Editor’s Column: 3 Books Every Writer Should Read

As someone who loves words and can bore others to death talking about the cadence of a well-crafted sentence, I enjoy reading and learning more about writing. On those days when I want to bemoan that in a world full of self-proclaimed best-sellers, self-published novels and books that could have used the careful eye of an editor, these books remind me that I’m not alone or weird for caring.

Whether you want to be a better journalist, blogger or novelist, these three books are sure to help you improve.

1. The Elements of Style

Written by William Strunk Jr., an English professor at Cornell, and E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, this brief book is a quick read with a lot to say. When I was working as an editor , I tried to read it once a year. It’s not a prescriptive style manual, per se, like the Associated Press Stylebook, but it offers plenty of style of advice. What The Elements of Style does best though, is to challenge the writer to seek a clear, concise writing style that packs the most punch. Get rid of useless words or phrases that just add fluff to the story. Use active voice. And most of all, The Elements of Style is the genesis of the phrase I often find myself repeating to the students who work for me, “You have to first know the rules in order to break them.”

2. On Writing Well

Like The Elements of Style, I used to read William Zinsser’s classic was a book I tried to read or at least skim on a regular basis. It’s an easy read and offers plenty of straightforward advice and tangible tips for becoming a better writer. If you want to write nonfiction of any kind, this is a book you need to read. Learn to sharpen your sentences and edit yourself. Writing like any other craft is a process. It’s about getting the story out, then getting rid of all the extra you added in that wasn’t actually part of the story. On Writing Well will help you to realized that writing effortless, flowing prose often isn’t an effortless, flowing process. Take the time to learn more about the craft so you can tell your stories better.

3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some writerly types I greatly admire first recommended this book to me at a conference several years ago. When I ran across a copy in a used bookstore a few years ago, I picked it up. I added it to my reading list and soon found myself at a time in my professional life when I had little time or energy for reading anything that was not work-related. So, On Writing sat on my shelf, languishing away until I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and dug in. First of all, Stephen King is funny. Second of all, he has a ton of good things to offer about writing. Part memoir, part handbook, On Writing is all about the experiences that shaped King as a writer, as well as the habits and practices he has found to be beneficial. He’s full of good advice (turn off the TV and avoid adverbs), but maybe my favorite piece of advice is that good writers have to read a lot and write a lot. Yep, and amen. I’m in the middle of the book now and expect to offer a full review here in a few weeks, but I can already tell it’s one I’ll be recommending for years to come.

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