have noticed the difference between the number of screenwriting books as compared to novel writing books that are available in bookstores, although the irony never occurred to me until you pointed it out. I’m going to grin at that for the rest of the day.

    I recently visited a huge bookstore in Kuala Lumpur which had several shelves of books on writing. By the time I’d read all the titles I was completely overwhelmed with choice! Perhaps booksellers know that if there are too many titles, writers won’t be able to pick which ones to buy and will clog up that section of the store.

    • Kimota says

      I agree that too much choice can sometimes prevent action. But then that would also be true of most sections of the bookstore. How do you choose the right crime novel from ten shelves heaving with murderous pages? Recommendation, reviews and reputation (oooh, I just created a ‘three Rs’ rule there… did you see? Did you?).

  4. Thank goodness for Amazon. I found a copy of Strunk and White easy to obtain from them, but can you browse through the shelves at Waterstones to find it?

  5. I’ve been tapping into the public library system for books lately. It’s just like said Amazon but you don’t have to spend precious money!

  6. Sorry, but THIS will not be one of your must have’ writing reeerencfs, I’m afraid. More of a counter-point, actually.If you’re writing for hire (as I know you are), court transcripts, technical documents, textbooks, legal documents, contracts, Fortune 500 marketing stuff, or for a multi-national company, you simply MUST follow accepted styles and rules (in all languages).It’s something we must suffer through, as the party of the first part, hereinafter referred to as TPOTFP ‘ Yawn.Have anyone ever ACTUALLY READ ALL the terms and conditions before clicking I Agree’ to be able to post a comment on any popular website? It’s sad when you need a lawyer seated next to you to tell you if it’s really OK to click Agree’!Why? Because the language of contracts is stuff written to win court cases and arbitration hearings, not something written in common usage to actually inform people of their rights.( You really don’t have any rights here. They’re all reserved for us, the megacompany who hired the megalawfirm to encode and enforce these rights, using text so small and sentence structure so dense that it makes black holes look positively transparent. If you don’t like it, LEAVE! There are about 2 billion other people who aren’t so picky and will simply click I Agree’ without reading further! )Yet MY most entertaining reads and listens’ are the things (not always fiction, and not always read for pleasure) written by authors and artists, skilled and unskilled, who violated the rules : often intentionally; some, because they predated standards’ like the spellings standardized by Webster; some who didn’t know; and some simply didn’t care!Thomas Jefferson wrote something about Declarative sentences, I think;James Whitcomb Riley Indiana poet and acknowledged, uh, tippler;Samuel Clemens captured the dialects and lifestyle of people living on and along the Mississippi (and of course many other peoples and places); andMany songwriters of my generation. Some were high on life, and others were just high. 4 Dead in Ohio, hastily written in anger by Neil Young and recorded by CSNY following the Kent State tragedy became an anti-war anthem of my generation.I trained in education and the visual arts in college. I’m a very visual person: If a page LOOKS interesting, it is more inviting to the reader. Even in manual typewriter days, I used ALL CAPS, overstriking to BOLDFACE words, and underlining for emphasis. I fractured sentences and punctuation, phrases, and paragraphs to create segments text of varying lengths, so that the reader was visually stimulated by the appearance of the page. (Oh yeah. The writing had to make sense. Good graphical structure doesn’t make up for poor writing!) And I ghost-wrote a few papers in college for friends. My ghostly work received a B+ or better. Even for classes I’d never taken.You can imagine how excited I was in the early 1980 s to get a microcomputer and embrace CP/M and WordStar, MS-DOS and WordPerfect, then Windows, Aldus PageMaker, and Word.It all began in high school. With a last-minute schedule change, I managed to avoid the dreaded Honors’ senior English course taught by the old strict authoritarian and instead got the regular’ senior English course taught by a (very brave!) first-year teacher with a playful understanding of teaching, learning, and the power of words.She encouraged our off-the-wall and out-of-box reading, thinking, acting, and wordplay.For example, instead of reading and analyzing and memorizing and regurgitating Shakespeare on tests, we simply acted out Macbeth in class, with short hilarious scenes that I still vividly remember. Truly, Mrs. B. empowered us to explore and enjoy our words. Even when we MUST Follow The Rules .So, I’ve deliberately played with words and styles and rules for the last 45 years (out of almost 60) as I continue to develop my own writing scheme that I affectionately call Eloquent BS’.I’ve volunteered my time the last decade or so, using my words for good to advance causes and organizations I’m passionate about in my community.- rewriting organization constitutions for a church and another non-profit- restructuring a community leadership program and curriculum- fundraising brochures and letters for my church capital campaign- creating marketing materials for a local food pantry and poverty outreach- transcribing meeting minutes and official correspondence for a low-cost housing initiative- creating and presenting marketing materials for a community theatreMay peace and good wording be upon you!