I'm an English professor, and I spent the first 15 years of my career trying to write like one. You might be surprised by what that's like. We don't emulate the fiction writers we most admire. We too rarely practice what we preach to our composition students — namely that good writing is simple and direct. In fact, we're notorious for maze-y sentences and ugly jargon. The point seems less to attract readers with clear prose than to smack them over the head with a sign that says, "Aren't I smart?"
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to start writing for general readers, not just my fellow Ph.D.s. To do so, I knew I needed to unlearn my worst academic habits while studying the best techniques of great writers. Here are three fun-to-read books that helped my writing.
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King tells us what he knows about making stories work, and shows us too — in absorbing narratives from his own life. His account of being run over by a speeding van is as violent and visceral as his best fiction. King says that writers must get used to tossing material that doesn't work, even if they love it (he quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "murder your darlings"), and he hands down a single "Great Commandment," one he's kept religiously through his long career: "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."
Advice to Writers, editedby Jon Winokur, is a collection of quotations on the writer's craft. The book offers nothing less than the collective trench wisdom of generations of great authors: Mark Twain — "when you catch an adjective, kill it"; Hemingway on persistence — he claimed to scrawl 91 clunky pages for every sparkler; and Flaubert on the necessity of revision — "prose is like hair," he wrote, "it shines with combing". After reading Winokur's book of quotations, the writing process no longer seems mysterious. There's no great secret to writing well: Accomplished authors just install themselves at desks, where they doggedly muddle their way toward something good. As the great sportswriter Red Smith once said, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
In his classic book, On Writing Well, the teacher and writer William Zinsser braids together general advice — including mercifully lucid guidelines on punctuation and grammar — with specific tips that would be great for all the bloggers out there: how to write about business, sports, science, technology, the arts and more. For Zinsser, "clutter" is the great "disease of American writing," leaving us "strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon." Zinsser finds the cure in Thoreau's mantra: "Simplify. Simplify." Writers must rewrite and revise — razoring away everything showy or superfluous — stripping language down "to its cleanest components."
You don't have to be an aspiring author to gain from the wisdom in these books. Writing is sweaty work, but on the best days you'll agree with the ancient Egyptian sage Ptahhotep. "Be a scribe!" he said. "Your body will be sleek, your hand will be soft ... your servants answer speedily; beer is poured copiously; all who see you rejoice in good cheer."
Jonathan Gottschall is a professor and the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
Three Books...is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman, with production assistance from Andrew Otis.