Somewhere near bottom would be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this book – remember, it’s still in my favorites pile – but I don’t love it the way others do. I see as it essential reading, but I don’t see it as the Holy Writ of writing guides.
Next up would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir. The first is sharp, winsome, and delightful (I reviewed it here). The second is a gritty, unvarnished look at one man’s journey as a writer. After reading it, I had a deeper appreciation for King’s work and what was behind it.
At the top of my favorites pile would be Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Though not a memoir, it is similar to King’s book in that it addresses not just writing, but the writing life. What sets the two apart is how they approach the subject. King has a treasure trove of wise and insightful observations, but his outlook is pagan, atheistic, and often pretty bleak. Wilson’s is staunchly Christian to the core.
I don’t care if you plan to make a career of writing, or merely have a passing interest in it – this book should be on your shelf. It’s an immensely rewarding read for those who want to “sling ink” full time, but most of the tips are such that anybody can profit from them.
The book is short – a mere 120 pages – but I think Wilson has inherited Lewis’ ability to pack into one sentence what most writers pack into three or four. He lays out and explains “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to cultivate the wordriht life.
- Know something about the world
- Read mechanical helps
- Stretch your routines
- Be at peace with being lousy for awhile
- Learn other languages
- Keep a commonplace book
I’ve already discussed his advice on keeping a commonplace book and the way he shoots down faux-humility in writing. My favorite tip, however, would have to be the first one: know something about the world.
By this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who smell like libraries. (p. 10)
An apt reminder for those of us who are tempted to think that the writer’s life happens almost exclusively behind closed doors with a stack of paper and a stack of books. As Thoreau put it, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
I’ve read a number of writing books over the past several years, and the two which have taught me the most are Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy and Stephen King’s A Memoir. If you take the whole writing business seriously, I can’t recommend those books highly enough. But there’s another book you should have on your shelf, too – On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I only just discovered it myself, but it already holds a place among my favorites.
This self-proclaimed “informal guide to writing non-fiction” is exactly that – informal. It’s not a textbook, and it doesn’t want to be, which is one the many reasons I enjoyed it so much. Zinsser’s style is warm and honest, his passion for words contagious. Sure, he gets a little cranky now and then (at one point, he calls Ben-Hur “junk”), but it’s clear that he loves writing – and that he wants us to love it, too.
But don’t get the wrong idea: this isn’t a book for “softies”. Mincing words is not Zinsser’s forte, and when he takes a swing at something he considers silly, he usually hits hard (and with stinging accuracy). According to his way of thinking, it’s not enough for you to want to write – you must also want to write well.
This book can help you do just that.
Instead of throwing myself into a detailed explanation of how it can help you – and why you should let it – I think I’ll just step aside and let the author speak for himself. If that doesn’t convince you of the book’s worth, I don’t know what will.
The Chinese Banker by Dustin Hill
A novel of an America ravaged by a Chinese-induced financial crisis. The publisher contacted me last week with a review request, and since conspiracy theories never fail to intrigue me, I figured, Why the heck not? I guess we’ll see if the book is worth its salt.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
“So the books are waiting. Of this you may be confident: they’ll be ready when the whim strikes you.” Has anybody else read this book? The title alone was enough to grab my attention. I like reading about reading, and Jacobs apparently enjoys writing about reading, so it’s a win-win situation. (He’s also the author of The Narnian, a biography of C.S. Lewis which I’d love to get around to one of these days.)
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Finally. Returning to McCarthy’s work is like reuniting with an old and dear friend. The man is a genius, I tell you. The Crossing is the second book in his Border Trilogy, following two teenage boys across the American Southwest and Mexico in the years before WWII. If it’s anywhere near as good as All the Pretty Horses, I’ll be elated.
Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell
A grandly-conceived and elaborately-executed piece of contemporary literature. It is essentially a novel of novellas – a series of loosely connected stories put together like nested dolls. Mitchell’s writing is fabulous, his ability to dance from genre to genre wildly entertaining. I’m just over half-way through it: here’s hoping the final act is as satisfying as the first.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
I’ve been told this is one of those can’t-miss books for writers. As I dig deeper into it, I can see why. This guy knows his stuff, and I’m more than ready to listen. For instance, he says, “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it – there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces a total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.” YES.
What’s on your bookshelf right now?