A writer’s bookshelf

TypewriterFor as long as I’ve been a professional writer (almost 20 years now), and with all the writers I’ve known and spoken with, one thing that surprises me is that I don’t recall ever having a conversation with another writer about writing. I mean the writing itself.

Any time you do something creative, be it writing or painting or poetry or comedy or whatever you do, you always get someone who will say, “I wish I could do XYZ like you do.” Well guess what? Nobody was born with it. Nobody.

Me? I believe I am quite good at what I do, but nothing comes for free. I think I am different from many of the writers that I’ve met, in that I consciously work at self-development all the time. Writing can be an art, but it is also a craft, like carpentry or ship building. When you’re doing business writing, it’s almost all craft. This means you can consciously choose to get better at it, through practice and study.

I don’t often take classes, because I don’t find them all that helpful. But every year I make it a point to at least read a few books about how to get better at what I do. And when I don’t find any new books that look promising, I re-read the ones I’ve already read.

That said, here is a list of some of the books that I’ve found valuable and I still use, week after week, to help me get better at my craft:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
    I’ll never cease to be puzzled by people who are reluctant to look up words in the dictionary. You should never be ashamed of it. Writing isn’t like playing Scrabble, and just because you’ve heard a word used in passing doesn’t mean you have a full grasp of the nuances of its meaning. Thus, a good dictionary is an indispensable reference for every writer – yet which one to choose? Some people believe only a massive, multi-volume, unabridged tome like the Oxford English Dictionary will do, but going that route can actually be counterproductive. Such dictionaries are updated with new words and meanings only seldom, and they often present more information than is really needed by deadline-bound writers. A good, thick, single-volume “collegiate” dictionary should be enough. A few news organizations, including the Associated Press and the New York Times, have endorsed Webster’s New World College Dictionary (and I own a copy, too, though it’s not my primary go-to). The New Oxford American Dictionary is another good choice. My own preference and recommendation, however, is the American Heritage Dictionary, because it does a good job of explaining thorny word usage issues. Where debate persists, it relies on a “usage panel” of writers and scholars to weigh in, and it will present both sides. One other suggestion: I like having a proper hardcover dictionary available, but you might also consider downloading the corresponding dictionary app for your mobile phone. It’s easier to handle and search, and you’ll be able to carry it with you wherever you go to do your writing. In the case of the AHD, the paid version of the app also includes the companion thesaurus, which is another invaluable writers’ reference. You can download free trial versions of the AHD app for iOS and Android.
  • Strunk, William and White, E.B. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition. Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
    This is the gold standard, a classic grammar and usage reference that deserves a place on any writer’s bookshelf. This slim volume should be your go-to for questions about when to use “that” or “which,” or if it’s more appropriate to say “further” or “farther,” and so on. Only just don’t make a religion out of it. Mr. Strunk’s advice tends to be very prescriptive, and it turns out some of it is based more on his own preferences than any actual rules of English grammar. Still, you should understand the themes of this book and familiarize yourself with its advice before you go tackling any tricky exceptions. This book is in its fourth edition today, but it’s been around for ages, so don’t knock yourself out finding the very latest one. Drop by a used bookstore and pick up whatever’s cheap. My own copy is a battered hardcover of the third edition. Don’t go too far back, though. You can find free versions online, for example, but these generally just have the text of Mr. Strunk’s first edition, which is out of copyright. I find Mr. White’s later edits and additions to be just as valuable, so look for both names.
  • Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York, HarperCollins, 2006.
    I’ve found this collection of essays to be a fine companion whenever I feel the need to get nudged back into the good writer’s frame of mind. Mr. Zinsser is always at the ready to remind you to keep it simple, avoid long words where short ones will do, eliminate needless words and clutter, and other advice that will help keep your writing honest. He presents examples of what he considers good writing and explains why he admires them. He also offers some suggestions on how to conduct interviews, and later editions of the book also include chapters on specific types of writing – such as sports writing, for example. These are nonessential, however, and a used copy of the first edition will include all the really important stuff.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, Viking, 2014.
    This is an intermediate-level book for those who really want to dig into the English language and why it works the way it does. Mr. Pinker draws on learnings from cognitive science and psychology to help explain how linguists view the language today and how you can apply that understanding to make yourself a better writer. He even spends a chapter or two on diagramming sentences, something that’s barely taught in schools these days. Crucially, there’s a long section that goes through a whole list of “rules” that writers have picked up over the years and why they’re all nonsense. For example, the reason people insist (wrongly) that you shouldn’t split an infinitive in English is because you’d never do it in Latin. And the reason you’ve been told you should never begin a sentence with “and” or “but” is because that’s an easy way to teach young children to spot punctuation errors in their exercises, not because the words don’t belong there. If you read this one, though, be ready to go deep. Mr. Pinker refers to journalists, reporters, copy editors, and their ilk as “amateurs” – so don’t go in if you can’t take a few knocks against your preconceptions.
  • Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. New York, Berkley Books, 2013.
    This is a quick, fun book that leaves you scratching your head at some of the grammar rules that you actually follow, both in your writing and in your everyday speech, even though you never knew the rules existed. For example: Did you realize that when you apply more than one modifier to a noun, the adjectives must be listed by opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose – and always in that order, exactly. To put them in any other order sounds strange. So you’d say “a big purple dinosaur” but never “a purple big dinosaur,” or “a round glass serving plate” but never “a glass serving round plate.” Odd, isn’t it? Puzzlers like these make this a book an enjoyable read. But what it is, really, is a lighthearted introduction to classical rhetoric, which we inherited from the ancient Greeks. Mr. Forsyth takes you through each of the rhetorical forms, one by one, explaining along the way how they apply to English and how, by observing them, you can make your writing clearer, more persuasive, and easier to digest. And he does it in a way that’s lighthearted and easy to digest. I understand he’s written a few other fun books on writing, too, though I haven’t read them.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook. New York, Basic Books, 2016.
    If you work for AP, you already have a copy of this. For everybody else, I think it’s valuable but maybe not totally essentiall. AP has been better in recent years at keeping up with modern usage (the word “internet” is not capped, who knew!). Really, though, the reason you want a book like this around is just for consistency. In professional writing, it’s important to use the same terms the same way across multiple assignments. If you have doubts about something – whether a certain word should be capitalized, whether it’s better to say “innocent” or “not guilty” – the AP guide is the American standard. (It’s so thorough, in fact, that I was able to confirm that the term “AP” is “acceptable on second reference for The Associated Press.”) Some people swear by The Chicago Manual of Style; I don’t. I find it too stuffy and prescriptive. It’s better suited to long-form manuscripts (books, reports, academic papers), and back when I worked in print publishing and I didn’t have so much grey hair, some magazines swore by it. That’s fine, but I find Chicago hard to navigate and it hasn’t really kept up with internet-age trends. BTW, the AP Stylebook is another one that you can get as an ebook and keep on your device for whenever you need it. The formatting of the current digital edition ain’t great, though.
  • Winkler, Matthew and Sondag, Jennifer. The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Reporters and Editors. Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
    This book was a fascinating eye-opener for me. It has roughly the same aim as the AP Stylebook, but it’s tailored to the specific needs of the Bloomberg organization. Bloomberg does business journalism exclusively. Their reporters’ compensation is literally weighed based on how they “move the markets” – whether their stories change stock valuations. It’s a well-oiled machine, one that’s purpose-built, and if you get it wrong as a reporter over there, you’re out. I don’t think it’s the kind of job I would enjoy, but I have tremendous respect for what they do over there and I think it’s worth thinking about how they approach things, especially if you do any writing related to financial markets, quarterly earnings, and the like.
  • King, Stephen. On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, Scribner, 2010.
    Finally, honorable mention to this one. Naturally, it’s more geared around fiction or “creative” writing than business writing. I don’t care too much for the memoir portions of the book, either, which strike me as a little self-indulgent. When King gets to actually talking about his craft, though, you should listen – because whatever you may think of his books, the man undeniably knows his craft. The main takeaway from this one should be that no matter what you’re writing about, you should also at least partially be writing to entertain. Dull, flat writing that sits leaden on the page makes readers tune out. Keep it lively. Keep it engaging. So you’re writing about some new database server; who is behind it? Who uses it? What was the problem it was created to solve and what happened along the road to its development? Even the dullest subject matter can still be a source of stories – the kind that people connect with – as long as you remember you job isn’t to be a know-it-all, it’s to be a writer.