The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Paperback Writer.


Yesterday I received a nice email from a person whom I’ve never met or spoken with. The person just wanted to let me know that he enjoyed my blog and thought that I was a talented and entertaining writer, and that maybe one day I should consider writing a book on woodworking. I was flattered, and though I’m really not sure if I am a talented writer or not, I did thank him for the compliment and his time.

I’ll give you the plain truth, I don’t know if I’m a good writer, or a bad writer, or even a writer at all. I know a few of the basics tenets of writing. Though I may be just a half Italian, half-Irish thug from North Philly I did take some writing courses in my time; I even once took a basic journalism course. I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and I like to think that I can distinguish good writing from bad writing. I’m not ultra-perceptive; I can read between the lines, but I don’t always see the deep meaning in books and films that those more savvy than I perceive and understand without straining a brain cell. But I do have an opinion, and I know how to express my opinion, and I certainly know how to convey my emotions “on paper” in such a way that leaves no misunderstandings. But whether or not that makes my writing “good” is a question I cannot answer.

Here is what I do know: I don’t have anywhere near the amount of experience needed to write a woodworking book; not even close. Even if I did have that experience, I have no idea what I would write about. But I also know that the writing in the woodworking books I’ve read leaves something to be desired. Some of that writing is nothing more than semi-coherent instructions on how to build a specific piece of furniture. A book with good photos definitely counts for something, in particular when those photos detail a construction procedure such as joinery, but generally they are dull to read. There have been some exceptions. I’ve only read two of Roy Underhill’s books, but I enjoyed them both for the writing. The books by Eric Sloane are usually enjoyable to read as well if you can get past some of Sloane’s preaching, though they technically aren’t woodworking books. This all still leaves me searching for a book that is not only a great woodworking book, but a great read as well.

When all is said and done, I don’t think that magical book exists. I hate to say or admit this, but here goes: Woodworking media is boring. I’ve never “laughed out loud” or “snorted coffee through my nose” when reading a woodworking book, magazine article, or blog, though I have seen many commenters that have claimed to do those things. I can’t say that my writing is any better; I think I’m funny at times; maybe I am, maybe I’m not. But it’s not my goal to make people double over from laughter while reading my blog. Many woodworking writers for some reason think they have to be funny, and there’s nothing worse than an unfunny person who believes that he’s the funniest guy walking.

If I do have a goal when it comes to writing a blog post, it is to present my opinion in my own voice. I write how I speak, and if this blog is entertaining then that is the reason why, because whatever I may be, I am a colorful guy. It’s my belief that most woodworkers that write about woodworking don’t write in their own voice. I think they try to write like “writers”. But I don’t want to read about woodworking from a writer, I want to read about woodworking from a woodworker, in his or her own voice. Does that mean bad grammar and foul language? Not necessarily. But maybe it does mean some honesty, and at that I mean being true to yourself.

But the real question is: Will I or would I ever write a great woodworking book? I can say in all honesty that it will never happen; I don’t have the talent. It doesn’t bother me, though, because I have a lot of company; nobody else has ever written a great woodworking book, either.

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6 Comments

  1. bloksav says:

    Its a tough decision to write or not to write a book.
    I was once tempted to write a small woodworking book, it should be a load of projects that you could make with sheets of plywood and some basic tools + maybe an old engine from a lawn mover.
    Kind of the stuff that was featured in 50’ies or 60’ies Popular mechanics.

    The basic goal for the book should be projects that parents could make with their children, and get both parties away from the TV or computers.
    I might do it one day. The only problem is that I have to build all the project first, to make sure they will work in real life, and not only in my head.

    I agree that woodworking books are rarely funny, but they don’t have to be. I prefer something that is interesting and well written. If I need something to laugh over, I’ll find something else to read. Last time I actually laughed by reading a book was when I read “the 100 year old who climbed out of his window and disappeared”. But I don’t know if it is universally funny, or if it just struck the humour chord in me.

    I like the writings of Kerry Pierce. I have two of his books on Shaker furniture. He writes in a plain and understandable English. One of the good things is that he suggests how to overcome problems by using some everyday things like a deep fryer for a steamer etc.

    Hmm, I guess a lot of this comment is a bit of the topic, but that was just what sprung into my mind reading your blog entry.

    Brgds
    Jonas

  2. billlattpa says:

    I’ve read a fair number of woodworking books, and I’ve found that I prefer the more “technical” writing as opposed to the books that try to be humorous, or too informal. I have two theories on why woodworking books are generally dull. The first is that the best woodworkers suited to writing books aren’t really very good writers, which I mean as no insult, because they are woodworkers and not writers. And the second theory is that woodworking just isn’t a subject that is easy to write about in an interesting way.
    Being that woodworking is generally a dull subject when it comes to the written word, I think a lot of writers try to add humor to it to make it more interesting. The problem is that a lot of the time the humor is forced, and more importantly it usually isn’t all that funny. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read a few articles and such that were moderately funny, but nothing that made me laugh out loud, not even close. Generally, I wouldn’t consider a person being “unfunny” as a character flaw of some kind. But I think when you are writing a woodworking book that is somehow supposed to be humorous, then it better damn well be humorous, because often times that humor is being used to cover up either a dull passage, or the fact that more research should have been done in the first place.
    I’ve read dozens of technical manuals in my life, mostly on electrical work, that had no humor about them, but they managed to convey the information even though they were dull to read. I would rather read a woodworking book that managed to convey information clearly even though it was dull than an unclear book that is supposed to be entertaining. But the truth is that for the most part I haven’t read a woodworking book that has managed to do either.
    Chris Schwarz’s first workbench book was one of the better books in that it was generally enjoyable to read yet managed to convey a lot of good information. Some of the humor I didn’t think was all that humorous, but it was still a good book.
    But I have to think that there is a writer capable of writing a really entertaining book on woodworking that also is a good technical manual. I’ve read books on astronomy that have managed to be both very entertaining and also informative. I hope that one day I can say the same about a woodworking book.
    Thanks.
    Bill

  3. Does that mean bad grammar and foul language? Yes 🙂

  4. dzj9 says:

    Sometimes I think there are more people writing books these days than there are reading them.
    A word of advice to would-be authors: start off by reading the Classical Period, move on to the Medieval, the Enlightenment…and by the time you reach the contemporary stuff, you’ll realize that the stroke of genius you intended to commit to paper was already touched upon. Probably by the Ancient Greeks.

    • billlattpa says:

      There is nothing new under the sun as they say. I just find it funny that when somebody reads or discovers something for the first time they almost always attribute their discovery to the wrong person. For instance, I once saw a commenter attribute a “new” technique, draw boring, to a current woodworker, when drawboring has been in use since Ancient Egypt. As you can imagine, there are thousands of similar examples.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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