Not every great author can give equally great writing advice. The following three books offer some of the best advice to improve your writing, from authors who have proven themselves time and again in print.
If you’re serious about taking steps to improve your writing, nothing will help more than the lessons you can learn from these three books. Closely read them; actively underline them; diligently apply what you learn. You’ll be impressed at the improvement that follows.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird would be worth reading just for Lamott’s elegant, moving, and often-hilarious prose. But the writing advice she offers is as fantastic as the style with which it’s delivered. Here are two Lamottisms that stand me in good stead every day:
- When you’re overwhelmed by the immenseness of the writing project in front of you, take a deep breath and remember to work “bird by bird.” Lamott’s metaphor derives from the travails of her brother, who was panicking over a school report due the next day on multiple bird species. Close to tears and “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead,” her brother was rescued by their dad, a writer, who “put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
- Make it a practice to write what Lamott colorfully calls “shitty first drafts.” Lamott keeps the paralysis of her own perfectionism at bay by giving herself permission to write terrible first drafts, knowing that if she can get that first draft down on paper, her work from there forward will involve mere editing, which the unconscious has far less fear of than of writing. Lamott goes as far as to say that if her early drafts were ever leaked to the public, it would be the end of her career; they’re that kind of bad! Yet the quality of her finished output speaks for itself.
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Stephen Pinker
Pinker is a professor, scientist, writer of nonfiction, and the chair of the Usage Panel of the estimable American Heritage Dictionary. The Sense of Style contains a wealth of advice born of Pinker’s frustration with the incomprehensibility and deadly dullness of much of the academic writing that comes across his desk (not just what’s written by his students, but by his professional colleagues as well). I was gobsmacked by how many of Pinker’s lessons and observations were fresh to me, and immediately applicable. It was hard, actually, to limit myself to sharing just a few of them with you here.
- While every writer knows that choosing the right words matters, have you paid enough attention to finding the right order for those words within a sentence, so that the sentence has the right relation to the sentences that surround it? Pinker spends a lot of time on this and it is absolutely eye-opening.
- The passive voice can be your friend. Do you remember Strunk and White, not to mention your English teachers, railing against the passive voice (aka “the passive tense”)? This advice, Pinker explains, is far too simplistic. The passive voice actually allows the writer “to direct the reader’s gaze, like a cinematographer” does when she’s deciding what to place in and out of focus. Maybe you don’t want to write “Pooh ate the honey,” because the honey’s absence is all that matters, not that it was Pooh who caused that absence. Only the passive tense allows you to do so. Likewise, a news report that states passively that “helicopters were flown in to fight a fire” makes sense if the firefighting and the helicopters are what matter in the report, rather than which pilots did the flying. And, in fact, this probably is most of what would matter to the people on the ground.
- Punctuation means more than you think it does. It’s not just about following rules, and it’s not just about punctuating a sentence like you want it to be spoken. It’s both.
- Some of the claims you hear about words being “misused” are valid, and some are just the result of fuddy-duddies complaining about how kids these days are organically changing language (as all generations do); Pinker tells you which is which. For example: Pinker is okay with people using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated,” because that new meaning has been its de facto meaning for many years. On the other hand, if you’re misusing “ironically” to mean “serendipitously,” you are simply ignorant and need to get yourself to the nearest dictionary to bone up.
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is a novelist and essayist who grew her career from an unlikely start writing advice for young women at Seventeen magazine. From there she moved on to writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker. Currently, Patchett is turning out some of the best novels in the English language (her best may be her latest, Bel Canto). In The Getaway Car, her “practical memoir,” Patchett is generous with her advice, often told as the punch lines to some fabulous anecdotes from her life. Here is just one of her many points that have stuck with me:
- If you have a burning idea inside you that you’re dying to write (but haven’t), commit to one hour a day, every single day, for a month – “one lousy hour for one measly month,” as Patchett puts it – and you’ll be amazed how far this modest schedule can take you. These don’t have to be immediately productive hours, but they have to be uninterrupted hours, hours alone with your sheet of paper (or screen) until something happens. And it will.
A word about why The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White didn’t make my list
There’s an elephant in the room, an elephant that’s barely 100 pages long, but looming large whenever you compile a list like this one. The elephant, of course, is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which I have, sacrilegiously, left out of my recommendations. What to say about this classic? It’s powerful – though dangers lurk within. Strunk and White offer great lessons, but also several prescriptions that are dated, overstated, prone to overuse, or, in some cases, downright wrong. Perhaps the best thing about The Elements of Style is the fabulous prose with which it is written; like everything else that E.B. White (who was the primary author) ever wrote, it can inspire and improve any writer simply through the example it sets.
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