7 Books for Writers
These are presented in no particular order.
How To Be A Writer: Baths, Biscuits And Endless Cups Of Tea
By Marcus Berkmann
The life of a freelance writer is one of unreliable remuneration, shifting loyalties and sudden endings, as this book makes abundantly clear. Written with humour and candour, it's a welcome dose of reality amid the plethora of books and blogposts promising riches beyond measure to anyone who can wield a pen. As Berkmann makes clear, success is dependent on luck as well as talent, and can be precarious.
He is, however, perhaps too dismissive of his own abilities - even the pieces he cites as bad examples of his writing are pretty good.
Arguably more memoir than guide, it features no index and the chapter titles give little hint as to their contents. All the same, lend a copy to anyone who romanticises about the writing life - it may not deter them, but at least their eyes will be more open.
Writing on the Job: Best Practices for Communicating in the Digital Age
By Martha B. Coven
Heaven knows how many books there are out there about the craft of writing, but they almost invariably concern creative writing. That's fine for those wishing to weave stories and entertain their readers, but most of us write for more prosaic reasons. What's the best way of constructing an email, especially if you want the recipient to do something? If you’re a teacher or presenter, how should you approach the writing of a slide- based presentation?
This book contains the answers to those, and many other questions. As such, it covers not only some of the English Programme of Study's writing requirements, and no doubt the education standards in other countries as well, but more general ones too. For example, older students and other job seekers will appreciate its advice on CVs (resumés) and covering letters. There's even guidance on writing for social media.
Easy to read and served up in bite-sized chunks, this book is an excellent 'how to' manual for clear communication.
Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology
By H. K. Hummel and Stephanie Lenox
It is with a deep sense of irony that I say I could write reams on the joys of short-form writing. When your word count is restricted, you have to make every word count. We’ve probably all heard the quote attributed to Mark Twain, when writing to a friend:
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.”
The hardest essay I had to write at university was the one where the tutor imposed a word limit of 500 words. When I managed a team of people, I asked them to summarise any issues on no more than a side of A4, while the Director Education, who was my line manager’s line manager, would not read any memo which comprised more than 6 bullet points.
It has long been my contention that if you cannot explain something in 50 words or fewer, then you probably don’t really understand it. Book reviews? Teach Secondary magazine has a word limit of 150, while the New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” reviews seem to have a limit of around 124 words. I’ve even experimented with 6 word book reviews: after all, if we can have flash fiction, why not flash non-fiction?
It will not surprise you to learn that I was delighted to discover Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, by H. K. Hummel and Stephanie Lenox. Bloomsbury Academic, the publisher, very kindly sent me a review copy. In keeping with the spirit of the subject matter, I’ll keep this review short!
The first thing to say is that the book is much more than a compendium of prompts and imaginative exercises. A more accurate description would be to say that it is multi-layered. The chapters include sections such as the flash interview, which is a short interview with a writer, the one sentence workshop, and writing prompts. (If you’re of the opinion that short form writing is for people with no time, this book will make you think again. I’ve spent several weeks, on and off, on the prompt which asks you to write a six word memoir.) Another section, deep dive, requires you to explore a particular idea in depth, but with the injunction that if you write five pages you’ve gone too far. Each free dive is followed by a vignette, in which one of the authors does the exercise herself. This is possibly a little gimmicky, but on balance I think a nice touch. It’s the equivalent of a tutor in real live doing the exercise with the class, as opposed to doing the crossword or checking email.
Writing examples are accompanied by word count, and there are many examples. These serve to demonstrate the ideas in practice.
These different ways in to think about short form writing make the book a very rich experience. Clearly, the techniques discussed may be applied to fiction or non-fiction.
What I especially like is the attention to grammar and literary devices. For example, the section on metaphor is very interesting. In the expression “time flies”, a metaphor is being employed implicitly, that of comparing time to a bird. I’d not thought about that before, but in short form writing, in which every word counts, things like this are important: if you can imply a comparison rather than explicitly make it, the writing becomes tighter — and you keep within the word limit!
Although the book is very readable, I think it is best used as a workshop. That is to say: read the opening part of a chapter as you would listen to a lecture, then work through the exercises and prompts, and then look at the examples provided. This will take you some time, I imagine, thereby proving that a book on short-form writing doesn’t have to be a quick read!
Conclusion: Short-form writing is neither quick nor easy, but the effort is, in my opinion, worth it. This book explores the form with useful information, challenging exercises, and interesting examples. Buy it.
Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
By Roy Peter Clark
The "tools" referred to in the title are, in fact, strategies, as promised in the subtitle: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. In all, Clark describes and analyses fifty five of them, and they are categorised as "Nuts and bolts", "Special effects", "Blueprints", "Useful habits" and "Bonus tools".
For example, one of the nuts and bolts strategies is to place important words at the start or end of a sentence. Apart from enabling the writer to hide weaker (aka less important) detail in the middle of the sentence, this approach also makes the story more dynamic.
Under the heading "Special effects" lies a strategy entitled "Play with words, even in serious stories." The subheading of that chapter says it all: "Choose words the average writer avoids, but the average reader understands".
One of the "blueprints" is this: "Build your work around a key question", which is expounded by: "Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader". This advice applies as much to nonfiction work as it fictional counterpart.
This is the sort of book that you can read from start to finish, dip into at random, or use for reference.
By Jack Hart
Why shouldn’t nonfiction writing be as well-crafted, interesting, even exciting as fiction? Indeed, Hart draws on fiction-writing techniques to answer this implied question.
While the writer may not have control over the facts themselves, she does have a say in how she conveys them. Aspects such as painting the scene, characterisation, dialogue, even point of view, all have an important part to play.
An especially useful idea is the ladder of abstraction, which is equivalent, in cinematic terminology, to the level of detail in a scene, from close-up to long shot.
Assisted by diagrams illustrating “plot points”, “story arcs” and other concepts, and real-life examples, the author illustrates how a factual account can be transformed from a boring recitation of facts to a page-turner.
While this book is aimed at professional writers, teachers will find it a very useful repository of tools and techniques from the world of prize-winning journalism.
How to Read Like a Writer: 10 Lessons to Elevate Your Reading and Writing Practice
By Erin M. Pushman
This is a very interesting, and useful, book. It covers a range of types of writing. For example, it looks at genre, digital media, illustrated work, fiction, memoir, non-fiction.... It's quite a list!
What I like is the way the author breaks down pieces of text in order to analyse more closely what the writer has done. One example I found especially illuminating was the presentation of a piece of text along with the invitation to read it as a poem, fiction, and non-fiction. I was surprised to discover that I did indeed read it differently depending on which of those genres I thought it belonged to.
There are lots of sample passages to ponder, and discussion questions and writing prompts at the end of each chapter. These prompts are rather more challenging than the usual kind.
Although this book covers more types of writing than any one person is likely to engage in, I think it's a worthwhile investment. It's both analytical and readable: two words you don't often find in the same sentence!
The 12 Week Year for Writers: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting Your Writing Done
By A. Trevor Thrall
If you teach English, you will doubtless find this book useful. The reason is that while it is aimed at people who write for a living rather than for use in schools, there is much within its pages that students would benefit from. Not just the obvious stuff, like deciding on what to write about, planning and setting deadlines, but strategies for actually getting the writing done.
For example, there are suggestions about how to break down the “big goal” into smaller ones, including the use of scorecards. This is quite useful (and not only for students), especially for extended writing projects.
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