She was the most arduous abecedary I’d ever encountered, Ms. Amelia Merritt. As my high school English teacher, she was tougher than a drill sergeant. She dressed tough and talked tough and had the kind of smoker’s voice that would make you wonder if she gargled with roofing nails.
That’s why, when in the middle of my senior year, she barked out in the middle of class, “Bruce Ashford, if you don’t become a writer, you will have wasted your life,” I snapped to attention. It’s why, when I enrolled in college a few months later, I chose to major in journalism and write for The Campbell Times. And—in some way or the other—it’s why my career path has led me into various types of writing, including books, essays, speeches, opinion pieces, and blogposts.
Along the way, as I’ve sought to improve my craft, I’ve benefited from some valuable books whose sage advice have made me much less bad at writing than I otherwise would have been. In honor of Amelia Merritt, then, I offer this list of seven books on the craft of writing. Although the list might benefit any kind of writer—young or old—I offer it especially for those embryonic scribes who aspire to the type of short-form non-fiction writing found in blogposts and opinion pieces.
1. William Zinsser, On Writing Well. This twentieth-century classic is the first book I read about writing, and it may well be the best “first book on writing” for anybody who wishes to excel at short-form non-fiction writing. It instructs the aspiring writer not only in the basic principles of writing but also the distinctive demands of various subjects such as science, sports, art, business, humor, and journalism.
2. William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Like On Writing Well, Strunk and White’s Elements is a classic text, having withstood the test of time. It covers the basics of usage (e.g. nouns, verbs, commas, clauses), composition (e.g. sentences, paragraphs), and style (e.g. clarity, voice, figures of speech).
3. Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools. This slim volume is a lively little romp through the field of English composition. It consists of fifty short chapters on writing, organized into four sections: “Nuts and Bolts,” “Special Effects,” “Blueprints for Stories,” and “Useful Habits.” Clark gives a masterful overview of the task of writing, treats each subject with insight and concision, and illustrates his points with numerous examples from literature and journalism.
4. Roy Peter Clark, How to Write Short. “In the digital age, short writing is king.” In era of tweets, Facebook updates, blogposts, emails, and text messages, attention spans are short and short-writing authors are in demand. For this reason, Clark’s How to Write Short is a nearly-indispensable aid for aspiring writers and a very helpful resource even for seasoned scribes.
5. Trish Hall, Writing to Persuade. This book is the best one-stop guide to writing persuasive short-form articles. As the former chief of the New York Times opinion pages, Hall draws upon her experience to offer sage advice in chapters such as “Know Your Audience,” “Play on Feelings,” and “Tell Stories.” Smart, lucid, and witty, Writing to Persuade provides just what is needed for writers who wish to influence minds in hearts in our information-saturated era.
6. Doug Wilson, Wordsmithy. Sub-titled “Hot Tips for the Writing Life,” this little 124-page book punches well above its weight, offering aspiring authors guidance on living the kind of life from which good writing arises. Witty and wise, Wilson instructs potential writers to live in the real world, read the kind of writing they wish to imitate, consult mechanical helps, and realize that good writing is hard work.
7. Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence. In this gem of a book, legal theorist and best-selling author Fish explores the art of crafting fine sentences. He exhibits a love for, and careful attention to, the English language; helps the reader learn how great writing happens; and makes clear that a skilled writer must be, first and foremost, infatuated with sentence-construction.
These are a few of the books that have helped me think clearly about the task of writing. There are other types of resources writers will find helpful—for example, published collections of articles written by great essayists such as Joseph Epstein or William F. Buckley, Jr. But for now, this list of seven will do. Enjoy.
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