In a prior post, I said, “my toe-dip into the enormous corpus of literature on writing seems to indicate that most of it is not very helpful.” What a small and curmudgeonly thing to say! (I was possibly affected by one in which the author expressed her opinion that her title is TOTALLY AWESOME.) But that got me thinking: I bet some of you have read some good books on writing. I’d love to hear your favorite titles.
I have a few resources I really like (besides, of course the TOTALLY AWESOME search capability of Google). I started long ago with Elements of Style (Strunk and White), an early lifesaver. Today I use The Chicago Manual of Style online. Possibly the best fifteen bucks I spent last year in pursuit of writing. It’s more than encyclopedic and very interactive. Stephen King’s On Writing exposes the fact that King is a great writer, a great mechanic of words. Yes, I know, King writes Genre Fiction (you need to be looking down your nose while you say that), but then, so do I. Then there are the many books on the business side of writing. The best I’ve run into is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (Eckstut and Sterry), which is comprehensive, readable and funny.
There are probably lots of good writing books out there, and I felt a little bad about being snarky about the whole field. What are your favorites?
Elements of Style is a true classic….we even used it in the Dark Ages as undergraduates. The Chicago Manual seems to be the current writing bible nowadays. You’ve made good choices. Jim.
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Thanks, Jim. One thing I like about the Chicago Manual is that it’s an example of what’s good and useful about the new world of communication that is the Internet.
Personally, I don’t read much about writing, but the books that have been important to me are well-used. Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” top the list. Then, there’s Flannery O’Connors “The Habit of Being”, and Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet”.
That’s it! The closest I’ve come to a style manual or such is William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”. And there are a few quotations I keep close at hand. A few of them are rich enough to keep me going for some time.
Thanks for a great list. And a reminder that books on writing aren’t always books directly on writing, but on what lies beneath and around.
Lucille Vaughn Payne published “The Lively Art of Writing” in 1965. It is an analysis of and a basic manual for expository, analytical, and argumentative writing. It starts with the very basics, “What is an opinion?” It then explains the fundamentals of argument and prescribes some step-by-step tools for developing a strong and convincing essay or literary analysis. Stylistically, it is light-hearted and informal. Although some of its specific examples are dated (she clearly feels that “drag racing” is something that will really appeal to her youthful readers), I used the book for nearly forty years as the basis of teaching writing to all of my classes, including our American Studies (English & History team) honors class. The initial chapters offer little to the writer of fiction, but the latter chapters do offer many points about style and stylistic choices.
As for fiction, in over twenty years of teaching creative writing (as well as earning my MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing), I never used a text book. I just had my students read and read and read. I also read to them and had them listen to recordings and watch videos of as many different genres and styles as I had time to introduce in a semester (the second semester focused on poetry writing).
I did stumble across Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” which had some nice approaches to encouraging or stimulating writing or breaking through the block if it occurs. I used a couple of those with my students. It is a very casual, fun read as well.
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