Six Books on Writing, Worth Reading

When preparing to write something, especially a large project like a novel, there’s a tendency to do everything in your power to procrastinate before typing those first few words.  What if the first sentence is awful, generic, cliché or plagiarized?  What if that very first paragraph stares back at you from the amidst the glow of open Firefox and iTunes windows, well-constructed, without any visible flaws, but the subtext reads “you should have gone to law school.” One of the best alternatives to actually plowing through and moving on, is reading one of the many books out there on how to write books.

Even more than I’m an expert on the The Freelance Life, I’m an expert on procrastinating, in particular, procrastinating in ways that I can qualify as being constructive.  As a result, I’ve read at least 75 percent of the books available on the subject of writing. Most of them are a waste of time. Some of them are self-help books disguised as books on the craft.  Some of them are obvious money grabs without a drop of cull-able wisdom.  The books listed below, though, I recommend to anybody with an interest in writing. If you find yourself dazzled by the cover of some book that promises hours of dutiful procrastination, feel free to follow me on Twitter @jonreiss or ask about it in the comments section below, because there’s a good chance I’m acquainted with it.  However, the following reading list should give you more than enough time to come to terms with whatever anxiety lurks within your laptop.

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
Own this.  Own two of these.  Take one everywhere you go.  If, within a year it’s not beaten and worn like an old bedtime t-shirt, you’re not using it right.  This book may not at first seem like a fun read, but with time, the whimsicality and wit behind many of the examples within the book will grow on you.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
I’ve read a bit of Grendel, but that’s all of John Gardner’s fiction I’m acquainted with.  Honestly, after reading this book, I’m not so sure I’d want to read his fiction, because it’s dense, and often tiresome.  However, there are nuggets in this book about the nature of storytelling and the structure of fiction that will stay with you, and for these nuggets, it’s worth panning your way through this book.

3. On Writing by Stephen King
I think a lot of writers who take themselves seriously are apt to not be very forthcoming about this book and how much they probably like it.  This is just a guess, but after some needling I’ve learned that nearly every writer I know has read it at some point and either secretly or not so secretly enjoyed it.  King’s voice is just so charming and self-assured that it’s hard not enjoy the time you spend with him reading this book.  He talks about some big subjects here: what fiction is (ESP apparently), what the life of a writer is like,  but he navigates these paths as well as any author I’ve come across.  I recommend, if you are indeed procrastinating, that you skip the first half of this book.  Read it later for pleasure. The second half is where he gets into the bigger questions and where he delivers some of the smaller, more tangible chestnuts.

Note: I recommend buying the audio book version of On Writing. King himself reads it, bringing the words to life more so than any actor could have, and this way you can read it in transit and begin to narrate the world around you.

4. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Here’s the truth: If you’re a struggling writer, reading fiction is the best use of your reading time, much more worthwhile than reading books on how to write.  This book delves into some of the best examples of the craft in modern fiction and breaks down why and how they work.  It also focuses on the idea of making every word count–writing great sentences and great paragraphs before writing great stories.  It’s a book that belongs, as much as any, in your procrastination curriculum.

5. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
This is a lukewarm recommendation, because you don’t really need this book.  It’s more of a self-help book geared toward writers than a book on the craft but if you’re just not ready to jump in yet, or if you really respond to this sort of thing, then, why not?  There are some nuggets and quotables that will likely to make an impression on you.

Note: If you’re really into the touchy-feely, who am I and what does it all mean? stuff, The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield is likely to satiate your reading time in between colonics.

6. Building Better Sentences by Brooks Landon
While this selection is not a book, I recommend for these purposes more than any of the books above, save for The Elements of Style.  The sad truth is that during the past few decades, grammar has been phased out of the public school curriculum.  As a result there are lot of people who do go into the work force that don’t got no good language capabilities.  As such, many writers I know, myself included, end up teaching themselves grammar either during or after their undergraduate, and have no sense of what makes up a good sentence.  Even most writing professors pre-MFA level workshops don’t focus on such things.  This course is available for $35 at the above link and I consider it truly worthwhile.  Don’t try to breeze through it. Listen to it over the course of two or three months and take notes. If you stick with it, you’re writing will vastly improve, and you’ll likely want to re-approach anything you’ve written in the past with your new, keener eye for sentence construction.

7 Comment

  • Friends don’t let friends get mixed up by Strunk & White. It’s outdated, inconsistent, needlessly peevish, and often just plain wrong. It contributes to an educational culture wherein people mistake existentials for passives, wouldn’t recognize a subjunctive to save their life, and are inchoately afraid of split infinitives in the same way some people are afraid of spiders or clowns. Just Say No. (cf. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/index.php?s=strunk+%26+white)

  • Interesting Sam. What do you recommend as a non web-based alternative?

    • Your own intuitions about the English language as a native speaker? Sharing your writing in groups and online, appreciating and absorbing criticism? Good writing has very little to do with what’s considered “proper English,” unless you’re writing for a specific audience/under specific guidelines (MLA, APA, etc.)

      • Sure. But sometimes you just want to read a book and reinforce certain things. Also, many young people graduate school with little or no grammar in their toolboxes. While i consider reading these books for the most part procrastination, a way to put off actually writing or reading actual fiction, some of them I’m incredibly grateful to have read. Reading Like A Writer and On Writing introduced me snippets from authors with a stylistic approach I was completely unacquainted with. Building Better Sentences taught me to actually think about sentences, how they look, sound and function. Proper English having little to do with any of it. Like any craft, nothing can trump actual experience, but the notes and wisdom of veterans can be incredibly useful.

  • I have to disagree with you Sam. The amount of high school and even college grads with absolutely no sense of grammar and nonetheless aspirations to write is staggering. Having read my fair share of slush, you’d be amazed how many manuscripts get tossed after a few pages because the author has no sense of how the language works or no regard for the rules.
    Also, On Writing is fun and inspiring
    Elements is as good a style manual as there is.
    and I haven’t read the rest, but now I will

  • S&W are being painted as such sticks in the mud- and I don’t think that’s the case. Check this out, Sammy: http://nyti.ms/aWwCnv Outdated? Hardly. Seems more applicable than ever. Grammar grouches should read- YOU ARE WHAT YOU SPEAK by Lane Greene.

  • October Light is a work of genius. Try Gardner again.