If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It
August 15, 2008 3 Comments
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.”
- Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Create Wickedly Effective Prose. New York, NY: Broadway Books. 1999. An enjoyable read with wisdom for writing with style. Quote: “Do your child a favor; teach them grammar.”
- 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.”
- Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 6th ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 2001. Various essays by a prolific and versatile scholar. Quote: “Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of your readers.”
- 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.”
- Carroll, David L. A Manual of Writer’s Tricks: Essential Advice for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers. New York, NY: Marlowe & Company. 1995. Like Provost (see above), only different. Quote: “Writers are weavers and sentences are their threads.” When someone sets down something you’ve written and says, “Nice threads,” that’s a compliment to cherish.
- 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).
- Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003. Quote: “Stories and novels don’t get written. They get re-written.” Same goes for good non-fiction.
- 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.”
- George, Elizabeth. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004. Writing is a form of life, but only if you’re a writer. Quote: “What I’ve learned is that for something to give me satisfaction, I must do it well. To do it well, I’ve developed a process that works for me.”
- 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.”
- Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Another editor lifts the veil. Quote: “Your creativity should be expressed through your writing, not your font.”
- O’Conner, Patricia T. Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.1999. All about diction. (I think that’s the right word.) Quote: “Often the unintelligible hides behind the unpronounceable.”
- 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.
- Page, Susan. The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book: Everything You Need to Know in the Order You Need to Know It. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1997. Getting published in twenty steps . . . and plenty of hard work. Quote: “Writing is its own best teacher. You can never learn to write by thinking about writing; you have to write.” Another variation on something every writer says.
- 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.)
- Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1987. Has to be included since it’s on just about everybody’s list. Oh, and it is a classic. Quote: “You cannot move people by a second-hand infection.”
- 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:
- Seech, Zachary. Writing Philosophy Papers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993.
- Vaughn, Lewis. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Watson, Richard A. Writing Philosophy: A Guide to Professional Writing and Publishing. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
- Valeria Maltoni: Book review: On Writing Well (communicatrix.com)
- 10-Point Copy Checklist to Rock Anything You Write and Typo Prize (carriewriterblog.com)
- Zinsser on Friday (theamericanscholar.org)
- Writing Doesn’t Have to Hurt (mindfultimemanagement.com)
- Perfecting Your Prose—Part 1: Richard Lanham and the Paramedic Method
- Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method (three parts; douggeivett.com)