Thursday, July 24, 2008

Best Books on Writing: Some classics

There are so many books on writing, and so many different kinds – on the craft, life as a writer, style-guides – that it is hard to know which ones to read. Most writers aren’t looking for any old book, either. They want something specific and knowledgeable, for this moment in their story or that bout of writer’s block. 

Something to help. Inspire. Teach. Revolutionize. And what is good for this won’t always work for that. Figuring out which ones you want to read can be a disappointing process.

With this in mind, I am beginning a new series where I’ll read and review books on writing. This means popular titles as well as little known, word-of-mouth favorites. (If you know of a particularly great title, by all means e-mail me. I might not review it, but I’ll at least check it out.) I’m always on the look out for the next great book.

I wanted to kick off the series by reviewing some all-time classics: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and William Zissner’s On Writing Well. (I would have added The Element’s of Style by Strunk&White, but I haven’t read it yet!) Now. On to the review.

Full title: On 

Writing: A Memoir 

of the Craft

Author: Stephen King

Price: $25 on

Genre: Memoir, writing

Type: hardcover

This book is two parts memoir, one part method. Stephen King talks about how he began writing, how he got the ideas for his first books, and where he thinks his horror influences came from. (While writing his first published novel Carrie, he worked washing sheets for a nearby hospital. Often he found flesh and bloody surgeon’s tools wrapped inside the sheets.)

In part two, King covers the basics of writing. The advice is helpful and simple. There’s less concentration on modern issues – saidisms, for example – and more focus on writing novels as a whole. It makes a nice contrast against some modern books.

The third part of On Writing concentrates on King’s accident, which he had, apparently, around the same time as he was writing On Writing. This part of the book is a neat account of how to push past writer’s block and personal difficulties.

Best piece of writing advice: cut 10% of your finished draft.

Worth the price? Maybe. It was an interesting read, but more memoir than anything else.

Full title: Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Author: Anne Lamott

Price: $13.95 on back cover

Genre: Authorship, handbooks, manuals

Type: Softcover

This book is very human and neurotic, every bit about the tortured artist, concentrating mainly about the emotion aspects 

of writing. It has some great information about writer’s block, rejection/dejection, and becoming a writer in general.

The book is in five parts: “Writing,” “The Writing Frame of Mind,” “Help Along the Way,” “Publication—And Other Reasons to Write,” and “The Last Class.” This is no textbook. Every lesson tends to get nailed in with a personal anecdote and encouragement. It really gives you a sort of understanding for what kind of writer Anne Lamott is. Like King did, Anne Lamott chronicles her journey to becoming a writer, getting published, and what her influences were along the way. While writing the book Lamott was also teaching fiction at a college.

The best pieces of writing advice: When tackling a large project, take things one step at a time, and concentrate only on the task before you.

Worth the price? Yup. Fun read, inspirational, unique…it’s one of those “must haves” you always hear about. 


Full title: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

Author: William Zissner

Price: $14.95 on back cover

Genre: English language, journalism

Type: Softcover

Of all the popular memoirs, this had to be my least favorite. Two reasons: one, I am not a journalist, and two, the book was a bit verbose, analytical, and dry. Zissner’s narrative contradicted his own advice regularly. It also had a definite textbook feel that I did not care for.

The book is in four parts: “Principles,” “Methods,” “Forms,” and “Attitudes.” Again, basics are covered, mostly about the act of writing or editing. You hear a lot of anecdotes about Zissner working with businesses to simplify their legal writing. Near the end, he talks some about his career.

Best piece of writing advice: Nothing stuck out at me.

Worth the price? Maybe for some. A person from a less rushed, more relaxed era would probably enjoy it more than I did.


-Creative A




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