8 Books You Must Read to Become a Better Writer
Reading books can take you further?–?and faster?–?on your journey toward becoming a better writer. For a few dollars and a few hours of your time, you can absorb the strategies and “secret sauce” of the master storytellers.
I’ve read dozens of books on writing, and I’m always searching for titles that I haven’t read yet, or new ones that touch on a topic I’m diving deep on at the moment. While I’m not a novelist, I also enjoy reading books about writing fiction because I believe there’s much that nonfiction writers can learn from the craft of fiction.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
William Zinsser was a journalist, author, and writing instructor at Yale. His book On Writing Well is a classic among writers and has sold nearly 1.5 million copies in the 40 years since it was published. It’s one of the first books I recommend to anyone seeking to improve their writing. Zinsser packs several practical lessons into his book, including this gem:
“All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative?–?good old-fashioned storytelling?–?is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug.”
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Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. – Kurt Vonnegut
If what you read makes you angry, or sad, or frustrated, or whatever—use that. Finding something you care about is worth cherishing. If you want to rant against the author’s premise or post a rebuttal to their argument, go for it. This will make your brain work really hard, as you analyze their ideas and form your own in response.
It can even take place as marginalia—the notes and marks we make in the margins of our books. This helps us to not only remember the author’s original point better, but to form our own clear thoughts about what we’ve read, as pointed out in How to Read a Book:
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.
Whether you want to write a review or summary of what you’ve read, share some lessons you learned or simply explore some of the ideas it brought up for you, this can be a highly beneficial exercise. After all, storytelling has a profound impact on our brains. Bringing your reading and writing together might help you to notice how they relate more, as well. For instance, recognizing clever word usage in what you read or picking up style tips to use in your own work.
No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.
And as Paul Graham said, “writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them.” So get reading, get writing, and watch the ideas start flowing! And especially if you’re writing online, you can become very scientific about how to share on Twitter, Facebook and finding titles for your blog to make your writing and reading life even easier.