3 books you should read to become a better writer

It’s a well-known axiom that good writers read. This is thoroughly true – there is no better education in the world. Even if you don’t consider yourself a reader, these resources will help sharpen your style and solve your structure. Here are three easy, quick reads to dig into this weekend.

Here is New York by E.B. White

You’ve almost definitely heard of The Elements of Style, widely considered the be all and end all of writing guides. While some consider its teachings timeless, I think it’s dated. Sue me. But I am an everyday writer – started a sentence with ‘but’ is a dead giveaway – and I don’t think advice such as ‘Do not join independent clauses with a comma’ is useful to everyone. It is a manual for pedantic professional writers, not advice for busy people who want to improve their writing. (Yes, it’s on my bookshelf.)

I recommend instead one of my favourite books of all time. Here is New York, written by Elements of Style’s E.B. White, is everything a piece of writing should be. It’s evocative, it’s short and to the point, and it’s something I want to pick up again and again. If verb conjugations do your head in, pick up this short essay, a manifestation of the Style’s rules.

It is a miracle New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible.

– Here is New York

Your Favourite Book

Any piece of writing you love is worth re-reading to understand why. I would encourage you to read something every week with a writer’s eye. Think about what makes the writing ‘good’ – why does it resonate with you? Sometimes before I write I’ll read a few passages from my favourite writers to get into the spirit. My own writing style was developed by years of reading and reading and reading. 

I love Sarah Turnball’s Almost French, and I can open it on almost any page to catch a phrase or two that I love. The same goes for Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Both authors have a style that make everything around them seem completely absurd, but they write lightly and joyfully. They also write about beautiful locations, which may have something to do with it…

Point is, the books you love are probably an indication of your own style of writing – or your ideal style of writing. Have fun experimenting with your favourite author’s style.

Rushing to the bakery to get a baguette and croissants, I chuck on an old, shapeless jumper and my tracksuit pants … Frédéric looks appalled … I stare at him, incredulous, thinking, ‘You can’t be serious.’ But he is. In fact, this is probably one of the most serious moments of his whole life. His girlfriend is about to step out in public wearing ‘pantalons de jogging’ – an item of clothing he wouldn’t even wear jogging.

– Almost French

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

If it’s an actual guidebook you’re after, this is it. Focusing on principles of structure, tone and form, it is useful for anyone who writes blog posts, interviews or their own journal. It is an ode to E.B. White (yes, he comes up a lot), but written as a complementary piece, not an update. This is not a book that discusses adverbs and prepositions, but one that encourages you to strengthen your opening paragraph, delete clutter and discover your own writing voice. It’s democratic, modern and indispensable.

Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitations wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple – there must be something wrong with it.

– On Writing Well

Claire Deane