Want to Improve Your Writing? A Few Good Books to Help You Succeed
My high school English teacher had a fascination with the written word, and made sure we had ample opportunities to practice writing in her class with weekly writing assignments. She was not popular with many students because of this, but I still credit her with encouraging my own life-long love of the written word, both as a reader and writer.
Even though I had weekly writing assignments in Mrs. Fraim's class, when I got to college I discovered there were still some things I didn't know about writing. And a half century later, I'm still learning.
Writing is a craft that can be learned, and most of us have room for improvement. To improve our writing we can have others critique our work, take classes, or read what others have written about this craft. Since I've had a lifelong love of reading, much of my learning, however limited it might be, has come from books I've read, some that illustrate the craft by showing how it can be done well, and some that provide instruction by those who are successful in the craft.
HOW TO LIVE ON 24 HOURS A DAY
One of the first lessons I needed to learn about writing (or living) was time management. I would write, I kept telling myself, when I had more time. Then I found a slim little book by British author Arnold Bennett which addressed this problem.
“Which of us is not saying to himself -- which of us has not been saying to himself all his life: 'I shall alter that when I have a little more time'? We never shall have any more time.” Bennett says, “We have, and we have always had, all the time there is.” Twenty-four hours in each day, to be exact.
Bennett's book, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day was first published in 1908. The language is a little archaic and some of his illustrations dated, but the advice is as relevant today as when it was written more than a century ago. It is both informative and entertaining.
BIRD BY BIRD
While researching this article I found Bennett's book online and read it in one sitting. Which brings me to the next problem I had learning to write—procrastination. Anything to avoid writing.
The book I like best which deals with procrastination and other problems writers have is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont.
When I first read this book, one of my daughters was in high school and the other in college. The book offered so much good advice, not only about writing but about life in general, I recommended it to both of them. We still use that book as a reference in our conversations. “How am I ever going to finish this project?” one of us will ask. “Bird by bird,” the other answers, mimicking a response given by Lamont in the book. (Read the book, if you haven't, to understand the allusion.)
BECOMING A WRITER
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande is about tapping the unconscious and unleashing creativity. First published in 1934, it was one of the first books of its kind that dealt with these subjects. It was reissued in 1981. When I first read this book, I was struck by how similar some of the topics were to those I read in books published later.
As with Bennett's book, some of this book may seem a little dated, but that just adds to its charm—and the advice is timeless.
These books by Bennett, Lamont, and Brande deal with the problems that many would-be writers face: self-doubt, procrastination, time management, or writer's block. They are more in what I would categorize as motivational; they can help us get past our handicaps and begin, and keep on, writing.
There are many other gifted writers who can inspire and motivate, including Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, and Gabriel Rico.
Once we are motivated to begin writing, though, it helps to know more about the mechanics of writing—what distinguishes good writing from bad. The list of books that follow are some I've found through the years that I think do a good job of that.
Besides trying to improve our own writing, knowledge about the writing process helps us appreciate the writing of others—to be a more discerning reader. And learning to appreciate good writing-- or good art or music-- enhances our lives.
THE ART OF FICTION
If it's fiction you're interested in, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, often used in college writing courses, is one of the best.
This book is not for everyone. John Gardner lets you know at the beginning that he is writing a book for those interested in writing literary fiction. Even if it's not intentionally written for the writer of popular fiction—such as science fiction or romance—there is much to learn here for all writers. It is a book to be read and reread by any would-be fiction writer.
Another excellent book on the art of writing fiction is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. Like Gardner's book, it is often used as a text in creative writing classes.
Much of the writing here on Hubpages is of the nonfiction genre, and most of us writing here still have room for improvement—at least I do.
On Writing Well by William Zinser and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein are two good books for nonfiction instruction. Both Zinser and Stein were both successful writers and teachers, so they have a vast amount of knowledge about the writing process.
Zinser's book, meant to complement The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, is specifically directed at nonfiction writing, but many of the principles also apply to fiction. Stein's book, on the other hand, deals with both fiction and nonfiction. I especially like Stein's information on writing good leads.
These are just a few of my favorite books on writing that I have read and can recommend, but there are many other excellent books. I would like to hear which ones you favor.
I have not included in this list a book on poetry. That is not a genre I have attempted, so I do not have a favorite book for poetry writing yet. But it is an area I may explore, so if you know of any excellent books on poetry writing pleases let me know. I may amend this list later to add some.
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