Recommended books on writing

You must have heard the advice that in order to become a writer you should read a lot.

But what should you read?

Novels, newspapers, blogs, and magazines are all good but you should read material on the craft of writing too. That may seem obvious but a lot of writing advice merely goes like “Read a lot” and is done with it.

Here’s a thing.

Once you have read some books on writing, you will discover something for yourself.

You will start seeing patterns in whatever you read. You will begin to relate sentences to the literary techniques mentioned in writing books. You will be able to tell the difference between a good writer and a very good writer.

And you will understand why Fifty Shades of Grey is trash.

In other words your reading will become a combination of pleasure and instruction.

Below I’m listing some writing resources which have proved useful to me. This is in no way the ultimate comprehensive list of material all aspiring writers should read.

These worked for me. Hopefully they’ll work for you. That’s all.

General books

Concision: A No-Grammar Guide to Good Writing by yours truly. Concision is the first grace of writing style, the basic rule all writers should know. It means saying things in as least number of words as possible, thus not wasting readers’ time.

Traditionally a study of concision is reserved for those who know at least introductory grammar. However this book distills all such information into simple and easy language which anyone can understand.

The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing by Thomas S. Kane. This book is based on The Oxford Guide to Writing: A Rhetoric and Handbook for College Students by the same author. As the name of the original suggests this book is meant for college students and therefore does not assume a great deal of grammatical knowledge on the part of the reader. Although a few grammatical terms are used in some places, the treatment is far less technical than that of Williams’s book mentioned below.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. The discussion in this book is incomplete and also misleading. I am surprised how it has become one of the most popular books on writing. Though some parts of the book do make worthwhile reading but this is in no way a substitute for a standard style guide, as many people mistakenly think it is. You may consider reading it once just to know what the buzz is all about. But don’t take their advice too seriously.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb. This famous book is currently in its tenth edition which itself is a nice appraisal of the quality and timelessness of the work. This is quite a nice book with clear explanations and examples.

Though I must warn you the book assumes the reader has a knowledge of at least introductory grammar. At times the treatment of the subject becomes quite technical. But even if you don’t know grammar you can still read and understand and benefit from a lot in this book.

The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English by Bill Walsh. This book is not so much about the craft of writing as about the commonly made stylistic errors in writing. Walsh is the copy chief for national news at The Washington Post and has poured down years of expertise in this book.

Beware this book is for word nerds. Walsh discusses nitty-gritty issues of the language which you will only like if you pay a prissy attention to detail.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. This is primarily for aspiring fiction writers though some non-fiction writers find it useful too. See, for example, what Jon Morrow and Cal Newport say about it.

The first third is King’s autobiography. Though there is some good advice in here, the majority of this part bored me very much.

The remainder is about the craft of fiction writing. It deals with matters like vocabulary and grammar, narration and description, symbolism and theme, etc.

Reference books

The Chicago Manual of Style. This is a style guide. What is a style guide, you ask?

There are many situations in the English language where more than one way of writing is acceptable.

Should a full stop appear before a closing quotation mark or after it? “A Tale of Two Cities” or “A tale of two cities” or “A Tale of Two Cities”? “Thirty-three students” or “33 students”?

All above variations are acceptable. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Your style guide will dictate which style to use. Using a style consistently is a mark of editorial sophistication.

The Chicago Manual of Style is the most comprehensive and the most popularly used style guide on American English. No matter what style issue you face, you will almost always find the answer in it.

The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World by Chris Bar. If you write for a blog or a website, this book is a necessity. It deals with such topics that a writer writing for the Internet encounters every day but are not dealt with in other style guides. Although some chapters of the book resemble the advice that copywriting blogs like Copyblogger have been giving from years, there is a lot of new important stuff in here.

Though I have listed it under “reference books” a lot of it will qualify as general writing advice.

New Hart’s Rules. Adapted from The Oxford Guide to Style this is again a style guide but for British English. If you live on the other side of the Pacific or if your work requires dealing with British English, you will need this book.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Many dictionaries carry the name “Webster” but are fakes. So be careful of what you are buying.

Noah Webster had developed some dictionaries in the early 19th century for the American language. These were the originals. The one which I have linked to above is a descendant of his work.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. A trustworthy dictionary for British English.

(Image courtesy of JezTimms)

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