The seventeenth century writer Ben Johnson once observed, “For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries. To read the best authors, observe the best speakers: and much exercise of his own style.”
Johnson’s words emphasize that if we want to learn to write well, we must study the rules of grammar and the techniques of great authors. Before we can construct a palace with our own words, we need a foundation with which to build. In today’s post, I’m sharing four books that have served as several of my best writing teachers. They’ve helped me strengthen my knowledge of grammar and develop my stylistic technique. I hope they will also help you on your way to mastering the craft of writing.
1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
This book may be only little more than eighty pages long, but The Elements of Style is a fantastic way to review all of those grammar rules you learned long ago in middle school. The book was originally written by William Strunk who taught English at Cornell. After Strunk’s death, E. B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) was asked to revise the volume, and he ended up nearly doubling its length with the content that he added. Now the book is commonly referred to as simply Strunk & White.
Aside from grammar, the book also covers commonly misused words and phrases, principles of composition when writing an essay, and advice on stylistic techniques for holding your readers’ attention.
This book is useful for any kind of writing. In college, one of my politics professors assigned this book to our class and gave us a quiz on its content. Though Strunk & White has nothing to do with politics, the professor believed that our final politics papers would be much more concise and precisely written if we had committed the rules of this book to memory.
While Strunk & White is an excellent handbook filled with lots of wonderful information, it is not a definitive reference manual on grammar or style. For that, I recommend checking out a volume like the AP Stylebook. However, Strunk & White is by far much more entertaining and easier to swallow in one sitting.
2. The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife and K. D. Sullivan
After you have a strong grasp of grammar, the next step is learning how to develop and improve the style of your writing. Sentences can pose one of the biggest challenges. A teacher assigned The Art of Styling Sentences in a nonfiction writing class I took in high school, and after working through it, I was amazed by how much more eloquent my writing had become. Since then, I have used it several times when teaching writing classes here at the Academy and strongly recommend it.
It can be difficult to know how to vary your sentences, but this book comes to the rescue with its straightforward lessons that train you how to write clear, coherent, beautifully structured sentences. Each lesson covers a different sentence pattern, showing examples of how famous writers have used the sentence pattern in their own writing. There is a short exercise at the end of each lesson so that you can practice constructing the sentence on your own.
The authors observe, “You learn to write better sentences as you learn almost every other skill: by imitating the examples of those who have that skill…If you are willing to improve your writing skills by copying models of clear sentences, the following five chapters will help you master the skill of writing well, with grace and style.”
This is a gem of book that every student of writing should work through.
3. Storycraft by Jack Hart
Narrative nonfiction is one of the most difficult genres to master. Anytime you are writing an essay or an article, you need to make sure your writing is entertaining enough to hold the attention of your readers. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction completely changed the way I approached nonfiction writing.
I recommend this book to advanced writers who truly want to take their writing to an even higher level.
Jack Hart, the author of Storycraft, served for many years as managing editor at The Oregonian, the Pacific Northwest’s largest newspaper. He also guided several Pulitzer-prize winning articles to publication. In this book, he shares everything that he learned from his many years as a journalist and, using examples from books and newspaper articles, deconstructs how to tell a captivating story. He covers everything from how to develop characters to choosing point of view to bringing scenes to life.
Even though this book is aimed at writers of nonfiction, I believe there is much that even writers of fiction can glean from its pages. I’ve used many tips and techniques that I learned from this book when working on short stories.
Actually, this is an essay, not a book, but it is too good not to include on the list. In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell, famous for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, laments the “ugly and inaccurate” written English of his time, showing how language can be manipulated to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Essentially, he argues that you shouldn’t try to make your writing sound intellectual by being overly wordy and using archaic words that no one understands anymore.
The essay is worth reading simply for his six rules to writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell’s essay on why he writes is also worth a read as a nice dose of inspiration: read it here.