Whenever I read lists of recommended writing books, I’m usually
disappointed to find a roundup of the usual suspects: Stephen King, Ann
Zinsser, and William Strunk. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these writers or their books. They’re all fine. Inspiring, even. Useful.
But I read them all years ago. I’d like some fresh inspiration, thank you very much.
So here’s my list. Five authors you probably haven’t heard of.
Five books that are always filed, ready for action, on my writing
not already in my hands:
1. “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose,”
by Constance Hale.
A grammar book that’s hip—how’s that for a contradiction? People
frequently ask me to recommend books about grammar and this is the title
I suggest. But I
like this book because it covers more than grammar, heading
toward style—and because it’s both funny and flexible. Hale parses
next to Muhammad Ali; she quotes Bob Dylan in her discussion of the verb
“lay” and Dr. Seuss in her examination of rhyme and onomatopoeia.
The book also has the best explanation of who vs. whom I’ve ever seen in
print. (pages 163 to 164.) Hale is a former editor of Wired magazine
author of “Wired Style” a book that Newsweek described as “The Chicago
Manual of Style for the new Millennium”).
2. “Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style,”
by Arthur Plotnik.
This title is not so much a book as it is a daring grudge match against
the writing “Bible” and its authors William Strunk Jr. and the
Written with great wit and divided into eight sections—Flexibility,
Freshness, Texture, Word, Force, Form, Clarity, and Contemporaneity –
Bite” questions the famous duo’s most cherished rules of writing.
Plotnik challenges them with such force and verve that, soon, you will
begin to see dust
motes dancing in the air and cobwebs forming around Strunk’s and White’s
“Spunk and Bite” is not a “how to write” book—it assumes a basic
facility with language—and it’s not a manual, despite its excellent and
thorough index. It is a book filled with wise advice, many
belly laughs, and much inspiration. I re-read it from front to back at
least once a year—and I dip into its
pages from time to time as a way of recharging my writing batteries.
3. “Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method,”
by Gerald M. Weinberg.
Weinberg believes that good material lies all around us and that our job
as writers is to collect it for future use. His central and oddly
metaphor is that writing is like building a fieldstone wall. That is,
you collect “stones” (or stories) as you wander through life and you
save them for
when you might need them for building (writing). The trick, of course,
is to remember to do the collecting and to have a decent retrieval
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Perhaps one question remains: Can a corporate writer use this method,
which might seem a bit airy-fairy? As I read the book, I recalled the
time I had to
write a speech for a certain nameless CEO. He was one of those
impossibly dry individuals, and much as I labored, I couldn’t get
anything but platitudes
from him. The man didn’t have a single story (not even about his kids),
so I peppered his speech with relevant business-related anecdotes I had
my own. I felt like a bit of a failure at the time, but now I realize I
was doing the right thing. Without being conscious of it, I was using
4. “The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life,”
by Julia Cameron.
I never understood the appeal of Cameron’s most successful writing book,
“The Artist’s Way.” But her fame persuaded me to dip into another of
Almost everything about “The Right to Write” (well, apart from its
too-cute title with a missing preposition) is wonderful. Even though
it’s intended for
those who’d prefer to fall on the “creative” side of the writing
equation, it has many tips that all people who put their fingers to the
keyboard can use.
Each of the 43 very short chapters tackles one writing idea and offers
an exercise, which you’re free to ignore. Most of all, Cameron provides a
argument for writing each morning—although I have such unreadable
penmanship I can never bring myself to do it by hand, as she suggests. I also
like the way she argues for the importance of writing, even if it never goes further than your private notebook.
5. “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done,” by Piers Steel.
So many writers suffer from so-called writer’s block that I’m convinced
any book on finding your own motivation is, by definition, a writing
A professor of human resources at the University of Calgary’s school of
business, Piers Steel is the world’s leading research and speaker on the
procrastination. He uses his book to explain why so many of us put off everything (from starting a diet, to doing our taxes, to writing) even when
we recognize the delay will be bad for us.
He shows how some commonly held assumptions (for example, that
perfectionists procrastinate) are simply untrue, and he gives many
useful tips for how we
can mend our shilly-shallying ways. If you want to stop wasting time and
get some writing done right away, this book could be your savior.
about writing can, in itself, be a form of
procrastination. But it’s also instructive, interesting, and inspiring.
Make sure that
from time to time you read a new book about writing—and make it one you
haven’t heard of before.