The world needs good writing. Whether we write emails to a love interest, status updates on Facebook, fictional essays, scholarly articles, or non-fiction books, we could benefit others by writing better. Here is a list of books that I’ve put together to help you do just that. It’s not a bare list; I’ve added a few thoughts and musings along the way. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section below. Happy writing.
If you consult only one book to improve your writing, Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg should be it. This book is not your typical “how-to-write” book filled with grammar and style discussions. It is a series of profound short sentences that will turn upside down your views of writing. You don’t read this book; you meditate on it. And you’ll be a better writer because of it.
If you can’t write a sentence then you can’t write. Sentences are foundational to writing, this is obvious. However, how much thought do you put into their construction? Many of us who are engaged in academic writing put a lot of time into structuring a book proposal or outlining a journal article but then spend relatively little time composing actual sentences. And then killing off half of them. And retooling the survivors. But this is what it takes to produce good writing. Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is a fantastic guide that will help you deconstruct every element of the sentences you read and then expertly fashion your own.
Academic writers can learn a lot about the craft of writing from authors of fiction. Novelists spend their entire day forging prose while academics try to cram writing sessions in between teaching, grading, and administrative duties. And, if a novelist is a crappy writer odds are they won’t eat. This weeds out most of the hacks and those left standing generally know how to write an engaging string of words. Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car is a reflection on her literary life. It includes inspiring personal stories as well as nitty gritty advice on how to plant your tail into a chair for hours at a time and smith some words. Plus, it’s a short read which is always nice.
Some will be put off by Stephen King’s “colorful” writing in On Writing, but it is a fantastic book. King does not approach the act of writing as a detached observer. Instead, he tells you his own story of how he became a writer. Like Patchett he gives plenty of very practical tips on how to think up new ideas (take frequent walks) and how to cultivate the self-discipline it takes to write (pick a consistent time and place in which to write and only write).
Lastly, and most importantly, to be a good writer you must be a good reader. You need to nourish your literary sensibilities with a steady diet of good writing. Especially if you are an academic writer. Let’s be honest, shall we? Most academic writing is terrible. It’s difficult to follow, hard to understand, and a bore to read. If this is all you read then don’t be surprised if you’re a crappy writer. Supplement your diet with fantastic writing–fiction or non-fiction or both, just make sure it’s good. You can drop by your local bookstore and ask for recommendations or consult various lists of writing that others have judged as good such as the Booker or the Pulitzer prizes. Good examples of well written scholarly monographs can be hard to find. But–and I know she will be embarrassed by this–I think an outstanding example of a well crafted book, from start to finish, is Angela Roskop’s The Wilderness Itineraries. It’s tough subject matter (try making biblical lists interesting to a modern audience!) but this book is clear, concise, and even engaging. Study it and then go and do likewise.