What to read if you want to write well

  • Five basic books on the English language that everyone should read—if writing is what they want to do

Mar 16, 2019-

Writing might seem like an art, but it is as much perseverance and hard work, countless hours of toiling late nights over books, reading and rereading. And then, countless more hours of writing then editing and rewriting. For young people, romantic in their conception of the writer, words come unbidden, and the writer, as if possessed by genius, is simply a vessel for something transcendent. When, in fact, the work of writing is very much immanent. It is Aristotle, not Plato. The writer is an artisan as much as an artist. Like in everything else, talent and skill have to be honed, sharpened and used, or else it will go rusty.

But even before we get to the point of putting our skills into practice, there is the long, arduous and neverending task of learning from those who have done it before us, and perhaps will do it better than we ever could. Before writing, comes reading. And although every successful writer has said this before, it bears repeating, endlessly: good writing cannot come without good reading.

I have worked as Opinions editor for three years and am currently Features editor, both at this paper, and I have come across more bad writing than I can stomach. It is not just the poorly argued or the grammatically wrong, but writing that shows, nakedly, that the writer hasn’t bothered to read enough. I’ve received articles from people who hold a Master’s in English or are professors of the English language, and I have been appalled at their poor grasp of the technicalities of language but also of their woeful ignorance of all that makes writing creative—metaphor, rhythm, variance, economy and detail.

So in the interest of receiving submissions that are better written, and with creative flair, here are a number of books that everyone should read (or should have read by now) if they want to become good writers:


1.    The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

This elementary text was published over 60 years ago and is still as relevant as ever. The book was originally written by William Strunk and later expanded greatly by EB White, the writer of classics such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. White’s own essay, ‘Once More to the Lake’, is by itself a masterclass in the art of writing a great essay. It is evocative, sensitive and written with flair. The Elements of Style, on the other hand, is barebones. Much of its prescriptions might seem dated by modern standards and there has been criticism over its antiquated and often stodgy style but it is a book that everyone should read if it is in their interest to write in English. It lays out the rules and if you don’t know the rules, you can’t really break them.


2.    The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

Written by a cognitive scientist and linguist, you might expect this book to be heavy and filled with jargon. But it is an approachable and highly readable book on writing well. Pinker brings his effusive style to prescriptive writing, explaining clearly how to write well, but also showing, through numerous examples, what constitutes good and bad writing. Pinker is not as conservative as Strunk and White and his guide is for the modern century, so it takes into account slang, jargon, chat acronyms and even emojis. Think of this book as an updated version of the Strunk and White book, which might tempt you to start right with this one. That wouldn’t be wrong, but this book builds on the work of Strunk and White and both books read in tandem will help with the basics of the English language a lot, primarily when it comes to grammar, style, structure and voice.  


3. On Writing by Stephen King

Stephen King is one of the world’s most prolific writers, producing at least a book or two every year. And his books aren’t short either; they’re often massive tomes that feature complex plots, numerous memorable characters and often a scary presence or two. King is a popular novelist, known more for his horror than his writing, and that has done him a disservice. Much of his work is deeply layered and his characterisation profound and moving. On Writing is not a novel, though. King calls it a “memoir of the craft” and it is a deeply personal book about how he has managed to become one of the best-selling writers of all time. There is much wisdom to be found even in his anecdotes, which are funny but emotive. He shows you how to write well, without really teaching.


4.    Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway

One of the most difficult things to do while starting to write is choosing the right words. There is a temptation to use big words, words that come out of a thesaurus or a dictionary but often, these are the wrong words. Words choice is a delicate process, one that takes a long time and multiple readings to perfect. Prose must be treated like poetry, where every word matters and nothing is out of place. There has never been a better teacher of the economy of language than Ernest Hemingway. Every book of his is a masterclass in restraint, in using the simplest words to say the most complex things. Hemingway’s response to William Faulkner, who chastised him for never having used a single word that might send a reader to a dictionary, sums up his entire philosophy: “Pook Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?” But perhaps even more important than his lessons on writing is Hemingway’s insistence on integrity, that the writer believe and stand behind what they have written, that your writing is who you are, and all else be damned.  


5.    Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

There are few things in writing that are harder to do than humour. Without the physical presence of the stage or the visual delight of the screen, words on a page can easily fall flat. There are of course humorists who are devastatingly witty and hilariously funny on the page, but Kurt Vonnegut is not a humorist. He writes about war, time travel, espionage, preternatural twins and all manner of the strange and absurd. And yet, he is funny. Of course, his is a dry and dark humour, finding lightness even in the darkest of times. His humour is never flippant; it is deeply humanist and it is more persuasive than most pseudo-philosophical ramblings that are published as spiritual guidebooks to being a better person. Cat’s Cradle is not a book on writing; it’s a novel about a great many things, but mostly about a man named John, who calls himself Jonah. But this novel teaches how to write with empathy and good humour, even about the darkest of themes. It teaches how, in the quest to find that perfect sentence, one must not lose themselves to the travails of what is supposed to be, forgetting what is. It is a lesson in humanity and a lesson in humility. Vonnegut’s writing and much good writing can be summed in these couplets from Cat’s Cradle: “Tiger got to hunt/ Bird got to fly/ Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why’/ Tiger got to sleep / Bird got to land / Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Published: 16-03-2019 09:00

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