Books About Writing: A Top 10 … Umm … Top 7 List

14 Sep

To take a cue from David Letterman, I’m going to play around with a Top 10 list this week. (Does Letterman still do Top 10 lists?)

Writing books get their own section in bookstores, and I’ve bought my share of them, some good, some bad, some ugly. I have my favorites, and this is my annotated list:

1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Whether you’re writing nonfiction (Zinsser’s subject) or fiction, this book is hard to beat. I first read it in an advanced writing course as an undergrad, and it reinforced my belief in simplicity and clarity as essential to writing, and did its best to beat the jargon out of me (a difficult task later on when hashing literary criticism and critical theory).

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Though all of what I’ve worked on here at the publishing office is nonfiction, I have to include Gardner’s book on the art and craft of fiction. It’s a classic book on writing, and anyone, especially someone interested in writing fiction, ought to try at least a few of the writing exercises in the back.

3. Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich

Another book about fiction technique, I think any writer would find it useful. Novakovich breaks down the elements of fiction, explains them simply, and then offers challenging exercises. I especially like the sections on word choice and style, and the section on revision.

4. How to Write by Richard Rhodes

More than just a writing manual, Rhodes talks about one of the most detrimental things to writing — fear. His advice is simply to begin writing. The most important thing to remember is his bum-to-chair principle.

5. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway

Though largely for creative writing, again the exercises can be challenging and Burroway includes several other resources for further reading. Her approach is one I love, too, because she makes the strong link between reading and writing and how to learn to write from reading.

6. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

A classic, but I’ve put it low on my list because it’s somewhat stodgy and inflexible.

7. When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald

A great little quick-reference to grammar and style, as the title indicates.

OK, did I say Top 10? How about Top 7? These are my favorites. I have many others on my bookshelf, some less practical than others. Other favorites such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer or Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley are much more geared toward creative writing, and specifically dealing with the relationship between reading and writing or with the art of fiction and criticism, but good reads nonethless.


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