To be a writer, one must first be a reader.
A simple idea often abused.
I find it goes well with the quote:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe.”
The very practice of reading is how writers sharpen their axe. The greatest thing I did for myself as a writer was to take a few hours from my day to actively read: books, papers, articles, fellow blogs, whatever.
The key word at play: actively.
This goes well beyond the reading one does (well, should do) in the hour before falling asleep in that awkward reading position of the bed. I’ve gone so far to suggest four hours of reading to every one of writing, a practice I maintained for a solid week before I fell behind on my deadlines.
Active reading is key. Notes in the margins, sticky notes stuck to the pages, re-reading passages a few times over because the information jumps out at you or the style of the writing feels like it could worth learning from. Reading should always be more than eyes scanning characters for meaning. Grab a pencil and start stabbing the meaning in the pulp, or apply your own elsewhere.
While I could wax onward for eons about all the reasons fiction should be at the top of EVERY writer’s list, I wanted to collect, in one spot, the handful of books every writer of every discipline should have on hand and review no less than once a month.
Yes, this is the book which is lampooned at the center of the film Adaptation, where the Charlie Kauffman character tries to work his way through adapting and impossible book into a screenplay. If you’re not a screenwriter, you should read on. There is a good reason this book is not titled “How To Write A Screenplay,” (although the sub-title does read to the effect). Regardless of the chosen medium, one fact remains: you are creating a story. You’d do well to learn how to do it right. While this book is loaded with lessons on everything from structuring an act to improving on-screen dialog, it is full of the philosophy of story and storytellers.
“For most writers, the knowledge they gain from reading and study equals or outweighs experience, especially if that experience goes unexamined. Self-knowledge is the key – life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.”
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” So goes one of the dozens of gems of wisdom buried in the pages of this necessary meditation on the art and life of writing. On Writing is a persistently referenced book throughout the world of writing, for a good reason. It is the one text every writer reaches for when someone asks “how can I be a better writer?” Must you read it? No. You don’t have to read anything. Do you want people to continue to read the work you are putting out? Then yes, read the damn book. It’ll take you a few hours.
Style, format, and ending arguments about comma placement.
This section is the largest and will remain the largest for all time to come. The strength of a writer’s pulse, especially a working writer who is tasked with editing and improving their own writing, is in their reference shelf.
William Strunk Jr & E.B. White
Written in the early part of the 1900s for the dedicated audience of students attending classes at Cornell, The Elements of Style is a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” Over a century since the initial publication, some of the passages are a bit dusty and could use a bit of freshening up. At the worst, it puts you in the mindset of rethinking what you are writing, why you are writing it, and why some words are better left unwritten.
Where Elements of Style is a stripped-down idea of how to make writing concise and to the point, Spunk and Bite permits writers to play around with sentence structure to punch up their style. While Plotnik advocates that some rules are OK to break, I’ll forever advocate that rules may be broken so long as you know what the rule is and why it is worth breaking.
In a world where we all walk about with entire dictionaries in our pockets, why bother with a six-inch block of paper capable of breaking a toe (through tripping, or dropping, your choice)? Precisely. With our ever-connected lives where the definition and use case for every word imaginable (and unimaginable!) at our fingertips, we sure find ways to misuse about half of our language. Why not grab a dictionary? At the very least you will have a right and ready resource to resolve crossword- and Scrabble-sourced arguments.
Purely punctual. She gets a bit cheeky here and there and provides anecdotal breakdowns of the commonly screwed-up punctuation which worms its way into our language.
I remember the late nights at our collegiate newspaper’s copy desk where we were only able to afford versions of the AP Stylebooks which were at least four editions old. From comma placements to “which commonly-used word gets itself capitalized nowadays,” this is the book with the answer you’re likely seeking.
If nothing else on this list, grab a copy of Dreyer’s English. From the copy chief at Random House (yes, THAT Random House) Benjamin Dreyer takes us through all the mistakes we seem to love to make and ways to never make them again. I think of it as an updated edition of Elements of Style, beefed up to handled all the mishaps and faux pas our increased bandwidth of written communication causes today.
Writing would be great if it weren’t the only thing I knew how to do.
I publish as much as I can, you’ll just have to wait for the rest.