Writing is a muscle, and we must use it to build it. Our writing practices differ depending on why we’re writing in the first place.
College essay writers become bound by mark schemes, structures, and deadlines. Creative writers need to ensure they’re not writing trite trash. Technical writers have the task of creating clear and concise instructions. All writing is different, yet it uses the same tool - language.
Ultimately, if we were so brave, the goal of writing is about illumination. Whether that’s the description of a tropical frog in an essay or the manual for an office photocopier, with this shared goal in mind, making ourselves better at writing can be done in a few ways.
We can write more; that’s always a significant factor. Writers never improve if they never write. We can enlist an editor, as we’re often blind to our own mistakes. And finally, we can study. College is expensive, but books are thankfully cheap. The following books for writers have offered insight and instruction to students (used in the loosest sense possible) of writing for years.
1) The Sense of Style - Steven Pinker
Many of the best books on writing take quite a stern tone. Steven Pinker, however, has a more playful and open-ended approach. Pinker is a Harvard professor and encourages flexibility and freedom in writing. You may recognize the name from his many books and his infamous graphs showing how the world is getting better.
Regardless of whether his graphs are correct, his work on writing is crisp and motivating. Pinker deals with style related to writing and offers a great explanation of the often quoted “good readers, good writers” adage.
“[Avid readers] have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and clash.” I couldn’t have put it better, Steven.
2) On Writing - Stephen King
While studying, I was recommended On Writing by Stephen King; though not a film or even an English student, the book was instrumental. It focuses a lot on ‘writing mentality,’ which is essentially a synonym for ‘how the hell do I sit in the chair and do it?’.
One quote that stuck out for me was, “the scariest moment is always just before you start.” It’s true; deadlines were never scary. They appeared on the horizon, and we would all sigh. The end is always coming, and it is finite. It’s when you start that’s up to you. That’s what requires the most dedication and what sparks the most fear. When I came to write my essay, I remembered this quote and just sat down and got on with it.
3) Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You - Ray Bradbury
Notwithstanding the book’s bombastic subtitle, Ray Bradbury’s book contains volumes of ideas to help writers. Innovate and extricate their ideas from their heads - that’s the aim of the game. Bradbury does this by revealing some of the ways his famous works.
4) The Associated Press Stylebook
For those working with words, the AP Stylebook is a bible. AP style is shorthand for; this is how you write in journalism and media. The Associated Press is a non-profit news agency founded in 1846. With a global reach and influence, the AP style guide is essential for aspiring and established writers.
What makes the AP style guide so important is its approach to basic writing skills and how it settles arguments, for instance, how the collective media refers to certain events and uses specific terms. For journalism students, if you want to know how to improve writing skills before a big hand-in or deadline, make sure you double-check with AP. The book is published biennially, and there is also an online version available - it is behind a paywall, but students may have institutional access.
5) On Writing Well - William Zinsser
Straight-talking William Zinsser left an indelible mark on non-fiction. His book On Writing Well also sold incredibly well. Zinsser didn’t slouch about revisions either. He frequently updated the text and welcomed technological revolutions like the computer.
Zinsser, as the wise old man of non-fiction, has many aphorisms to go on. For instance, writers should study masters and contemporaries, read everything aloud, and don’t ever believe you’re going to write anything definitive.