[Last updated: 09/11/2015]
Learning to write is tricky. Good writing is subjective. What one person loves, another detests. I set off on this journey hoping to develop good writing, but I’ve found this original goal is not specific enough.
In copywriting – writing to inspire action – there’s a clear goal to each piece of writing. When it comes to stories, the goal might be to evoke empathy, or demonstrate the value of a certain perspective, or persuade the reader to reconsider their own worldview.
Measuring how effective a piece of writing is, especially away from hardcore marketing, is difficult. Asking for feedback when you’re an insecure dreamer is daunting. When we pluck up the courage to do so, it’s often to be disappointed by the vagueness of the guidance we receive.
‘It’s very you’ means what exactly?
Nothing has improved my writing more than genuine feedback, and nothing has been as distracting for its development. I keep on aggressively pushing for quality. Seeking out and engaging feedback is crucial, but between conversations with those brave and through enough to be trusted to edit your words, reading a few books on regular writing hiccups helps too.
The two that I shan’t let you borrow
1 – Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Love it; hate it.
Novel writing is overwhelming. When you’re hunting answers as to how to write, you come across a lot of details on the art of firing up your imagination, crafting in-depth characters and developing an over arching plot which changes the protagonist. What is often missed out is how you actually pull it all together.
Larry Brooks suggests ‘six competencies’, the fundamental building blocks of writing a story: theme, conflict, character, scenes, voice. What I learnt from reading his book is applicable to writing this blog and content marketing too. It’s about writing with purpose.
What Larry tells us is that thrashing around hoping something is going to work out won’t work. What I know from actually writing is that without a bit of thrashing around my imagination remains sedate. Reality requires a balance between the plotter and the ‘pantser’.
Reading Story Engineering, I discovered that whilst there’s nothing wrong with thrashing, it’s slow. Think of trying to swim the length of a pool. Technique trumps power.
So why the hate? The way Larry writes. That condescending…
Have you ever watched the Ted Talk by another Larry, Larry Smith, on why you will fail to have a great career? Larry King makes me feel the same way as Larry Smith does. He makes me need to take a deep breath. I’ve put the book down in frustration many a time, and yet I can’t help thinking that if only I submitted to the patronising wisdom then maybe I’d actually write something worth reading.
Maybe, the frustration is merely my fear. Maybe I despise Larry King because he calls out my failings.
Story Engineering stays close to my keyboard. It’s the book I go back to when I’m struggling with a scene or what I’m writing feels like clay. It’s not a book you may borrow, but if you want to write a novel, and your willing to work hard, rather than simply spiel out words all dream-like, then it’s the first book I’d recommend.
2 – Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation by John Seeley
This book is my grammar guru. Its tiny, but its explanations are the clearest I’ve come across. Every time I feel a bit stupid, or someone points out a mistake that I’m not so sure is a mistake, I go to this book. It doesn’t confuse, like so much grammar advice, it provides clarity.
The other books on writing I’ve read
(These books are in no particular order.)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King
Second hand, of unknown origin.
Works best read front cover to back cover. The tone of the helpful advice was neither condescending, nor lecturing, which I found refreshing.
Not a particularly memorable read.
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
I’ve no idea where this book came from either – it’s also second-hand.
You could quite happily read a chapter a day and learn one lesson at a time. I read it in the bath. Full of good ideas and thoughts, but it’s not got enough of its own character to be a book I feel overly compelled to keep.
You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils
The Mother bought me this book. I guess this means she thinks I should try writing children’s fiction.
It’s a fluid read. You’d expect a level of simplicity perhaps from a children’s writer. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in writing children’s books. My criticism is that it could have gone into more depth in the sections devoted to middle grade and young adult fiction. Separate chapters with more in-depth information for these separate age ranges would be useful.
I keep it for every now and again when I go back to playing writing fairy-tales.
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
I read this book twice. Both times I borrowed it from the library (Warwick).
Why is it so good? Because it’s like the friend sat on your bed sharing chocolate and drinking tea whilst telling you their honest opinion. Reading the book this is how I hear Betsy Lerner’s voice. You believe what she says. You trust her, you want her to like you – you feel she’s selective though about who she does like – and that’s somehow inspiring.
Betsy Lerner’s blog is a giggle.
You are a Writer by Jeff Goins
Read as an eBook.
My favourite piece of Jeff Goins’ writing is actually his Wrecked Manifesto, from which I keep this lovely quote (not actually of Jeff Goins) which is the answers the question ‘What should I do with my life?’.
Step one. Stop pretending we’re all on the same staircase. – Po Bronson
That said, I enjoyed You are a Writer. Jeff Goins’ writing I like, because of his honesty and humility, but occasionally it feels a little too preachy to be really lovable. Occasionally I read something he’s written and I’m wowed, other times I feel he’s holding back out of politeness. Or he’s trying too hard.
He’s the author on this list I’d be most interested in meeting in person. You can get a feel for his writing on his site, goinswriter.com. If you want to be a writer, he genuinely wants to encourage you to write.
This was the book I borrowed from Newbury library when I first got a job in marketing. Confidence lacking, I was determined to do something about my English.
It’s an encouraging read. It gave me a foundation to stand on when I was discussing persuasive and formal writing in the office and it made me feel like I was getting my inadequacies under control.
I was surprised how good it was.
The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway
Found in Oxfam.
Not a book I’d necessarily recommend for someone who wants to improve their writing, it’s a little old-fashioned, but it does make an entertaining read.
I’ve rambled a little about F. W. Westaway’s writing guidance already on the blog so I shan’t repeat myself here.
Books about reading
Because writing without reading is like driving a car without a road.
Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose
A present from the Grump, whose support is always appreciated. You don’t need to want to write to find this book useful, but if you do want to write widely, it’s a pleasant read that’s suggests different ways of looking at fiction.
For me, a physics graduate who hadn’t read critically since school GCSEs, it was the bridge towards my current interrogative style. It’s an accessible book. A confidence booster. It’s filled with examples and extracts that make you stop to think.
It comes with a suggested reading list in the back for the non-literature student to use to broaden their own reading, and I have it to thank for making me fall in love with Chekhov.
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller
This book was one of the Mother’s holiday reads. She enjoyed it, and so I followed her lead.
It wasn’t a great book, there was no great learning i took from it, no great insight, but it was amusing. It was perfectly suited to laying out on the veranda of an Italian villa and made me feel rather smug about how much I read. It made me wonder about reading War and Peace. There was something in the tone of voice though that left me suspecting that Andy Miller and I wouldn’t make the best of friends.
So these are the books I’ve read on writing. Which book has had the biggest impact on how you write?