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.”
From Douglas Wilson:
We all know the type. Somebody gets up to sing for the church dinner and spreads out a safety net for himself before singing one note. “I am sorry about this… haven’t had any time to practice this week… just getting over a cold.. was only asked to do this at the last minute.” When this goes on for a bit, the sentiment of the audience soon becomes, “Then why didn’t you say no?”
My father-in-law actually lists this one among his pet peeves. One time, many years ago, during his career as an Air Force pilot, he was attending a banquet at which a junior officer got up to address a room full of brass. He began his talk with the disclaimer, “You know, there are a whole lot of people who know a whole lot more about this subject than I do,” and my father-in-law slumped. But then the young man continued, “but I don’t see any of them here.” My father-in-law perked right up and was prepared to listen to someone who was clearly ready to be there. (Wordsmithy, p. 91)
It’s tempting sometimes to mistake faux-humility for openness to criticism. In reality, the two couldn’t be more different. Openness to criticism is a readiness to learn from those who aren’t as thrilled with our work as we are. Faux-humility is just pride by another name.
The maxim “think before you speak” applies to writing, too. Instead of peppering your article with excuses, stop and think before you ever lay a finger on the keyboard. Ask yourself: do I have something to say? And more importantly, should I be saying it? If the answer is yes, proceed. Say what you’ve got to say, and when you’re done, shut up.
What you should not do is say something and then nullify it with needless remorse. In the first place, it goes against Christ’s exhortation to “let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.” In the second place, it takes the punch right out of your writing. You bob and weave, like a decrepit prizefighter, unable to effectively make your point. As a result, you begin to lose credibility with the reader – he doesn’t know if he can take you seriously because he doesn’t know if you take yourself seriously. Keep it up, and you’re bound to lose him altogether.
And who’s to blame him? Why listen to somebody who constantly apologizes for what they’re saying, what they’ve said, or what they’re about to say? That kind of writer never inspires confidence in the reader – and frankly, he doesn’t deserve any.
“Openness to criticism is not the same as apologizing for breathing,” Wilson goes on to say. “If you shouldn’t be there, don’t be there. If you shouldn’t have written it, then delete the file. Nobody will care. But if you should be there, if God has called you to the writing life, then put it out there and offer no apologies for having done so.”
Now have at it.
Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life is Douglas Wilson’s latest contribution to the bookworm’s universe; it’s also to one of the gifts I received for Christmas. Awesome. And while I may give it a more in-depth review at some point in the future, my verdict (in a nutshell) is this: it’s phenomenal.
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 might be specifically targeting those who want to “sling ink” full time, but many of the tips are ones which anybody can profit from.
In his pithy little book, Wilson lays out and explains what he terms “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to learn the wordriht life. One of those tips is to keep a commonplace book.
Interestingly enough, a commonplace book is where you get to keep uncommon tidbits.
Write down any notable phrases that occur to you or that you come across. If it is one that you have found in another writer, and it is striking, then quote it, as the fellow said, or modify it to make it yours. If Chandler said that a guy had a cleft chin you could hide a marble in, that should come in useful sometime. How could it not come in useful? If Wodehouse said somebody had an accent you could turn handsprings on, then he might have been talking about Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Tinker with stuff. Get your fingerprints on it…
The writer’s life is a scavenger’s life. A little here and a little there, diligently pursued, and pretty soon you have a lot to work with. When you come across a striking phrase (and if you are reading properly this will happen a lot), make a note of it. Use it yourself in conversation. If there is no opportunity to use it in conversation, or in something you are writing, then you need not worry because you wrote it down in your commonplace book. You can always use it later. (pp. 107-108)
Before I read this, I already had a commonplace book. Sort of. Except I used mine to record clever, inspirational, or provocative quotes from men like Teddy Roosevelt and G.K. Chesterton.
That’s all well and good, of course; I still have that book and I still plan to use it. Nevertheless, Wilson’s advice set me thinking, and I soon resolved to start another commonplace book – one dedicated entirely to gathering fodder for my own wordriht life.
I’m glad I did. As of right now, this second commonplace book is not even a week old, and I can already see its usefulness.
One of the things I happen to be reading at the moment is Cherie Priest’s award-winning novel Boneshaker. It’s excellent: one of those books that propels you onward with its gripping plot, while simultaneously tempting you to savor its finely-polished prose. Having established that I wanted to catch the “table-scraps” of other, better writers, I began paying more attention to fragments and phrases that struck me as particularly neat or creative.
“He finished chasing her words with his pencil…”
“The contents of his stomach threatened an escape attempt.”
“The shift from grim, watery daylight to full-on night was sudden and loud.”
“The investigating motion of her swinging boots pushed it aside…”
“… the clattering calamity of her descent…”
“Rudy slipped up behind the smaller man, seized him, and wiped the sharp edge of the blade across his throat…”
“… the chattering patter of conversation…”
“… a drip of water would ping and splash its way to the earth.”
Pretty cool, huh? Some of those phrases may not strike you as anything special, but they caught my eye and I wrote them down. Just in case. Just in case…
“When I was teaching writing – and I still say it – I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading. Reading critically, noticing paragraphs that get the job done, how your favorite writers use verbs, all the useful techniques. A scene catches you? Go back and study it. Find out how it works.” – Tony Hillerman