In a previous post I stated that the only writing book I pay attention to is John Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop.
Which is not the whole truth. The truth is that before my reductionism came some books that laid the land for specific terrain relevant to writing. Like lots of other writers, I’ve read a number of books on the topic. I’ve found that my tastes, and the most useful books to me, were by very pragmatic writers. The kind of writers who are really serious about making money from writing—but not gimmicky books. If it was pragmatic craft, it made the list.
So this is a pragmatic list. Some books not listed here that you possibly should read, such as Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel, I would highly recommend.
But after you get the basics, as it were.
Every writer will tell you to buy this, except for a few academic linguists who want you to
buy consider The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language instead (only $170 with Amazon’s discount!).
There’s a certain coolness associated with being so anti-Strunk, but dude, it’s all about minimizing the amount of words you bore your damn reader with. When you learn that, then you can play around with the decor without reading like someone who thinks that Victorian claustrophobia ((The Victorians apparently hated the idea of leaving plain space on the walls. Even Sherlock Holmes, reportedly, who filled his walls with pictures of criminals, although most Victorians preferred more refined, but no less numerous, mounted clutter.)) is all the rage of modern decorating.
I think all writers should try writing non-fiction, including those who are committed to writing the Great American Novel (or the next 20-book successor to The Wheel of Time). And non-fiction can more easily get you money, and even encourage you to explore fields you might not have otherwise, or at least without pay. A point that’s made a few times in the Coffee Shop book.
Zinsser gives you tips and advice on non-fiction in general, as well as the different types of non-fiction (interviewing, business versus sports versus technical writing, memoir, critique/reviews) and common sense attitudes for writing (“The Tyranny of the Final Product”, for instance).
Also, Zinsser’s introdution is partly a nice way to de-romanticize writing. My experience of writing is, these days, very much like his: painful, but addictive, which is a little sick if you think about it properly.
I need to review this particular book again, in light of recent events.
In many ways, Swain is the pragmatic double of Zinsser, except this time in the arena of fiction. His advice fits any type of fiction, as opposed to specific genres. This is the book I wish I’d had in my high school creative writing class. (And one that doesn’t cost over $100 at that.) Also, his advice assists with narrative non-fiction (think immersive memoirs, written like stories rather than like, well, memoirs).
I also think all writers should try to write at least some fiction. Fortunately, and possibly unfortunately, many already do or very much desire to.
Because I know of so few fiction writers who want to self-select themselves out of the slush pile and into the permanent circular bin. This is short, easy to read, has interesting examples, little exercises of dubious but okay natures. A little cost to improve your readability and chances by quite a lot, and help you get over the first bar. ((The second bar is, naturally, much higher, to the point where there are few, if any books that will help you get there. Some complain that there’s nothing but beginner writing books on craft out there, which is not exactly how I’d classify all of either Zinsser or Swain, but anyways: there’s a reason for that.))
And of course this. I consider this the king of the heap, and the others to be well-tried advisers.
But that’s just me.