Book recommendations for potential writers?

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I have Strunk and White. I have Turabian. I have a book by some guy named Theodore M. Bernstein. I have the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Leland Stanford Jr. University (the closest higher education institution) has a decent library.

Can you recommend any books that effectively address becoming a better writer?

-- Y. Dobon, September 26, 1997


I was shamed into responding by seeing the reference to "Writing down the Bones" below (a book that I think is truly destructive of any desire to write)....

I don't think it is possible to effectively address this subject, beyond handing out a few guidelines. I was given a big boost early on by Curtis Roads, editor of Computer Music Journal (MIT Press). He'd go over my submissions and attack them mercilessly, explaining why he was chopping over various unnecessary clauses. It was a painful experience at first but very valuable in the long run. Now I hardly ever get edited at all (except by crass commercial magazines that need to cut down material to fit the ads).

Some of the things I learned from Curt are to never put in "Obviously,". If it is truly obvious then you shouldn't be saying it! If it isn't, then why insult the reader by reminding him that it is obvious. Similar, you should never write "in my opinion" because that is redundant. Whose opinion would it be if not yours? This particular journal did not use footnotes so that avenue of sloppiness was unavailable to me. If you have something important to say, you have to think of a good way to weave it into the text; if not, you have to leave it out. In the hypertext world this rule becomes a little dicey but I still think that the best experience for a reader is well-organized linear flow.

Reading New Yorker magazine every week is probably more than enough if you want to keep up with what is good modern writing. Personally, I prefer Edith Wharton and her generation, but that's not a style that is likely to get one published in any modern magazine.

-- Philip Greenspun, October 20, 1997


Check out or buy a copy of "On Writing Well," by William Zinnser. One of my college journalism professors recommended this book long, long ago. It is now in its fifth edition. I saw a copy at Stacy's bookstore in Cupertino this afternoon, so you shouldn't have much trouble finding it. Another good one is "Writing Down the Bones," by Natalie Goldberg.

The next step is to read good writers. Peter Egan has a collection of his Road & Track columns available through Classic Motorbooks. You can see a description at and searching on the author's name. Peter is an excellent writer, especially if you have any interest in automobiles, motorcycles, guitars, airplanes or life in general.

Who else should you read? Tom (not Harold) Robbins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Theodore Sturgeon, Orson Scott Card and Tennessee Williams, plus whomever you enjoy reading.

Other than that, take Nike's advice and just do it. Don't worry if you make mistakes. That's why computers have delete keys. When you write, just concentrate on getting your ideas down. The hardest part for beginning writers is getting started. If you just write what you are thinking , then edit later, you will get over this hurdle right away.

Don't pay attention to style. You'll rewrite your first draft anyway. Just write in your own voice, as if you are speaking to someone. Remember, this isn't film. Rewriting costs you only time, and you can do it anywhere. You don't need to go back to the mountains to rewrite a passage or a chapter. As you gain experience you will find yourself writing better prose on your first draft than you agonized over during your second draft a few months ago.

Like photography, writing is a craft which takes discipline and study.

-- Darron Spohn, October 19, 1997

Ouch! That's what I get for listening to a non-writer for advice on writing, but I can't blame this on my wife. My wife's college English professor recommended "Writing Down the Bones." Now that Philip mentions it, I have never found that book useful. As Phil stated, working with a good editor is the best way to learn to write. My grandmother drilled grammar skills into my head at an early age, and my college journalism professors cut the fat out of my writing style.

Edith Wharton was an excellent writer. Her style might not sell today, but good writing is good writing. Besides, her fiction is simply fun to read, and can give us insights into ourselves and our culture

I'm afraid Phil is correct, though. The best way to improve your writing skills is to work with a good editor. I still recommend Peter Egan.

-- Darron Spohn, October 20, 1997

Here's 25 years of editing advice in three words: "Show, don't tell." Good writers let their readers draw their own conclusions. Inexperienced writers want to make sure their readers don't miss the point. While I'm presuming to offer advice, I should suggest avoiding all labels that other people would never use to describe themselves: sexist, racist, terrorist, wife-beater, child-molester, murderer, dead-beat, etc. They are usually a lazy way to make an emotional point without having to offer any evidence. That's two for free and worth every penny!

-- Mark Hubbard, October 21, 1997

I think the only way to become a better writer is to read more of the type of stuff you want to write, and to write more stuff for practice. Reading books telling you how to be a better writer will probably be counter-productive in that they may limit your own style developing. Lets face it, how may of the "How to" books are actually written by people who's writing you respect? There might be some truth in the phrase "those that can do, those that can't teach".

Finding a subject is hard - I'm sure I could write some good stuff, if only I could figure out what to write about! Style is another matter, and in my opinion even harder. I personally like wordsmith's - Jack Kerouac, Ian M. Banks, but would never attempt to emulate them, as the results would be to obvious. Philip's writing seems to me at times to be a triumph of content over style - although that might just be because his work is written primarily with an American audience in mind.

What type of writing do you plan to pursue?

-- Steve Graham, October 22, 1997

Hmmmm. Interesting thread. Good writers write. Others discuss writing. They then become expert is discussing writing. Hmmmm.


-- Steve Bingham --, October 29, 1997

I would recommend three books in particular:

Booth, Columb, and Williams, _The Craft of Research_ Williams, _Style: Towards Clarity and Grace_ Turner and Thomas, _Clear and Simple as the Truth_

You might also want to read _How to Write_ by Richard Rhodes and _Writing With Power_ by Peter Elbow.

If you are interested in writing fiction, pick up a copy of _Technique in Fiction_ by Macauley and Lanning.; if you are interested in writing screenplays, Syd Fields has written several useful guides.

I like the American Heritage Dictionary for daily use. For serious research, go to the library and consult the OED.

You can find some other suggestions and some good advice in my friend John Normans essay All About Grades, . He also has some links and reviews of citation management software.

Philip and others have offered some very good advice here; Ill limit my contribution to one observation: the best books in the world wont help if you dont actually sit down and write. Most beginning or non-professional writers need to try some LSD. Not the drug, but the Long Steady Distance training that makes great athletes what they are. Vladimir Nabokov never sat down to write until he had completely figured out his plot, but he was unique.

Several years ago, Woody Allen remarked in an interview that something like eighty-five percent of life is just showing up. What he meant was that many people talk about writing a story, a novel, a screenplay, but they never actually sit down and do it. Richard Rhodes makes much the same point in his first chapter, in which he tells of his first job, which was editing the Hallmark company newsletter. Friends told him he was wasting his time, but as he says, every morning at ten, I had to get the spam to the front line. Rhodes recalls asking his first boss, a man who somehow managed to publish some essay and reviews while working full time, how he did it. His answer was the terse ass in chair, Rhodes. Contemporary technologies -- particularly the shimmering surface of the word-processors screen, where it is very easy to confuse motion (or simply thrashing) for serious thought and decisive action  have made some aspects of writing a lot easier, but those three words have lost none of their relevance. As a tutor and a teaching fellow in English at Harvard, Ive helped a number of students with severe writers block by simply putting them on a schedule (e.g. nothing but writing for two hours in morning and two in the evening). Crude behaviorism is often the easiest way to get started. The popular Romantic mythology of writing has little to do with actual practice. Writing is difficult, lonely work, but once you have a draft, you can share it with others, any good readers can be much more helpful than many books.

Hope this helps,

Charles Ruberto

-- Charles Ruberto, November 19, 1997

Although no one else seems to have called you on it, I will: To what end do you want to become a better writer? Technical? Short story? Novels? Letters to the editor? Travelogue? There are common elements, but what makes one work isn't necessarily what makes another work.

If fiction or drama is anywhere on that list, I just took Robert McKee's story class, and it was wonderful, although grueling. If you don't have the thousand bucks or so it'll take you to go to the class, he's got a book called "Story" that was just released, I lent mine to a friend immediately after getting back from the class and he's giving rave reviews. I thumbed through it and a good portion of it is taken verbatim from the class, and that'll only cost you $30 and a long weekend.

Unlike David Siegel, or Syd Field, or all of those other books on story I've got on my shelf he goes a lot more into what makes an individual scene work rather than the overall structure of the work.

My girlfriend and I finished our first collaborative novel right before we took this class, and as she's starting out on the second one it's changed a whole lot about how we work. Highly recommended.

Remember that the writers who really know how to write well don't necessarily teach. Expose yourself to styles you wouldn't normally read. Try reading some Anne Rivers Siddons, or Robertson Davies, or John Fowles, or Clive Cussler, or... Yes, some of those seem like trash and some like dense literature and some like entertainment, but they all have elements that appeal very strongly to their target audiences. We have things to learn from all of them.

Other than that, write, write, and write some more. Then inflict it on your friends until you can give one person 2 consecutive pieces and not have them instinctively flinch. I'm very grateful to the numerous friends who've taken time out to do amazing levels of critique on my work. They've come out of the woodwork, and they've each contributed different things to my style, and we've even managed to stay friends.

-- Dan Lyke, January 7, 1998

Sean, Try "If You Want To Write" by Brenda Ueland, Graywolf Press 1987. It's a wonderful book on how to create and write from an extraodinary person. Brenda's thoughts on the creative process may carry over to how you approach your photography as well. Good writing! Joe McGovern

-- Joe McGovern, March 3, 1998

So ya wanna be a writer? Well, hmmm, are you, let me think now!, a READER? (oh, let me blue pencil that)... a PROMISCUOUS, VORACIOUS READER. That helps.

I doubt if any of you MIT'ers have read what I write, 'cause I write romance novels, novellas, short short stories (oh, and a little, just a TAD mind you!, PORN ). Between 10-30% of my annual income comes from my writings (depends on what kind of software contract I'm on... if hours are long, I write MORE because it helps me unwind, if I'm on a contract overseas I write LESS because I tend to spend my offhours sightseeing, etc etc etc)

Here's what I suggest:

READ EVERYTHING... go "outside" your own interests, talk to people -- get under their skin, find out what makes 'em tick... remember, EVERYone has a story, Goddess didn't make any 2-dimensional human beings (no matter what ya think of your ex's). Set aside a certain time every day TO write and then, by gawd!, WRITE. AFTER you write, READ IT OUT LOUD (listen to the rhythm of the words, etc.) and finally,


Oh, one last thing, if you are writing to be published; that is, to make $$$$, then be PRAGMATIC. Find out what will SELL and then write THE same kind of stuff!

Hey! Life is short, why pretend to be a genius or a bleeding-edge mentality? If you've got something you're hungering to communicate then DO it. ... but if you want to make some cash, write what will be read... okay, okay, so I don't write great dissertations on, say, the "significance of computers in today's society", but the money I made LAST year off my writings alone paid for another year's worth of flying my own plane, so who's smarter?

Once more, for emphasis, "nada da nada da nada" as H would say ta to taday... I got the project windin' down blues.

A hui hou!


-- Violet Weed, November 9, 1998

This thread is a little bit old now but I`ll donate anyway. Last year I grabbed a book from the library called, if I remember correctly, `How to get happily published`. It was a good, no BS book about dealing with editors, publishing companies, deciding about self-publishing, etc. The author worked in the industry and the book is highly praised. Sorry I can`t remember the author`s name.

-- Brad Ford, March 15, 2000

Theodore M. Bernstein's book is called "The Careful Writer," and it is a good book on non-fiction writing. It's an old book, and I don't know if it's still in print. You can probably find a copy at a used booksto

-- Ben Eubanks, March 18, 2000

Kurt Vonnegut.

Read him first, last and always. Others I would suggest are JD Salinger, Anton Chekov, Joseph Heller, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And if you want to write, do yourself a favor and buy Strunk and Whites "The Elements of Style". That goes for anyone who writes anything, ever.

-- Ian MacAllen, July 24, 2001