They say to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. And by “they,” I mean writers. Maybe this is why so many popular writers are writing books about writing, from how-to’s to memoirs. The genre is full of guides for specific audiences, e.g. Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s also drowning in pretentious odes by writers to themselves—Stephen King’s On Writing sets the standard for condescension. Each proclaims to be open to the beginner (read, the acolyte) but so few are truly accessible and genuinely helpful to normal people. Other books about writing are prescriptive bricks written by academics and are as fun and easy to read as your lease (looking at you, Bedford Handbook). I’ve read a lot of books about writing, by prolific writers and obscure grammar warriors alike. Those that really affected me and my writing were those that were inviting, honest, and at least a little fun to read. Here are my top three picks.
1) Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt
This book is nothing if not approachable. At only about 140 pages long, it chronicles the journey of Rosenblatt, a writer, and his writing class in an MFA program. Rosenblatt’s text is narrative, and reads more like a novella than a proper memoir or writing guide. By exploring the dialogues he and his students engage with during their writing program, he dispenses advice about writing, in his own voice and in those of his students. He dwells on elements of story like suspense and dialogue, as well as stylistic issues. Yet, he’s never directly prescriptivist.
Rosenblatt does, though, get dangerously close to the Stephen King problem: you can tell he’s a little in love with himself. However, what makes this book most approachable is the way Rosenblatt himself is humbled by the mystery of writing. His strongest moments are when he effuses about why he writes, and what writing and reading mean to him, connecting to them a spiritual way.
This book is definitely an easy, fast read that is set up as a story–he tries to teach writing in this book without explicitly doing so, kind of like you’re the Karate Kid and he’s Mr. Miyagi. Unless It Moves the Human Heart would be best for those who want to write fiction, or want to know why bother writing at all.
2) Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace is not really an easy read in many cases. If you are already into writing, you’ll enjoy his delightfully non-standard use of excessive, if hilarious, footnotes. If not, the footnotes might make you insane, although the essays themselves which comprise the book are lighthearted, witty, and easy to get through. Some of these essays deal directly with writing, either examining his own process or reflecting on his experiences teaching writing. Others are just fun examples of Wallace’s writing talent.
He is certainly more humble and approachable as a writer, and as his own literary character, than Rosenblatt is. However, his essays are a bit harder to get through, and teach more by example about writing. That is, Wallace is more interested in showing his own process as a writer or teacher than dispensing explicit instruction.
This book will be most attractive to readers who are already convinced by the whole writing thing, and want to hear a great writer talk about his process and life in an approachable (and refreshingly self-deprecating) way.
3) They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
They Say, I Say is the modern, merciful alternative to books like The Bedford Handbook and The Elements of Style. Written in much plainer language, They Say, I Say addresses the most important issues for student writers. It focuses on the use of sources, structure, and rhetorical strategies specifically for academic writing.
What makes this book uniquely helpful and approachable is its use of templates. It provides sample sentences and fill-in-the-blank structure templates that will help you get comfortable with the type of writing Graff and Birkenstein teach.
This book is best for students who want to work on their academic writing specifically, and who don’t want any fluff. If you want a clear guidebook to writing that will hold your hand through the process, They Say, I Say might be what you’re looking for.
These three are by no means the only good writing books out there. And if you’re looking to write a specific genre or are a disciple of a particular writer, you will definitely enjoy a lot of the writing books that are out there and not what I categorized as “approachable.” However, these are my top three picks for writing books that are easy to read and digest, and will invite you to write in the way that makes you comfortable.