I recently started working on a big project--a really big project. It involves an analysis of article writing and journalism. For the past several years, I’ve spent thousands of hours poring through books on writing, style manuals, dictionaries and more. I’ve learned a lot but there’s still so much to learn.
Writing is something that we all do but few of us do it well. Chances are if you think that you’re a good writer, you’re probably less skilled than you imagine. Writing clear, concise, consistent, comprehensible and correct copy is difficult. Every time you compose a document you must reread it and fix it up. Luckily, there are some fantastic books out there that help writers organize their thoughts and pick up the skills that they need to succeed.
Here’s a brief list of books that I like. They’re inexpensive, and you can pick up used copies at Amazon for a fraction of their original price.
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This book is a must read for anybody interested in writing for an audience. Zinsser is an old-school journalist who has taught at Yale, Columbia and The New School. His book focuses on feature writing and provides practical and insightful advice on both mechanics and structure. (He even delves into the psychology of writing and describes how frustrating and difficult the craft can be.) I especially like the advice that Zinsser gives on travel writing and memoirs. Be warned that despite advising his readers to, when possible, try and use simple vocabulary, Zinsser tends to use some “big” words. I found myself consulting http://www.onelook.com on more than one occasion. (Another book that’s similar in scope and theme is William Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing which, although good, is much harder to follow.)
• Beyond The Inverted Pyramid by George Kennedy et al. Granted, this book’s a bit dated (written before the ubiquity of the Internet) but I still like it. The book does a good job surveying the three types of articles: news, features and editorials. Ultimately, the way articles are structured—ledes, nutgrafs, the inverted pyramid and so forth—will probably never change. This book will always have a place on my book shelf.
• Plain English for Lawyers by Richard C. Wydick. The title of this diminutive work belies the fact that it’s a book everybody can learn something from. In my opinion, its description of style, grammar and punctuation put this book in a court of its own.
• Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel. It took me a week to read this book. The last time it took me a week to read a book was the summer of tenth grade after I nearly poked my eye out and had to finish To Kill a Mockingbird before school started. But after marshaling all my brain power, I appreciated this book for what it is: an excellent analysis of journalism’s status quo. Supported by the Pew Research Center, the authors broke out the history books and interviewed hundreds of journalists for their thoughts on everything from advertising to ethics.
• Feature & Magazine Writing: Action, Angle and Anecdotes by David Sumner and Holly Miller. I just finished reading this book. It puts feature writing in a more modern context—it was published in 2006. (Many of the books on feature writing that I’ve read are so dated that they “celebrate” the Internet as some magical new invention.) What I especially like about this book is that it’s easy to understand. And although there are many anecdotes, this book doesn’t bore the reader with super-long ones. On a personal note, I’ve gotten to know Dr. Sumner a bit, and he truly cares about teaching others to write well.
• The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Okay, everybody knows about this book—even Patrick Star who lives under a rock in the animated world of Bikini Bottom has probably read it. Every time I read this book, I learn something new about style and word usage. For example, did you know that there’s a difference between "the principal was angry for me showing up late" and "the principal was angry for my showing up late"? For fear of spewing sacrilege, I do have one “negativish” thing to say about the book: It’s really prescriptive. It reminds me of how my grandmother used to yell at me to lift the bathroom seat before I started doing my business. Although was right, I oftentimes wished that she would just give me some peace.
There are other books that I like but this list is a short one that should get aspiring writers well on their way to understanding the craft. On a final note, somebody once said (Dorothy Parker?) that “I hate writing but I love having written.” Truer words were never spoken.
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