An Ode to “How-To” Books

DSC_0517Most of my work involves writing and editing instructions — otherwise known as “how-to” books and articles. When telling people this, I used to feel a quiet inferiority.

This was especially true when I talked to “creative writers”— novelists, short story writers, and poets. When in the presence of people who were attempting vast and profound narratives, I felt almost embarrassed about writing how-to materials. They smacked of something utilitarian, “vocational,” and pedestrian — the artistic equivalent of working the night shift at a convenience store.

Well, I no longer feel that way. And if you’re writing a how-to book, you don’t have to, either. Following are three good reasons.

Timeless Usefulness

The label “how-to” can apply to instructions for doing anything that human beings consider intrinsically valuable. We can write instructions for ways to create health, wealth, happiness, knowledge, love, and even enlightenment. In fact, many best-selling nonfiction books are about these topics.

For example, one of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was written by Robert Pirsig, a former technical writer (creator of instructions). This is a riveting book about how to cultivate Quality, how to stay sane, how to love your children, and how to realize your inherent peace of mind. To me, large sections of this book still stand as models of instructional writing.

We can take this up a notch and even say that society hinges on giving and receiving instructions. As Richard Saul Wurman points out in his book Information Anxiety:

You could argue that the motivation of all communication is the giving and receiving of instructions. Certainly the sum total of activity in the workplace involves the giving and receiving of instructions. As parents we are synonymous with instructors. And even in our social relations, we are communicating or “instructing” our friends and relatives as to our thoughts and concerns.

Beauty

“How-to” books can be beautiful as well as useful. Have you ever read a set of instructions that helped you accomplish a task and did so without a needless word or an unnecessary step? This sparseness can evoke the simplicity and grace of a painting by Mark Rothko, a haiku by Han Shan, or a jazz guitar solo by Jim Hall.

Market Demand

The market for instructional books — shelved under the how-to, business, and self-help sections of your local bookstore — far exceeds the demand for literary fiction and poetry. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy fiction and poetry as much as anyone else. But if you want to earn money from writing and editing books, then “how-to” literature offers its own practical rewards.

In short, nothing is more important than good instructions. As how-to writers, we are engaged in a vocation that has its own esthetic and satisfies a basic human need. All writing is creative, and our work fuses the practical and the beautiful. We do something unique and useful, and it is a great way to earn a living.