At its core, writing is a solitary effort. Whether with a notebook, tablet, or laptop computer, it’s you, your notes, and a single blank page. Nothing and no one else.
This can be intimidating; for many of us, even paralyzing. Whether we’re new or seasoned scribes, starting from scratch is never easy.
Willpower can get us far when facing a blank page, but often it’s not enough. What we also need is a set of directions and instructions, a map to our final destination. In short, we can use some guidance when it comes to the navigation.
Lucky for us, there are other writers who’ve charted this path before. They not only sympathize with our circumstances; they empathize because they understand the craft and have been in our shoes. They know that writing is hard, persistent work. Remember, they’ve been in the trenches, too.
Instead of keeping what they know to themselves, some of the best writers have chosen to give. They’ve decided to lend us a hand by sharing their wisdom with us. To provide us with support, they’ve done so in the best way they know how.
Through writing itself.
Below are the best books on writing I’ve read so far that have helped me rethink my approach to the craft. Give them a read, and they’ll likely improve your capacity to write, too.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Ask most writers about their favorite books on writing. Chances are, it’s this classic by the late William Zinsser. For decades now, On Writing Well has been influencing generations of writers. It offers advice on matters such as style and unity. From business to travel, the book also shares insights on a wide spectrum of nonfiction writing.
Be concise rather than verbose. Zinsser stressed simplicity as a mark of good writing. To achieve this, we must embrace editing and revision. Whether it’s a word, sentence, or entire paragraph, cut anything that’s fluff. We must strip our writing to its bare essentials before building it back up.
- There’s no universal approach to writing. “For there isn’t any ‘right’ way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you say what you want to say is the right method for you.”
- Sometimes, first-person perspective can come across as indulgent. But using pronouns like I, me, we, or us also makes writing more human.
- “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
- The start of a piece should invoke the readers’ curiosity. Meanwhile, a good ending often takes them by surprise. They don’t expect it to come so soon.
- Be skeptical of looking to journalism writing as your model. Sloppy editing is common among many time-sensitive publications. Also, avoid writing in journalese.
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee
Draft No. 4 is a book about the writing process. To explain it, John McPhee shares stories behind the stories he’s written. McPhee, who teaches creative nonfiction at Princeton, has a gift for narrative. His talent makes this book a masterclass in captivating storytelling. This book is full of universal wisdom and practical advice for writers of any level.
One of Draft No. 4’s major concepts is that the essence of writing is revision. Usually a piece goes through several drafts before it’s ready for publication. The first draft is often clunky and takes the longest to create. But as we march forward in the process, the work becomes easier to shape. The fourth draft is often the version that’s ready for shipment to the world.
- Before starting a story, know its structure. McPhee often begins a story with its ending already in mind.
- Writing is selection. Writers have the subjective job of choosing the details that drive a piece forward.
- Despite his bylines in publications like The New Yorker, writing is still hard for McPhee. “You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me.”
- Find ideas for new stories by searching through existing ones.
- If you have trouble ending a piece, look at what you’ve already wrote. You may find that your ending already exists.
Marco Polo Didn’t Go There by Rolf Potts
This book is a collection of short travel stories and essays written by Rolf Potts. Regardless of whether you’re a travel writer or not, the advice Potts shares at the end of each piece is useful. It’s universal to writers of any kind.
One of the book’s most important lessons comes at the end, where Potts tells the art of writing a travel story. There are several elements to this process. But, the first step of recalling how we tell stories by mouth stands out the most. Many of the articles on my site, for example, have started out as topics of conversation from my daily life. This workshopping of ideas helps me to define important details for each piece I write.
- A story should have an engine, the unanswered question that keeps the reader engaged. The engine of a story creates tension in its narrative for the audience. Digressing on background information is one way a writer can relieve that tension.
- When pitching ideas to editors, understand that you won’t always be on the same page. Sometimes, what an editor wants is different than reality. In one of his pieces, Potts shares his difficulties with this exact circumstance. “Adventure itself was far less important to the magazine than creating a romanticized sense of adventure.”
- It’s important to gather more information than you’ll use. “These unused details are like the underwater mass that buoys an iceberg; they give it an inherent sense of stability and authority.”
- If you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll sometimes have experiences that are too good to be true. As a result, you may need to tone down the details to make those stories believable to your audience.
- When it comes to choosing the tense of a story, Potts doesn’t have a method for deciding. Also, most editors don’t share universal preferences on whether to use past or present tense.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Writing is fulfilling, but not easy. That’s because obstacles often appear along the way. What causes them is an unseen force that stops at nothing to derail us from doing meaningful work. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield teaches us how to overcome this force he calls “Resistance.”
Pressfield is transparent about his own battles with “Resistance.” For years, he ran away from the creative work he felt called to do. From advertising to cab driving, he worked, instead, in all sorts of jobs to make ends meet. When he finally started writing, Pressfield didn’t reap immediate rewards, either. He faced plenty of rejection before publishing his first book in his early 50s.
- “Resistance” has many different traits, but there are a few that stand out. It seems to come from outside of us, but it’s actually self-generated. “Resistance” also grows in proportion to how big our calling is. It’s fueled by fear as well, and it’s universal.
- “Resistance” has symptoms, too. It causes us to procrastinate, doubt ourselves, shirk responsibility, and be victims. “Resistance” also drives a desire to do creative work for the sake of fame. Funny enough, love is a byproduct of it as well. “If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”
- To beat “Resistance,” we need to stop being amateurs and become professionals. Pros show up to work no matter the circumstances. They also don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Instead, they create the conditions to capture it when it does.
- To turn pro, have a routine. For Pressfield, this means working, at most, for four hours a day. He doesn’t care how many pages or words he produces. All that matters is that he gives his whole effort during that time frame.
- Rejection is normal. In fact, your work isn’t for everyone. Many people will turn you down, but that’s the price you pay to play the game, rather than sit on the sidelines.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
To write well, it’s important to understand the fundamentals. Having a strong grasp of basic form and style elevates the quality of our work. There are few books that summarize these concepts better than The Elements of Style. This book on writing covers rules of usage and principles of composition. It also examines form and contains a list of words and often misused expressions.
The timeless style guide was first composed by William Strunk Jr. for private use in 1918. Strunk taught English at Cornell University and wrote the book for his students. One of his pupils was E.B. White, who was later asked to update The Elements of Style 13 years after Strunk’s passing. In 2011, TIME Magazine named it one of the 100 best nonfiction books ever.
- Good writing is simple. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
- Think about the audience. Sympathize with them and make their job to read your work as easy as possible. Readers shouldn’t have to exert too much effort to understand what’s said.
- For decades, White wrote for the New Yorker. While at the magazine, he had a recurring assignment: a few hundred words of news commentary. Roger Angell remembers his stepfather writing “in hesitant bursts, with long silences” between. More often than not, White wasn’t content with what he published. The point of this anecdote? Writing is hard, even for established writers. “What should be easy and flowing looks tangled or feeble or overblown – not what was meant at all,” his stepson wrote in the book’s foreword. “What’s wrong with me, each one thinks. Why can’t I get this right?”
- Write with nouns and verbs and rely less on adverbs and adjectives.
- Approach style with these four elements in mind: plainness, simplicity, orderliness, and sincerity.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Honest, sincere, candid, and profound. These are some of the enduring qualities of Bird by Bird. In this book on writing, Anne Lamott shares her wisdom on living a creative life. Lamott explains the elements of writing in a way that softens the dread that comes with it. She’s thoughtful yet humorous in her approach. And as a result, this instills some semblance of calm in us when facing this painstaking process.
One of Lamott’s most important lessons is that writing’s reward is the work itself. Many people go into creative endeavors motivated by promises of fame and fortune. Lamott warns us that chasing notoriety is an empty pursuit. Instead, it’s the act of writing, or anything creative, where we find fulfillment. The validation we seek comes from attacking the blank page.
- Writing is a matter of persistence, faith, and hard work. Do you have something to say, but can’t quite figure out how to say it? Persevere and always show up; the words will come soon enough.
- Practice compassionate detachment. Be kind to yourself, and don’t be such a harsh critic with what you write. Make sure to keep a healthy distance from your work, too.
- Every writer has what Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” Embrace the clutter of an SFD, rather than expecting perfection from the start.
- At times, writers who’ve accomplished nothing may feel bored, defeated, and insecure. But, successful writers feel this way, too. Don’t let their accomplishments fool you into thinking otherwise.
- “E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
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