“Ah, talent! Where does it come from? Is a product of one’s environment, something picked up from the street? Or is talent something you’re born with… something in the blood?”
A haughty agent in the musical “Ruthless” asks these questions while contemplating her granddaughter’s acting skills. Writing, like performing, often seems enveloped in the same aura of wonderment. Where does writing talent come from? For most people, it doesn’t course through the veins. But natural skill isn’t essential — writing can be taught. Even better, we can teach ourselves. That’s an essential survival tool in the news business today, when editors have little time to train young journalists as they once did.
I embarked on a self-training mission during college, and I’m still on that mission in USC’s journalism graduate program. A few books in particular have become buddies.
11. The Elements of Style
William Strunk and E.B. White
This classic written in 1918 is revered as the essential guide to simple, precise prose. And Strunk and White teach by example that succinct writing need not be stiff. “Vigorous writing is concise,” they say. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” I recommend the version featuring Maira Kalman’s whimsical illustrations.
10. Spunk and Bite
“Spunk and Bite” picks up where Strunk and White left off, geared for people who “itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.” Plotnik wants to inject vigor and creativity into writing that may be perfectly good – but “dead” on the page. Once you learn the rules, find a way to stretch them.
9. Faux Pas?: A No-Nonsense Guide to Words and Phrases from Other Languages
Le mot juste! It’s out there, this foreign word that is just right. But how to find one? From “A capella” to “zeitgeist,” this book delivers a wide spectrum – plus a “pretentiousness index.” There’s no reason to use a French word when an English one will do. But when foreign phrases are both colorful and precise, go for it.
8. Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words
Good journalists should strive to be better than their copy-editors. (If they even have copy-editors, in our age of cutbacks.) This book points out the small distinctions that can be hugely important. For example, Dostoevsky’s novel is “Notes from Underground,” not “Notes from the Underground.” And nobody is saved from “near disaster.” It’s just: “disaster.” Some of the explanations seem obvious. (I know the difference between “tarantella” and “tarantula,” thank you.) Still, the book emphasizes that attention to detail is not just a skill, but also a mindset.
7. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose
When is a dress the color of a peach, and when a mango? Same color, different connotation. This is just one lesson in “Sin and Syntax” that encourages readers to “relish every word.” “True prose stylists carry on an impassioned lifelong love affair with words, banishing bad words like so many banal suitors, burnishing good ones till they shimmer,” writes Hale. “Be infatuated, be seduced, be obsessed.” Is Hale going out of her way to make a point? Perhaps, but make it she does. Smart wordplay demands obsession, and smart journalists will become rabid word hunters. Helpfully, the book is sprinkled with excerpts by virtuosos such as Lewis Carroll, Edna Buchanan and Arundhati Roy.
6. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing
Claire Kehrwald Cook
You’ve written your article. How do you switch hats to be your own editor? “Kill all your darlings,” said William Faulkner (or perhaps one of his contemporaries?), but that’s hardly precise advice. This book is technical and grammar-heavy. While other books may offer similar lessons, this one walks you through editing techniques, step-by-step.
5. The Art of Styling Sentences
Ann Longknife and K.D. Sullivan
Writers often say that composition is a craft like plumbing – you just need to know how to put the pieces together. This book is the proof. It explains 20 sentence patterns and offers “fill-in-blank” exercises for practice, making it the ideal antidote to stiff, clunky prose. Plus, the teaching model – learning through imitation — is spot-on.
4. On Writing Well
More than other writing books, this iconic guide radiates the warmth and personal touch of a writer who has devoted much of his life not just to writing, but also to writing education. “If you find that writing is hard,” Zinsser says, “it’s because it is hard.” He weaves anecdotes of his own successes and failures into his lessons to prove that writing – while rule-bound – should still be personal.
3. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
Roy Peter Clark
In contrast to Zinsser’s book, “Writing Tools” runs through 50 brief chapters. Each tool is specific and practical – from “activate your verbs” to “get the name of the dog” to “recruit your own support group.” With its easy-to-read chapters, I plowed through this book from start to finish without skipping a page on my Kindle.
2. Newsthinking: The Secret of Making Your Facts Fall into Place (plus Newsthinking.com)
The writing process is not magic, asserts this former L.A. Times editor. And the key is smart thinking. Rather than stumble through a story, journalists need to create solid systems pinned on discipline and organizational skills. All too often, we are told that good journalism just takes practice. That’s not wrong, but shouldn’t we develop as many techniques as possible to ensure our practice is worthwhile?
1. Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers
Once editor of the Sunday Times and The Times, two of the UK’s top papers, Evans is known as a “journalist’s journalist.” I most appreciate the detailed advice and specific examples he uses to describe how to craft a lede and structure a news story. Effective prose may be universal, but effective newspaper prose demands distinct skills, like distilling raw information into a narrative. I bookmarked the “Wasteful Words,” “Redundancies” and “Stale Expressions” pages for quick reference. (When an editor recently changed a phrase I had written from “on an annual basis” to “annually,” I could have killed myself for not checking this book first!)