Writing season (another Top Five list)

It’s been an autumn of writing. Maybe not enough in these blog pages – apologies, readers – but plenty of writing, all told: manuscripts for the long road to publication (or not); grant proposals; new content for the departmental Website. The variety of problem solving – broken introductions, unravelled middles, empty-handed conclusions, all capped under hard-ceiling word counts – is part of what I’ve found exciting. My office is the equivalent of a mechanic’s shop strewn with parts. Printed pages rendered illegible by my own marginalia cover every surface wide enough for me to discard them onto. I’ve tapped out my red pens, green pens, and the blue pens are down to their dregs. Tracking changes crashed my outdated version of Word every day last week.

E's working notes.

E’s working notes.

All of which has brought my favorite books on writing close to hand. (They’re never too far away.) With two graduate students in the lab – Paul Evans and Josh Ahmed – both readying their first respective manuscripts for submission to peer-reviewed journals, this seems a good occasion to lay out my own Top Five-or-so resources. (And if you, readers, have your own go-to texts that I don’t mention, lemme know. A crowd-sourced list might look pretty interesting.)

Classic as it is, I will not open with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style because I think it relies on a sophisticated level of background knowledge. In 1918, when the first edition was rolling out, “grammar school” was still called that for a reason. The books I have in mind, especially for nascent writers, offer less shorthand and more explanation.

  1. For example, why are adverbs so bad? What’s clutter? William Zinsser will tell you – have a seat. Zinsser’s On Writing Well is a masterwork.
  2. The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, Williams) is a late arrival to my shelf, but another essential. The book unpacks the research process with the structure of a style guide. What constitutes a research question? What is the architecture of a coherent argument? How do you learn to recognize when you’re making a claim you need to back up?
  3. Another recent recommendation that came my way is Graff & Birkenstein’s slim volume, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Helpful for those who are trying to embed writing as a transferable skill in the classes they teach. Clean, transparent, and full of exercises to inflict upon an unsuspecting lecture theatre. Your future self, who is already grading papers, is glad you scrounged a copy for your present self. Your past self is mad, and might be for a while.
  4. I’ve always loved Ray Bradbury’s essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing. Bradbury steers away from the stylistic and revels in the creative practice – his joy is contagious.
  5. And this summer my father gave me a copy of Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s new book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, which includes a terrific chapter titled “Editing & Being Edited.” My dad has been a writer and editor his entire adult life – which is probably why I keep a Top Five list of favorite books about writing. The fact that he was so impressed with Good Prose caught my attention – Kidder & Todd certainly kept his.

I should also mention Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, which I do keep within reach – except Bernstein’s language can be a bit dated, particularly in some of his anthropological examples, which I discovered to my peril when I tried reading aloud an excerpt to a classroom of students without having first scanned the paragraph. (So endeth the lesson.) And there’s this Picasso quote (from Dore Ashton’s Picasso on Art), in which the artist explains the importance of editing his own work:

“When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must be on guard against these. Destroy the thing, do it over several times. In each destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial. What comes out in the end is the result of discarded finds. Otherwise, you become your own connoisseur. I sell myself nothing.”

If that austerity makes you cringe, there’s always George Eliot’s remarks about the relief that comes from having a reader (and editor?) who understands the messiness of someone else’s brain (indeed, the best editor my father, the editor, has ever had is my mother):

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

Amen. With that, thanks for reading. More soon.

EDL

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