Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Books That Every Writer Should Read

I’m always surprised when I hear a fellow writer (or writer-wannabee) say he or she doesn’t read any books about writing: “Why waste my time? I know what I want to say” or “I don’t want to mess up my style” or “If writers read books on how to write, they’d all write the same.” Arrggghhh!

I have a masters’ degree in English, and I taught college composition for seven years. I know I still have a lot to learn. Here are a few books that have helped me learn:

  • Strunk and White's Elements of Style is one of the classics that every writer should have. I reread it every year or so. Read William Strunk's 1918 edition at
  • William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is subtitled An Informal Guide to Writing Non-fiction. However, this very readable book, originally published by Harper & Row, is also helpful for writing fiction. Zinsser emphasizes style—especially getting rid of clutter. Every writer should own a copy.
  • Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (originally published by Pantheon books, 1994) is one of my favorites—a combination of good advice, autobiography, and humor.
  • Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile helps the reader identify and avoid bad writing.
  • Rita Mae Brown's Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual is now out of print, but used copies are available at Brown addresses both the writing lifestyle and ways to improve writing.
  • Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers (Bantam, 1988) is now out of print, but used copies are available at See also addresses both the writing lifestyle and ways to improve writing.

Is there any book that I don’t recommend? Yep. The writing book that's been the least helpful to me—although a lot of people swear by it—is Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. This is a feel-good, warm-fuzzy book for people who don't have ideas to write about but feel a deep need to write—or at least go through the writing motions: the "Look! I'm writing! I'm writing!" crowd.

Writing Down the Bones gives no advice on how to write better—only on how to write more. Goldberg waxes a bit too poetic for my taste, and some of her advice is darn hard to figure out.

"Watch when you listen to a piece of writing," she admonishes in the first sentence of her "Don't Marry the Fly" chapter. Huh? What the heck does that mean?

For a giver of writing advice, Goldberg sets a bad example. She writes long, loopy sentences with misplaced participial phrases and lack of pronoun-antecedent agreement. If she read those sentences out loud—and listened to what she read—maybe she'd hear how bad they sound. I'd love to quote a bunch of those sentences here, but the flyleaf to the 1986 edition warns against copying her work. Suffice to say her writing is full of sentence errors. People who write books about writing ought to set a good example by writing well themselves.

While a lot of her advice is impractical, some is dangerous. For example, she advises writers to take risks: “If you're terrified of horses,” she says, “buy a horse and make friends with it.”

I hope she's speaking metaphorically. Otherwise, she is incredibly naive and has no idea what horses can be like. Surely she doesn't mean that a person who is scared of horses should spend over a thousand dollars to buy a thousand pound animal that he or she has no use for and must find a place to keep (more $$$) in order to “make friends” with the horse and thus overcome the fear. The frightened writer might have a very good reason for being frightened—perhaps a fall from a horse years ago, perhaps an allergy to horses.

If you're terrified of horses, you need to decide if this fear is something you really want to overcome. After all, do you have many opportunities to actually encounter horses up close and personal? If so, you should find a good riding instructor who has calm, steady, well-trained school horses for you to learn on. Invest in a good riding helmet and proper footwear. After you've learned to ride, then you can think about buying a well-trained horse whose personality meshes well with your own. But only if you can afford it and only if you really, really want a horse.

If you're terrified of writing, don't write. Do something you enjoy—tap dance, play the tuba, juggle sharp objects, knit tea cozies. However, if you want to write well, invest in a more helpful book than Goldberg's.

My list of more helpful books are at the top of this post.


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