If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It

You want to write but you can get going? Do the next best thing—read about writing. But make sure what you’re reading is written well. This is my list of recommendations for reading that leads to improved writing. This is kind of an annotated bibliography. I include a favorite quote from each item.

My recommendations for that initial investment in a reference library for writers:

  • Boice, Robert, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1990. Written by a psychologist, professor, and productive writer, this book is especially useful to academic writers. Boice will convince you that “a regimen of regular writing, in easy and sequential steps, produces more and better writing than working in frenzied binges.”
  • Hodges, John C., et al. Harbrace College Handbook. 11th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. 1990. Convenient reference work for grammar, punctuation, and style. Quote: “Writing a good sentence is an art, and you can master that art by developing your awareness of what makes a sentence work.”
  • Kane, Thomas S. The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. New York, NY: Berkeley Books, 1988. A favorite of mine and the first book to study. Quote: “In writing, the best technique hides itself.”
  • Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal. 3rd edition. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2003. The book I recommend to all new authors, and return to with every proposal I write. Quote: “If your book will be the essence of what you want to say, then your title will be the essence of that essence” (in a section titled “Titling on Both Sides of Your Brain”).
  • The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The small paperback edition is my favorite for quick reference and has a permanent place on my desk. Quote: “dic-tio-nary . . . a reference book containing words usu. alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses.”
  • Provost, Gary. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. New York, NY: Mentor. 1972. The most concise and inexpensive item on this list. Start here if you’re not sure that you need writing advice. But don’t expect profundity. Quote: “Be a critical reader, and look upon all that you read as a lesson in good writing.”

More recommendations:

  • Atchity, Kenneth. A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write. Rev. ed. New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1986. Will be especially appealing to obsessive-compulsives. Quote: “. . . in order to become productive and professional, your philosophy must be optimism. Unswerving optimism. Or at least optimism with a built-in swerve overdrive.”
  • Barzun, Jacques. Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. 4th ed. New Yor, NY: Quill, 2001. If you’ve read anything by Barzun, you’ll want to read what he has to say about writing. Quote: “There are always too many words at first.” You can say that again.
  • Burchfield, R. W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1996. Quaint, quirky, and sometimes indispensable. Quote: “The word barbarism is commonly, and with strictly logical appropriateness, used to describe words that are badly formed, that is words that are formed in a manner that departs from the traditions of the language concerned.”
  • The Chicago Manual of Style. The University of Chicago Press. Any recent edition. Expensive, and worth just about every penny. Quote: “. . . no query to an author should sound stupid, naïve, or pedantic” (13th edition).
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981. There’s nothing like writing—or trying to write—to feel out of control. Elbow shows how to take back your writing life. Quote: “The worst and most pervasive form of bad writing is some form of hiding or chickening-out.”
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998. Wouldn’t that be nice? Quote: “Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking.”
  • Kaye, Sanford. Writing Under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989. Sound advice for those occasions when you need to get it write, er right, now. Quote: “Writing is generally overkill.” (That was quick.)
  • Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1995. A national bestseller by a bestselling novelist, with a blurb on the back cover that explains the chapter title. Quote: “. . . perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).”
  • Lerner, Betsy. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2000. Better to get an editor’s advice before you write rather than after you write. Quote: “. . . the great paradox of the writer’s life is the time he spends alone trying to connect with other people.”
  • The Oxford English Dictionary, a.k.a., O.E.D. This is a no-brainer . . . especially if you drop it on your head getting it down from the shelf.
  • Rabiner, Susan, and Alfred Fortunato. Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002. Great serious nonfiction happens when fresh arguments and complex ideas are presented simply . . . or something to that effect. Quote: “At the risk of motivating you ad tedium, [we] now repeat for emphasis the most important reason to write a good proposal . . . . It can help you write a better book, a much better book. Nearly as important, a good proposal will allow you to write your better book faster.”
  • Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. The old standby. The New York Times wrote: “Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It’s as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility.” Say what? Didn’t Strunk and White say, “Make every word tell”?
  • Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, 2000. Part of writing with style is coming to grips with its conversational aspect. Quote: “Each time we set down a sentence we must ask ourselves: ‘Now how can I express this more memorably?’” This sentence from Trimble must have worked; after all, I selected it for quotation.
  • Truss, Lynn. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York, NY: Penguin. 2003. An enjoyable read about punctuation—of all things—that made the bestseller list! Quote: “. . . there is only one thing more mortifying than having an exclamation mark removed by an editor: an exclamation mark added in.” (If it’s so mortifying, I wonder, why didn’t Lynn Truss punctuate that sentence with a question mark. Oops, I forgot the question mark.)
  • Zinsser, William. Writing to Learn. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1988. Specific advice for writing about all sorts of things you don’t know yet. Quote: “. . . we write to find out what we know and what we want to say.”

Additional recommendations for philosophy students:

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Makes sense, TS. And we agree on the virtues of On Writing Well.

    A major reason why I blog is to practice my writing about things outside my discipline, to improve my writing one word at a time. I aim for this with every blog entry. That includes the present one about reading about writing. It’s never just about typing, or having a blog presence.

    I also write for my students, who are compelled to improve their writing as they plan for continued graduate research. Many of my posts are answers to questions they’ve asked. They can now get answers to some of these questions here. And so can others, if it’s what they’re looking for.

    Thanks for dropping in. And thanks for commenting. I hope you’ll be back.

    PS: You’re right. There’s too much to read. But only in a qualified sense. In another sense there can never be too much good stuff to read—just not enough time.


  2. TS Gordon says:

    Actually there is just too much to read. I think I will stick with my 3rd edition of “On Writing Well,” and skip the lessons on grammar!

    (and, yes, I do appreciate all the hard work you did typing all this.)


  3. Your article is very inspired. I have just visited today. Thanks for your great job.


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