The 5 best writing books no one ever told you about

From ‘The Procrastination Equation’ to ‘Spunk & Bite,’ here is a batch to help get you writing and keep your prose clean and clear.

Whenever I read lists of recommended writing books, I’m usually disappointed to find a roundup of the usual suspects: Stephen King, Ann Lamott, William Zinsser, and William Strunk. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these writers or their books. They’re all fine. Inspiring, even. Useful.

But I read them all years ago. I’d like some fresh inspiration, thank you very much.

So here’s my list. Five authors you probably haven’t heard of. Five books that are always filed, ready for action, on my writing bookshelves, if not already in my hands:

1. “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose,” by Constance Hale.

A grammar book that’s hip—how’s that for a contradiction? People frequently ask me to recommend books about grammar and this is the title I suggest. But I like this book because it covers more than grammar, heading toward style—and because it’s both funny and flexible. Hale parses Charlotte Bronte next to Muhammad Ali; she quotes Bob Dylan in her discussion of the verb “lay” and Dr. Seuss in her examination of rhyme and onomatopoeia.

The book also has the best explanation of who vs. whom I’ve ever seen in print. (pages 163 to 164.) Hale is a former editor of Wired magazine (and the author of “Wired Style” a book that Newsweek described as “The Chicago Manual of Style for the new Millennium”).

2. “Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style,” by Arthur Plotnik.

This title is not so much a book as it is a daring grudge match against the writing “Bible” and its authors William Strunk Jr. and the incomparable E.B. White.

Written with great wit and divided into eight sections—Flexibility, Freshness, Texture, Word, Force, Form, Clarity, and Contemporaneity – “Spunk & Bite” questions the famous duo’s most cherished rules of writing. Plotnik challenges them with such force and verve that, soon, you will begin to see dust motes dancing in the air and cobwebs forming around Strunk’s and White’s ears.

“Spunk and Bite” is not a “how to write” book—it assumes a basic facility with language—and it’s not a manual, despite its excellent and thorough index. It is a book filled with wise advice, many belly laughs, and much inspiration. I re-read it from front to back at least once a year—and I dip into its pages from time to time as a way of recharging my writing batteries.

3. “Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method,” by Gerald M. Weinberg.

Weinberg believes that good material lies all around us and that our job as writers is to collect it for future use. His central and oddly compelling metaphor is that writing is like building a fieldstone wall. That is, you collect “stones” (or stories) as you wander through life and you save them for when you might need them for building (writing). The trick, of course, is to remember to do the collecting and to have a decent retrieval system.

Perhaps one question remains: Can a corporate writer use this method, which might seem a bit airy-fairy? As I read the book, I recalled the time I had to write a speech for a certain nameless CEO. He was one of those impossibly dry individuals, and much as I labored, I couldn’t get anything but platitudes from him. The man didn’t have a single story (not even about his kids), so I peppered his speech with relevant business-related anecdotes I had gathered on my own. I felt like a bit of a failure at the time, but now I realize I was doing the right thing. Without being conscious of it, I was using fieldstones.

4. “The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life,” by Julia Cameron.

I never understood the appeal of Cameron’s most successful writing book, “The Artist’s Way.” But her fame persuaded me to dip into another of her titles. Almost everything about “The Right to Write” (well, apart from its too-cute title with a missing preposition) is wonderful. Even though it’s intended for those who’d prefer to fall on the “creative” side of the writing equation, it has many tips that all people who put their fingers to the keyboard can use.

Each of the 43 very short chapters tackles one writing idea and offers an exercise, which you’re free to ignore. Most of all, Cameron provides a compelling argument for writing each morning—although I have such unreadable penmanship I can never bring myself to do it by hand, as she suggests. I also like the way she argues for the importance of writing, even if it never goes further than your private notebook.

5. “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, by Piers Steel.

So many writers suffer from so-called writer’s block that I’m convinced any book on finding your own motivation is, by definition, a writing book.

A professor of human resources at the University of Calgary’s school of business, Piers Steel is the world’s leading research and speaker on the science of procrastination. He uses his book to explain why so many of us put off everything (from starting a diet, to doing our taxes, to writing) even when we recognize the delay will be bad for us.

He shows how some commonly held assumptions (for example, that perfectionists procrastinate) are simply untrue, and he gives many useful tips for how we can mend our shilly-shallying ways. If you want to stop wasting time and get some writing done right away, this book could be your savior.

Yes, reading about writing can, in itself, be a form of procrastination. But it’s also instructive, interesting, and inspiring. Make sure that from time to time you read a new book about writing—and make it one you haven’t heard of before.

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