Some “how to” books that actually help

My books are sometimes called grammar books (Sin and Syntax) sometimes usage manuals (Wired Style), sometimes style guides (Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch). Their explicit purpose is to help readers perk up their writing. But their implicit purpose is what was once called “philology” and what my Grotto colleague External link opens in new tab or windowJason Roberts calls “language appreciation.” I want to make people fall passionately in love with English, become infatuated with sentences, see that prose can be as beautiful as poetry.

My favorite part of the writing process comes at the beginning: I go the Library of Congress and search for everything ever written on my subject. Then I find a carrel and wait for books to be delivered to me. One of those was a delightful book called The Garden of Eloquence, published in 1577. Another was a little book self-published by Mark Twain called English As She Is Taught, which collected the hilarious impressions schoolchildren hold of grammar. (“Every sentence and name of God should begin with a caterpillar.”)

Another find was History of English Prose Rhythm, originally published in 1912 by George Saintsbury. One of the most influential literary critics of the late Victorian era, Saintsbury was also an oenophile and wine writer. (The winery that makes my favorite Pinot Noir bears his name.) Saintsbury was known for his unsurpassed ear for the felicities of sound and meter. If you can find the book, let him guide you through the literature of iambs and anapests. And look for the spot in which he compares the secret of sentence-making—the letting out and pulling in of clauses—to the letting out and pulling in of the slides of a trombone or the “draws” of a telescope.

Here are other books that have become my favorites, whether because I discovered them at the Library of Congress, or because I’ve turned to them again and again when I’ve been in trouble. The list also includes books recommended by writers I trust. They are listed alphabetically, so make sure to read to the end!

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter

Part of The Art Of series from Graywolf Press (along withThe Art of Time in Memoir below), Baxter describes how writers create subtext and illustrates his points with examples from a range of authors.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Art of the Novel, by Milan Kundera

Kundera analyzes the work of several influential novelists, including Cervantes, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, and discusses the views that shape his own work. This is writer Rachel Howard’s favorite book on novel writing.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, by Sven Birkerts

Birkerts draws from the work of Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid and others to analyze different ways in which writers have approached their memoirs. Writer Rachel Howard considers this the best book on memoir writing.

External link opens in new tab or windowBetween You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris

Norris has had a fascinating career at The New Yorker over the past three decades, and she delivers the insight she gathered there with tickling irreverence. This book is informative, personal, and possessed of a delicate humor.

External link opens in new tab or windowBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

An inspirational book, especially when you’re just beginning. Feeling overwhelmed when starting? Lamott’s personal stories demystify the image of the successful writer. Writers at all levels of experience, she writes, start with “shitty first drafts.”

External link opens in new tab or windowBringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi

A collection of essays and lectures on the fiction writing process by seventeen award-winning writers and teachers from the Warren Wilson MFA program. This book is a rich trove of anecdotes and advice that is bound to inspire.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers

If your days are filled with “business-related correspondence,” or “the above-mentioned matter,” this is a book for you. Sir Ernest Gowers, the style god entrusted with updating the second edition of Fowler’s, published the original Plain Words: Their ABC in 1954. This edition is filled with entertaining tidbits: George Bernard Shaw going ballistic over split infinitives, Winston Churchill going sarcastic on prepositions at the end of sentences, and an Egyptian minister’s message to a civil servant, illustrating the value of down-to-earth sentences. A caveat, though: some of Gowers’ stories are apocryphal, like that one about Churchill. His influence was great, and his stories were told and retold—until linguists got suspicious and debunked them. So make sure to consult a recent usage manual by credible experts along with the Gowers. (Linguist Ben Zimmer and authors Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman are sterling sources.)

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Craft of Interviewing, by John Brady

A classic for journalists. Don’t miss the discussion of Rex Reed’s much-debated interview with Ava Gardner. Reed says a mutual friend told him that the star’s reaction to “Ava: Life in the Afternoon” was, “That sonuvabitch knows more about me than I do.”

External link opens in new tab or windowEditors Talk about Editing, by Susan Greenberg

A collection of interviews with top editors who reflect on the art and precision of the craft. Author Susan Greenberg, a former editor herself, has collected wisdom from a professional set who are often relegated to the shadows within the industry.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

I have mixed feelings about including this one. Who can argue with E. B. White’s spare and unsparing prose? This is the book everyone loves. Or loves to hate: Take a look at External link opens in new tab or windowthis essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. My opinion is that it’s benign. A good primer for high school students, but ultimately, not all that helpful if you are trying to write stylishly or wanting to explore your own voice. And—who woulda thunk it?—Strunk’s original is External link opens in new tab or windowon the Web, too.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, by Donald Maass

Whether you’re developing your characters or deepening your plot, this book aims to help you infuse your story with deep conviction and fiery passion. Many writers have found the techniques in this book helpful during the revision process.

External link opens in new tab or windowFollow the Story, by James B. Stewart

Stewart is a former page one editor at The Wall Street Journal, and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. His book covers the entire process of nonfiction writing, from idea conception to proposing a story.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner

When you’re ready to hang it all up in frustration, crack this book. Lerner has worked at top publishing companies and approaches writing from an editor’s perspective. Divided into two parts, the first identifies six author personality types (with names like the Ambivalent Writer, the Wicked Child and the Neurotic), while the second is a guide to the publishing process, from contacting publishers to reading reviews.

External link opens in new tab or windowHere at the New Yorker, by Brendan Gill

New Yorker mainstay Brendan Gill offers a juicy account of his sixty years at the magazine, highlighting characters like William Shawn, James Thurber, and John O'Hara. Meet the meddlers and brace for the madness.

External link opens in new tab or windowHow to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, by Roy Peter Clark

Do you tweet or blog? Then you know the challenge of writing brief, and within strict limits. And, of course, honing the craft extends far beyond such here-today, gone-tomorrow writing. What I love about this book is that Clark looks to great literature, and the Bible, for clues about how to write pithily, no matter the platform. In Clark’s words, “The discipline of the poet is the discipline of the headline writer, the discipline of the 140-character Tweeter.”

External link opens in new tab or windowIf You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland

First published in 1938, If You Want to Write is a quick read that has offered encouragement to generations of writers and artists. Ueland references God and Christianity, which some may find off-putting, but there’s much here to appeal to catholic (note the lower case) sensibilities.

External link opens in new tab or windowA Kite in the Wind, edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi

Like Bringing the Devil to His Knees, this is a collection of essays and lectures covering various aspects of crafting fiction. All contributors are master teachers from the Warren Wilson MFA program.

External link opens in new tab or windowLetters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

This collection of ten letters written by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, to a young correspondent, will re-inspire you when you’re ready to give up as a writer. One of my all-time favorite books.

External link opens in new tab or windowLine by Line, by Claire Kehrwald Cook

Billed as the "essential guide for all writers," but a favorite of copyeditors, Kehrwald Cook supplies more than 700 examples of sentences before and after the original line meets the keen tweak of the editor. In analyzing each edit, Kehrwald Cook imparts her techniques of the trade.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Making of the Story, by Alice LaPlante

LaPlante guides writers through every stage of the creative writing process, so this book is especially helpful for beginners. It is divided into three main elements of creative writing: process, craft, and anthology.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Norton Field Guide to Writing, by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin and Francine Weinberg

This guide is quite the teaching asset. Each lesson is straightforward and delivered with brevity, allowing for easy navigation among both teachers and students.

External link opens in new tab or windowOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

First published in 2000, On Writing has become a new classic. Half memoir and half advice for the writer—King’s book gives an honest look at what lead him to become such a prolific author. He shares his wisdom on what it takes to be successful but also offers irreverent wit on everything from intransitive verbs to passive voice.

External link opens in new tab or windowOn Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Gets better and better with each edition. I’ve quoted Zinsser on endings to dozens—maybe even scores—of writers. Zinsser boils down his philosophy to four “articles of faith”: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity. Read his chapter on Endings for advice I remember every time I’m editing a story.

“Politics and the English Language” in External link opens in new tab or windowA Collection of Essays.

(Also available External link opens in new tab or windowonline.)

A classic written in 1946 by the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, this essay appears in several collections of George Orwell’s work. Short but substantial, it includes this list of rules:

i.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything out right barbarous.

External link opens in new tab or windowRemembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing, by Ved Mehta

An author and former staff writer at the New Yorker, presents a memoir that encompasses his thirty-three years at the magazine alongside editor William Shawn. Ved Mehta is blind, and his personal story compelling, as well as his insights into an industry in transition.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, by Julia Cameron

By the author of the popular The Artist’s Way, this book shifts the focus just to writing, with personal essays and exercises. Cameron’s approach might not appeal to everyone, but her goal is to help those who wish to integrate writing into their daily lives.

External link opens in new tab or windowSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King

If you’re ready to whip that fiction manuscript into shape, try the techniques of Browne and King, both professional editors. Examples from well-known writers, and books that the authors have edited, help underline their points. They also provide a guide through the editing process.

External link opens in new tab or windowThe Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda

Authors share thoughts on style and voice in their own words in this collection of interviews conducted by journalist Ben Yagoda. The more than of 40 writers featured include novelists like Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon, as well as journalists like Susan Orlean and Jonathan Raban, as well as academics and Supreme Court justices. Author Ann Beattie offered this blurb: “I’ll walk under ladders, but superstitiously avoid books about writing. Ben Yagoda’s book, however, is exciting and thought-provoking.”

External link opens in new tab or windowSpunk and Bite, by Arthur Plotnik

As you’ve probably guessed from its title (playing off of the names of the authors of Elements of Style), this book is less about the technical side of writing and grammar, and more of a guide to developing one’s voice. Sections include “Flexibility,” “Freshness,” “Texture,” and more.

External link opens in new tab or windowStill Writing, by Dani Shapiro

Along the lines of Bird by Bird, Shapiro gives insight into living life on the writing path. The New York Times Book Review applauds: “Shapiro’s patient elaboration of the path ahead” and adds that “her guidance is sound, and her imagery can be transporting.”

External link opens in new tab or window13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley

A mix of literary history and criticism, analyses of novels, and advice for the writer. Smiley traces the art of form through one hundred titles that span centuries in this lengthy love letter to literature past and present.

External link opens in new tab or windowTo the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing, by Robert Hartwell Fiske

This recommendation comes with a backhand compliment: If your writing seems obscured by wordiness, this 608-page reference book might help. Fiske gives alternatives to unnecessarily lengthy words and phrases and even offers the vocabulary-building “Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary.”

External link opens in new tab or windowWild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg

Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life is the saucy sister guide to Goldberg's best-selling Writing Down The Bones. This gem is not simply a writing guide, but rather a compassionate guru cloaked in prose. Some type of answer to your bohemian blues.

External link opens in new tab or windowWonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, by Jeff Vandermeer

Wonderbook is a hefty, beautifully illustrated book filled with wisdom and techniques for effective storytelling. It’s geared towards fiction writers, but is well-rounded enough that writers in other genres could find it useful (and lovely to look at).

External link opens in new tab or windowWriting Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark

Truly a book for every writer. Writing Tools is divided into sections that range from language use and grammar (“Nuts and Bolts”), to the practice of writing (“Useful Habits”). Clark, vice president and senior scholar at Poynter Institute, believes that “Writing is a craft you can learn. You need tools, not rules.”

External link opens in new tab or windowWriting Well, Ninth Edition by Donald Hall and Sven Birkerts

A whopper: words, sentences, argument, mechanics, exercises—it’s all here, it’s all clear. It does scream “textbook, textbook, textbook,” but the effect is mitigated by the insight and erudition of its authors, Donald Hall, a distinguished poet, and Sven Birkerts, a book critic and devotee of reading.

External link opens in new tab or windowZen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius within You, by Ray Bradbury

In the very first chapter Bradbury focuses on the “Joy of Writing” and says, “if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.” A writer he says, “should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.” It is motivational and energizing.

*     *     *

I don’t want to be endlessly recursive, but “Cool Tools” includes more lists of books in other, closely related categories. Books specifically about grammar, are listed in a separate essay titled “Grammar: Books, bookmarks, and bona fide doorstoppers.” And books about when words are wrong and right you will find under “Books on usage and abusage.” Some of these essays list the best online resources as well.

—Constance Hale


{In compiling this list and getting some background on books, I was given assists by Kailani Moran and by External link opens in new tab or windowRachel Howard.}

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