“You’re free to write the worst sh*t in America. That’s how you’ll get better. Writing is an athletic activity. The more you practice, the better you get. People don’t realize—when you see a football team on television, they’ve practiced for hours before they’re on T.V. You don’t go on the tennis court and expect to be champion. But with writing? ‘If I don’t write The Great American Novel, I quit.’ Writing needs a large field, and a lot of practice.” ~ Natalie Goldberg
I love books.
I love the dry pulpy smell, the crisp feathery pages, the colorful covers, and the promise of entire new universes. At any one time, I’m reading about six.
While I adore getting lost in a story, we writers tend to give short shrift to our technical books. They get dusty, musty, and outdated. Reading books on editing often sounds like homework. They’re oatmeal when we only want to eat chocolate chip pancakes.
But what makes a must-have technical tome for writers?
Simply, whatever gets us to put pen to paper or tap tap tap away on our keyboard. The books below all have that magic spark of inspiration, coupled with sound, sage, writerly advice.
There are a few books on this list that every writer will have heard of, and some I hope are unexpected gems awaiting a lovingly applied chisel and hammer. You know, go find them—I grew up in a coal miner’s bar, I can’t help it.
1. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
This was a lucky find while looking for another book. I can’t actually remember what I was originally looking for, so I’m happy that I found such a memorable and witty technical book instead. This one is less textbook and more engaging stories that make it feel like I’m learning English grammatical prowess by osmosis.
“True prose stylists carry on an impassioned, lifelong love affair with words, banishing bad words like so many banal suitors, burnishing the good ones till they shimmer. Be infatuated, be seduced, be obsessed. ~ Sin and Syntax
2. The Oxford Color Thesaurus compiled by Alan Spooner
This one was thieved from my mom. It’s less colorful than it sounds, but it’s a handy pocket thesaurus with words in blue and synonyms listed below in black. Easy to read and fun to browse for word prompts. While writing this article, I used it at least twice. It’s easy to use a thesaurus online, but it’s hard to beat flipping through the blue and black speckled pages, while squinting at the tiny print and rooting out the right word like a truffle pig.
Writer n 1. amanuensis, clerk, copyist, derog(atory) pen-pusher, scribe, secretary, typist. 2. author, bard, composer, derog(atory) hack, litterateur, wordsmith. *biographer, columnist, contributor, copy-writer, correspondent, diarist, dramatist, essayist, freelancer, ghost-writer, journalist, leader-writer, librettist, novelist, playwright, poet, reporter, scriptwriter. ~ The Oxford Color Thesaurus
3. Ideas in Action: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Writing by Rolf Norgaard
I picked this one up in college as a requirement for my Interdisciplinary degree. It’s well worth the potential rabbit hole of effort that it might take to find. It’s a slim paperback with astute insights into the composition of a thought, even before we put that thought down onto the page.
“To work off the fat and get your sentences into racing trim, you’ll need to do more than reduce their word count. Empty words, like empty calories, should be your focus. The measure of brevity is not mere length but your ability to convey your point concisely. You can meet that measure by applying the principle that runs throughout this book; we shape—and shape up—our writing by drawing clear, forceful relationships among ideas.” ~ Ideas in Action
4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
This was a Christmas present from my little brother a few years ago. The absurdity of some of Ms. Lamott’s musings appeals to the whimsical in me. And what is writing if not the mischievous freedom of playing in a sandbox of words?
“Good dialogue is such a pleasure to come across while reading, a complete change of pace from description and exposition and all that writing. Suddenly people are talking, and we find ourselves clipping along. And we have all the pleasures of voyeurism because the characters don’t know we are listening….On the other hand, nothing can break the mood of a piece of writing like bad dialogue.” ~ Bird by Bird
5. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
This is a must for any serious writer. Ever wondered about where to place commas, how to use active voice, or how to avoid commonly misused expressions? This book has all of our backs. It’s clear, precise, and no nonsense. It’s about 100 years old and just as relevant now as it was a century ago.
“It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.” ~ The Elements of Style
6. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd
Not to be confused with The Art of Nonfiction by Ayn Rand, this slim, fast read was written by longtime The Atlantic Monthly writer and editor collaborators. I happened upon this one while perusing my local bookstore’s “Writing” shelf. I must remember to thank the bookseller who placed this right at my eye level and knew I needed a nutritive, enjoyable morsel of writing from both a writer’s and editor’s perspective.
“I learned to like rewriting, maybe too much, but really it is the writer’s special privilege. We rarely get the kind of chance in life that rewriting offers, to revise our pasts, to take back what we’ve said and say it better before others hear it.” ~ Good Prose
7. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
Errant apostrophes give you heartburn? This one is for those of us who cringe when we see shop signs like “Book’s Sold Here.” Another one I thieved from my mom—there seems to be a theme here.
“Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation.” ~ Eats, Shoots & Leaves
8. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly
A hefty, authoritative list with the caliber and gravitas of one of the best news publications around. Easy to use and embarrassing to realize that maybe, like me, we’ve been using all sorts of phrases wrong.
Rack, wrack. Rack means stretch, strain or torture. Wrack, which is archaic, means wreck, ruin or destroy; substitute a modern synonym. Something that strains the nerves is nerve-racking.
9. The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams
Not all writing is research and not all research is boring. Don’t be afraid of the textbooky-ish title, this one lays out a path to crafting (go figure it’s in the title!) a stimulating and hook-worthy thesis. Can be used for research or just good old well reasoned thoughts for any style of writing.
“Nevertheless, once you have a question that grabs your interest, you must pose a tougher question: Why should this question also grab my readers? What makes it worth asking?” ~ The Craft of Research
10. On Writing by Stephen King
I’m not a fan of thrillers. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, so this was a bit of a stretch for me to pick up, and oh I’m so glad I did. This reads like a best friend who is tired of hearing us whine and cuts straight to the point, kindly but firmly. I now have a healthy distrust of adverbs in dialogue.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” ~ On Writing
11. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
A beloved of mindful practitioners and memoir writers alike, this is writing meets contemplative practice. I found Natalie Goldberg while cutting out one of her quotes from an Elephant Journal print magazine (true story—I didn’t know it was one of the last print copies) for a travel journal I made and took to India about seven years ago.
“Finally, there is no perfection. If you want to write, you have to cut through and write. There is no perfect atmosphere, notebook, pen, or desk, so train yourself to be flexible.” ~ Writing Down the Bones
12. A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee
This is a new one to my shelf. I have yet to dive fully into its depths, but from what I have read, we could all learn a thing or five from this newspaperman. Even if we’re not journalists and we’re overly fond of long run-on sentences full of too many glittering adjectives, and can’t kick the habit of random diatribes on the philosophical heart of prose, this book is for us.
“Writing is an acquired skill, at least for me. I wrote for almost fifteen years before I felt reasonably sure of turning in a coherent, well-written story.” ~ A Good Life
13. Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa
As a Naropa graduate, this book has a special place in my heart—right next to years of sore hips from sitting on well-worn piles of meditation cushions, arranged in a circle across squeaky, waxed-wood floors. And bare feet. Many a Naropa student likes to amble around campus with no shoes. Trungpa is the founder of the Shambhala meditation lineage and known for his crazy wisdom. This is a book for everyone. No need to be a writer, just a wholly imperfect human.
“As human beings, we have a working basis within ourselves that allows us to uplift our state of existence and cheer up fully. That working basis is always available to us. Because we have a mind and body, we can comprehend this world. Existence is wonderful and precious. We don’t know how long we will live, so while we have our life, why not make use of it? Before we even make use of it, why don’t we appreciate it?” ~ Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
Let this list be both bubbly motivation and flint for our writing craft, and inspiration for those days when it feels creative enough to drag ourselves out of bed and put on pants.
Cheers to reading and writing and sometimes wearing pants.
Author: Kenni Linden
Image: Dmitry Ratushny/Unsplash
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson