Great Books to Keep You Writing
Learn Your Craft and Be Inspired
For us writers there isn’t much to do these days but read and write – and that’s a good thing! But how do we stay inspired when we can’t even go out and grab a coffee much less change our writing venue beyond moving to another room in our house?!
I have been writing for over a dozen years and have accumulated tons of books about the craft and how to carry it off successfully. Tired of writing and needing a break from reading – I spent a few hours today sifting through my stacks for books I liked the most – ones I have found not only inspiring when I am stuck but also useful when I need an answer to a grammar or usage question.
My first recommendation is a book not exactly about writing but a thoughtful read for those of us who practice journalism – The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm.
Published first in the New Yorker magazine in 1989, her lengthy essay examines the relationship between a journalist and her/his subject. She writes about a lawsuit against author Joe McGinniss who wrote the book Fatal Vision back in 1983. Jeffrey MacDonald, a medical doctor and Green Beret, hired McGinniss to write the story of his trial on charges that he killed his wife and two daughters.
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice
what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.
He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity,
ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them
without remorse,” Malcolm writes in her opening passage.
Ouch!! I read the book a few years after it came out when I was a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun. I remembered reading Fatal Vision when it first was published and came away with the conclusion that MacDonald was definitely guilty. Reading Malcolm’s piece made me examine how I went about getting people to tell me their stories and then writing them. If you really want to understand the controversy and come to your own conclusion, read Fatal Vision then dive into Malcolm’s piece.
My next recommendation is a classic – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont. I keep this volume on my desk – I find comfort in opening it up to random chapters like “Shitty First Drafts” – something that Anne says every writer is familiar with. Several years ago, when I read the book from start to finish I felt like I had been talking with an old friend about life or an encouraging mentor about writing. Lamont is both funny and wise.
I am trying to include here books for different kinds of writing and Content Rules – How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business by Ann Handley has been a great help to me as I began writing for business webpages and then in starting my blog.
I believe Handley has as at least a bit of a background in journalism because she really understands the importance of keeping language simple enough that a mere human (like me and you!) can understand.
I loved her story called “Eighteen Business Buzzwords We Need to Ban Because They Make Us Sound Like Tools,” --- it is very funny and so true!
Her book is full of direction and advice about finding your voice, attracting the right audience and creating non-marketing sounding content. She has a second book – Everyone Writes – that is good for the nuts and bolts of writing.
Another book I keep on my desk is Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.
There are many editions of this book and I recommend sticking to the fourth edition for the book’s truest form. Yes, many years have passed since the book was published by Strunk in 1918, and then revised by White in 1959, but it is not outdated. Much of the advice is repeated in other books but this slim volume is the go-to source for advice like:
“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and
sometimes nauseating. If the sickly-sweet word, the overblown phrase
are your natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, you
will have to compensate for it by a show of vigor…”
And of course his most famous advice -- omit needless words – which I need not repeat here as I have written it in a previous post and it is self-explanatory!
A dog-eared copy of the most recent edition of the AP Stylebook also resides on my desk.
I came up as a newspaper writer and this book has always been with me ensuring that I am following a consistent set of rules for capitalization, spelling out numbers as well as some punctuation and usage rules. It also has a short section on media and copyright laws that serves as a useful reminder for those of us who in the news business.
Next to Strunk and my AP Stylebook, I keep On Writing Well by William Zinsser nearby. Zinsser’s book is a classic guide to writing non-fiction that I read in college and often go back to it for inspiration and a dose of humor.
I especially love his story of going to speak to a group of students about the job of being a writer. Also invited was a surgeon who wrote stories part-time after putting in a long day at the hospital. The surgeon was “dressed in a bright red jacket, looking vaguely bohemian, as authors are supposed to look….He said (writing) was tremendous fun…and the words just flowed. It was easy.”
In a dry humorous tone, Zinsser told the class that writing was not at all easy and the words rarely flowed! Don’t we all know it!
Next up is The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. I was given this book while attending the non-fiction writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University and I completely fell for it. Gornick, whose 1987 memoir, Fierce Attachments , is an absorbing read, wrote this little book full of advice on how to cultivate a reliable narrator in non-fiction essays and memoirs. She uses examples of famous writings to teach her readers how to read, write and recognize the truth when we come upon it.
On the shelf next to my desk is a copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Like Lamont’s book, I like to pick this up and read random passages for inspiration.
“If every time you sat down to write you expected something great
you would always be disappointed,” she writes.
Oh, thank God! It does not have to be perfect the first time around!! YAY! Just reading that line lowers my stress level and gives me permission to do as Lamont suggests, write “Shitty First Drafts”!
And finally, if you want to take a dive into grammar, besides the obvious choice of Grammar Girl, there is a nicely written book by Constance Hale called Sin and Syntax. I found it recently while roaming the stacks in my local bookstore. Normally I am terrified of grammar – well more accurately terrified of making some kind of embarrassing grammar mistake – but her voice and writing style reassured me that I could understand sentence diagrams and gerunds!
She also has written another book – Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing – that I also picked up and have enjoyed reading.
Meanwhile I have two other books that are in the “to read” pile next to my desk – Stephen King’s On Writing and Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark – both books have gotten great reviews and as soon as I finish this post I am going to pick one and start reading!