When it comes to writing well some things never change—at least not all that much. Take the revised edition of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White for example. In 1918, Strunk, a Cornell University English Professor, wrote a 43-page style guide and called it The Elements of Style. He published it himself, for use in his classroom. His main point, “Make every word tell,” or as he put it in his 13th elementary principle of composition—“Omit needless words.” Fast forward to 1957, when one of his students, White, decided to do an article on Strunk and his passion for lucid prose in The New Yorker. White called Strunk’s little book “a 43 page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.”
Not long after that some savvy editor at Macmillan commissioned White to update the “little book” (Strunk had died in 1946) and when it came out in 1959 it sold two million copies, right out of the gate. Today it is often affectionately referred to as "Strunk & White" and has sold over 10 million copies in three editions. Why? Because it is smart, sound, succinct, and feels as fresh and modern now as it did the day it was written 96 years ago. If you need to brush up on the elementary rules of usage and composition or figure out which pesky words you are most likely to misspell, this little classic is a must-have.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser is another brilliant book that I feel should be on every writer’s shelf. First published in 1976, it too has sold over a million copies. The Elements of Style is a book about “pointers and admonitions,” says Zinsser, whereas his book is about “how to write about people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, business and education, sports and the arts and everything else under the sun that’s worth writing about.”
Some of Bill Zinsser’s most helpful writing tips are:
- “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
- “Clear thinking becomes clear writing: one can’t exist without the other.”
- “If the reader is lost it is usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.”
- “You are writing for yourself...if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. “
- “The most important sentence in any article is the first one.”
- “There is not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
Of course there are dozens of fine books on writing well, but here is one more that particularly appeals to us.
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron explains that our brains are hard wired for story and good storytellers know clever ways to take advantage of this. “We think in story, which allows us to envision the future,” she says.
And what are some of the secrets of a good story? “From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next.” Cron says, “The plot is not what the story is about. The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist.”
Cron also suggests that if writers can’t see something they have written, they should go back and rewrite until they can. She believes that this is the only way to get the reader to feel the story, and, if the reader isn’t feeling it you can be sure she won’t be reading it for very long.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, describing Jeter’s home run in last night’s Yankee game or how your protagonist felt when she flubbed her lines in the first audition she'd had in two years, these books on writing well can give you the equipment, the insights, and the courage you need to make your book the best it can be.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.