The book you don’t read won’t help.
– Jim Rohn
Below is a list of books you should read if you’re serious about writing and editing. Not all of them, but some of them at least.
If you write for any part of their job or are pursuing creative writing as a hobby or career – and especially people who are copywriters or editors by trade – need to invest some time in reading a few books on the subject.
Although it sounds absurd, that last category (of copywriters and editors) isn’t just theoretical. I recently interviewed a number of people for a position as a Senior Editor who hadn’t read a single book on the subject.
Not. A. Single. One. Yikes!
Sat across the interview table from these folks, I was utterly perplexed. How could someone who professes to be a master of the written word not have read at least some of the great writing on the topic?
Anyway, without dwelling on that strange discovery, I’ll say that it got me thinking about some great writing books I’ve read.
So I plucked a few off my shelf and made this two-part list. The first part is canonical classics on the topic, and the second is books that are less well known, but no less useful because of that.
Canonical Classics on Writing & Editing
The books in this section are on just about every “Read These #__ Books About Writing and Editing” blog post you can find. For very good reasons.
1. The Elements of Style – This book, by Strunk and White is a sturdy and slender classic on the subject. It’s probably the most famous writer’s bible. Some of the rules included should really be thought of more like guidelines, but, if you’re not looking to split hairs, or dive down a rabbit hole of grammatical minutiae, this is a good place to start. “Omit needless words” is rock-solid writing advice (thought “needless” is really open to interpretation. Also, noted literary wag Dorothy Parker offered this little bon mot: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
2. On Writing – This is as different a book from Elements of Style as you could hope. But dammit if it isn’t highly readable (it is written by Stephen King, after all). The first half is a memoir, and the second half is a toolbox full of useful advice and insights for writers. I actually think it was the first Stephen King book I read, and it reminded me why he’s one of the most popular authors ever: the guy’s a master of his craft.
3. Bird by Bird – I just generally and genuinely love this book by Anne Lamott. It’s a writing book, but it’s also full of advice and anecdotes and is at the same time a personal piece of writing that paints an engaging portrait of Lamott, at the same time as dispensing well-illustrated (and quite funny) advice. Good for when you’re feeling discouraged.
4. The Writing Life – This is a beautiful book, short and spare thoughts on a life lived deep in words and ideas. What Annie Dillard’s slender volume lacks in advice it more than makes up for with beautiful imagery and an unflinching portrayal of a writer’s life.
5. On Writing Well – This book is subtitled “The classic guide to writing nonfiction” and that’s quite an apt summary. Filled with illustrative examples, William Zinsser gets into the nitty-gritty, as well as maintaining a panoramic view. It’s more of a practical handbook than any of the others on this first part of the list.
Excellent additional reads for writers
6. Save the Cat – This is an easy-to-read scriptwriting bible for the aspiring screenwriter. But it’s not only useful for screenwriters. In fact, I find it coming up frequently when I’m teaching about writing, public speaking and storytelling. The lessons about structure really cross boundaries and I thus think it’s a really worthwhile addition to any writer’s toolkit.
8. Exercises in Style – This slender little handbook, originally published in French in 1947, tells a simple anecdote in 100 different writing styles. It’s a beautiful concept, delivered spectacularly well. With styles ranging from sonnet to onomatepaeic, author Raymond Queneau really pushes the boundaries out in every conceivable direction. it’ll help you do the same with your writing.
9. How to Write a Novel – I followed Nathan Bransford’s blog for years when he was a literary agent, and couldn’t help but pick up this book. It’s 47 rules for writing a novel, and the headings, like “Flesh out a vague idea before you start” or “Accept feedback graciously and with an open mind” really travel across genres and formats (and, dare I say it, disciplines).
10. How to write funny – This is an excellent collection of writing from humorists for comedy writers of all types. Well-written comedy has a lot of similarities with well-written anything, so it’s helpful regardless of whether you want to inject a little humor into your writing. But you should inject a little humor in where you can and when appropriate. Good comedy, like good writing of any type, needs to be lean.
There’s your list, go read some books. And take some notes while you’re doing it.