. . . and more books on writing
A sure method to improve as a writer is to be a reader, and in particular a reader of books on writing.
These books impart not only the lessons the author has acquired in his lifetime, but also a sensibility that can help you feel like you are a writer; they build confidence.
The core lessons, whether the author is Janet Burroway or William Zinsser, tend to be these: use the right word; don’t waste words; express one thought per sentence; each thought should lead to the next.
But in reading about writing you can also acquire smaller lessons that stick with you.
For example, as a rookie reporter I spent many evenings reading Fowler’s Modern English Usage (nerd). It taught me to use words precisely, but there is only one lesson I recall in its specifics; nonetheless it is useful.
The lesson pertains to the use of although and though. Fowler’s advice was to use Although at the start of a sentence – because it “generally has a stronger concessive force” — and though elsewhere. That stuck with me and remains one small way in which my word choice shows consistency.
A second example is from The Good Times, the second volume of the American journalist Russell Baker’s autobiography. In 1953 he was the London correspondent for The Baltimore Sun (those were the days). Queen Elizabeth II was to have her coronation on June 2, and Baker noticed that many other correspondents were preparing their copy days in advance – the coronation was highly ritualized. But Baker decided to show up at church with nothing but a spiral notepad and simply observe.
«…I had decided to cover it pretty much the way I wold cover any routine assignment on the local staff. I would show up, keep my eyes open, listen closely, and make notes on what I saw and heard … This was not the safe way to cover the coronation, but it offered the best chance of doing a good story. The safe way was to write the story before the event was held.»
Baker described the scene’s wonders in detail: «A glistening African woman in a dress of glistening gold … Men dressed as Nelson might have dressed when he was sporting in London … violins far away eerily unreal.»
The lessons from Fowler and Baker express a hope of this series: of course it was not all useful to you, but maybe bits of it were. This is how we learn.
To continue learning, here is a selection of good books by better writers:
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
- The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer
- The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
- A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk & Sidney Greenbaum (for a schematic look at how English works)
- Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. Early editions are best and this is more for intermediate or advanced writers than those at the very beginning.
- The Art of Memoirizing by Mary Karr
- Story by Robert McKee
- Comedy Writing Workbook by Gene Perrett
- How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee
- From Where You Dream by Robert Owen Butler
- Textbook, The Composition of Everyday Life by John Mauk and John Metz
- In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri: The writer is Bangladeshi by ancestry and American by upbringing – but when she travelled to Italy as a young woman, she became enamored of its language. This bilingual book tells the story of that romance. The pages are Italian on the left and English on the right. For those learning English as a second language, her journey will hit home.
Learn: Keep reading.