Four invaluable books to help you transform your writing from good to great

Prescribing books and curating reading lists for other people based on their individual needs, interests and circumstances is my passion; as is writing non-fiction books on personal development together with poetry. Taking a break from writing I wondered how I could improve my own writing skills. This casual pondering led me to create a reading list for myself that could help me hone these. The result was the below reading list and my key takeaways from each one. Fabulous and inspiring, I’d recommend getting kindle or pocket copies of all of them. They serve as great reference points and are little ‘pocket cheerleaders’ with their warm and encouraging style.

On Writing Well: The Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Often quoted as ‘the writers’ bible’, On Writing Well is a classic for both the aspiring writer and seasoned writer. It prescribes core ground rules for elegant writing on any genre, particularly nonfiction. Its clear, practical and encouraging guidance together with timeless advice on crafting engaging writing makes it mandatory reading for anyone who is required to write on a daily basis. The most valuable lessons learnt from the book:

  1. Clarity of thought is the pre-requisite to clear, concise writing and effective communication.
  2. Paragraphs must be trimmed to make them visually appealing to the brain.
  3. Be confident in the purpose of your writing, and write about what you are passionate and enjoy. 
  4. Writing is a craft — it takes time to perfect the skill. Writing every day is crucial to developing and perfecting it. Practice makes perfect.
  5. Your main sources of inspiration are people and places. Observe them and experience them to create a truly authentic narrative.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr

The gold standard of writing well, this book clearly sets out all the rules that will transform your writing from good to great using the sheer power of editing. The four pieces of evergreen advice that stood out:

  1. Remove any unnecessary words and sentences including any irrelevant detail. Conduct a critical review and see if you can say more with less words and do not be afraid of deleting large chunks of writing if it can be said simply and in less words.
  2. “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”
  3. Always choose the active voice over the passive voice. For example, instead of saying that “conclusion on the verdict could not be reached”, say “No verdict was reached.”
  4. Use positive statement rather than negative statement. For example, instead of saying “the bus driver was unable to stop at the traffic lights”, say “the bus driver drove straight through the traffic lights!”. You can see which sentence is more powerful. Clear and concise writing is the end goal.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Inspired by her ten year-old brother’s school assignment on writing a report on birds, this is a phenomenal guide by Anne Lamott on every aspect of writing from getting started, to working with writer’s block to final publication. Filled with humour and inspiring quotes, these were the four gold nuggets of inspiration I took away from the book:

1. Your writing should always reflect some level of hope, as this is what leaves readers inspired and engaged.

2. Writing should become habitual and this can only be achieved by writing every day, setting a routine and striving to get that first draft out even if it feels ‘crap’.

3. Write as though you are dedicating the writing to your favourite author who has inspired you.

4. Writing is about being true to yourself — write with authenticity and tell your truth. Do not let what other people think of your writing get in the way.

A gracious book that will reassure you, reignite your faith in your writing and make you feel like you can complete a great piece of writing that will resonate with your readers. 

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

For those of you who are interested in writing great fiction, Stephen King’s memoir on writing is a must-read. A highly engaging biography of what it has taken Stephen King to become the writer he is today. From his childhood days, where his sole focus was to master the art of storytelling, to how writing helped his recovery from a road accident in 1999. The memoir focuses on the art of writing revealing important insights about writing well:

1. Making time to read is crucial to writing well and acquiring necessary writing tools. 5 hours a day should be spent reading and writing.

2. The secret to writing great description is about knowing when to stop so that the reader’s imagination can take over from the writer’s.

3. Finding a great editor is game-changing.

4. Kill the adverbs.

Filled with personal anecdotes as well as lots of information on character development, structuring a fictional plot, to creating good writing habits and dealing with rejection. You will want to re-read this even before you have finished it.

A big hello and thank you for reading! Passionate about literature, psychology, life and mental health I launched Book Therapy as a form of non-conventional therapy using the power of literature. I create reading lists/book prescriptions based on your individual needs. Feel free to reach out to me at bijal@booktherapy.io or www.booktherapy.io.

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