Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration,
the rest of us just get up and go to work.
Stephen King, On Writing
It’s a small and strange genre, writing on writing. But for reasons I cannot explain, I’ve always enjoyed reading articles, books, and various perspectives on writing. How does one write lasting works? How do great sentences and great stories come about? What can occasional writers learn from the professionals—and vice versa?
I’ve read a number of books on this topic, and in preparation for some new top-secret (in case I give up on them) writing projects I’ve got in the slow cooker, pulled my favorites back out again. Here, my devoted readers, are Five Good Reads: On Writing. (As always, I recommend getting this books at your local bookseller, but I’m providing amazon links for ease-of-research.)
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well
This is the classic, the standard, the textbook. If you can only read one book on writing non-fiction, you start here. Mr. Zinsser just passed away at the ripe age of 92 earlier this year, but his book will live on for a good while. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction has sold over a million copies and been revised for seven total editions. I love Zinsser’s book because he elevates writing to a noble craft and makes it accessible to everyone—he even gives examples of poor and great managerial emails. The chapters “Simplicity,” “The Lead and the Ending,” and “Nonfiction as Literature,” are masterful. If you’re writing without having read this book, you’re doing it wrong.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott is a brilliant and hilarious writer. If there’s one contribution a book on writing should make, it’s that its readers should immediately want to begin writing, if not quit their day job and become “a writer.” That’s what Ms. Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life does for us. Bird by Bird was first published in 1994, and since then, Lamott has become increasingly famous for her books Traveling Mercies and Help, Thanks, Wow. I haven’t read her books on faith to affirm or challenge her theology; just know that this book is about as good as it gets in the realm of creative nonfiction. Lamott’s chapters “Short Assignments” and “Shitty First Drafts” (pardon the francois) are worth the nine-and-a-half dollars. Girl can flat out write.
Stephen King’s On Writing
Mr. King, of course, is known primarily the master of the horror novel. But King is one of the few recent authors to accomplish both mass appeal—his books have sold an unbelievable 350 million copies—and critical acclaim (he’s won an O. Henry, a National Medal of Arts, and every award from anyone who’s anyone). Half storytelling memoir, half writing lecture, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a joy to read, and like Lamott’s book, makes you want to get an old typewriter and a pipe and start hammering out novels. Also, On Writing easily wins the award for best cover, and his Shawshank Redemption is easily in our Fidelity Sports Hall of Fame, and it’s not even about sports.
Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy
Doug Wilson is a polarizing cult hero—to some, everything that’s wrong with American evangelicalism; to others, especially the Midwestern classical homeschooling-type, he’s the dope jam you put on repeat and listen to over and over the whole way home (and yes, that’s a reference to how many books he’s published in the last couple decades). I probably land somewhere in between, but Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life is one of the sharper knives in the drawer. Funny, provocative, and immensely helpful. One of Mr. Dougie’s early hot tips:
“Know something about the world, and by this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who like the smell of libraries.”
Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor
This last one may come as a bit of a surprise, but it will improve your writing, I promise. From lifelong editor and book agent Susan Rabiner, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Serious Nonfiction and Get it Published focuses on connecting your work to your audience. Her topics include submitting proposals and working with editors, but the whole book, especially “Part Two: The Writing Process,” will clarify your writing. Most importantly, Rabiner’s contribution enables you to get your (no doubt fantastic) writing to actual readers.
OK, folks. That’s five good reads. I’m sure I could recommend a couple others, but let’s start there for now. See you on the next episode.