Thoughts on Two Books About Writing

Thinking I would be all writerly, I read two books about writing before I took on this nutty experiment of writing my own craptastic book for a month. I laugh at some of my sentences where no one does anything but stand up, sit down or walk away. There are a lot of them. But I'll talk about that some other time. For now, I'll give my thoughts those books I read.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. E.B. White of Charlotte's Web fame took William Strunk, Jr's textbook, one he wrote for his classes at Cornell, and republished it with revisions. Strunk was not just White's professor but his mentor. White can't sing Strunk's praises high enough. And I can see why. The guy doesn't mess around. He says, "These are the rules. Follow them" like Moses from the mountain. The rules are numbered with examples. Most deal with usage and grammar. Strunk's favorite rule, according to White, is Rule 13: Omit Needless Words. He's fanatical about it and it comes through in every rule. The book tops out at 71 pages and that includes a chapter on style by White.

I loved this book, even though I suspect Strunk would make me cry if I took his class. I borrowed it from the library but I will be buying it (a newer version not the one printed in 1966, like this one). It has straight forward advice for every writer. I know I'm not perfect and need as much help as I can get. I do disagree with Rule #9 in White's chapter: Do not affect a breezy manner. This is the rock on which blogs are built. At least this one anyway. So sorry, can't do it.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Dillard takes White's Rule #18: Use figures of speech sparingly and punches it in the face. Then she kicks it in the crotch a few times. In the very first chapter she uses dozens of metaphors and similes to describe writing and White is right- it is exhausting for the reader. I needed a nap.

After that first chapter she stretches out her metaphors a bit with examples from her own life. Some I enjoyed, like the stunt pilot who made art in the sky with his plane, but most of the time I wondered what she was getting at. I take issue with the notion that a writer must suffer for art. An extreme example of this is Dillard's younger days when she stayed in an unheated cabin on an isolated island in the North Pacific. She nearly passes out on the shore after she forgets to eat because she is wriiiiiiiiiiiting! Pul-ease. Parents write in between making lunches or folks do it on the bus to work. If you want to write, just do it. Anywhere. Anytime. No need to isolate yourself from the rest of humanity. Single mom JK Rowling had to pay the bills; she didn't hide in a cave for a year to write Harry Potter.

Is it beautiful writing? Yes. Yes, it is. Is it useful? No. Come for the topic, stay for the metaphors. If you like metaphors that is- lots of metaphors. I've never read anything else by her so maybe she's not my style of writer.

I bought this one ages ago.

So while I highly recommend The Elements of Style, I'm not sure about The Writing Life. It was too out there for my tastes. And I'm not the only who thinks this way.

Do you have any favorite books on writing you would recommend?


  1. I had a laugh picturing Annie kick the rule in the crotch. I hope it is a boy rule for maximum effect!

  2. Good luck with NaNoWriMo! The first book does seem a valuable investment for writing -- but I suspect I would also cry in Strunk's class!

  3. I am allergic to martyrdom. Writers do this a lot, and so do med students. Joel loves watching Boston Med and I watched 15 minutes of an episode with him until one resident was all, If you don't feel like committing suicide every day then you're not showing up, and I was like OH PLEASE. If your job WRINGS YOUR SOUL EVERY DAY and you are MISERABLE ALL THE TIME then you have chosen the wrong job.

  4. Lenore- Definitely a boy, all slouched over and pale.

    Coffee- Thanks! I can just see him stomping around yelling, "Omit Needless Words!!"

    Raych- That's how you can tell. Seriously, if you are that unhappy go clean carpets or something for a living. Life is too short to be that unhappy over something you have a choice in (though some may say writing chose them which is another bowl of crazy altogether).

  5. OH! I can picture it now: The Writing Life diet!

  6. I absolutely agree with you on both of these books. Strunk and White's Elements of Style is a classic. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard . . . exhausting. I couldn't get through it, actually. I'm pretty sure I swapped my copy. My absolute favorite writing books are:

    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress and
    Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham

    I've heard the how-to portion of Stephen King's On Writing is excellent, but I unaccountably read the biographical portion and quit. My copy is still lurking around here, somewhere.

    Good luck with Nano!

  7. I actually have a love/hate relationship with both of these books.

    Strunk and White is great up to a point. But I've seen way too many people that their advice too far. Omit needless words becomes omit all adjectives and any words used to create rhythm or style.

    And when I read The Writing Life I too was expecting a book that would give me new ways to think about my writing, and it totally doesn't work for that! But as a memoir of a particular person's writing life, it's lovely.

    And I second the suggestions for Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing. Two of my favorites.

  8. I have The Elements of Style on my shelf--another one called Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace that I really like. I used to be obsessed with these books when I was in school and still cared. I'm sure Strunk and White would shudder at my writing now. ;)

  9. Bird By Bird - I'm reading it again for the second time, now. Love it.

    If You Want to Write - Brenda Ueland - one of the best books, ever.

    Writing Down the Bones - Natalie Goldberg. To get you writing.

    On Writing - the writing section is wonderful.

    I own The Writing Life and have never been able to read it! thanks for expressing why.

    Oh, and last but not least - Take Joy - Jane Yolen. Very wonderful, warm and wise advice to writers.

  10. I agree with Teresa that the Elements of Style is good to a certain point. I haven't read the either, but I'll make sure I don't.

    I have Bird by Bird on my shelf, haven't read it yet, but looking forward to it!

  11. Lori- Yes, tears, sweat and tree bark tea!

    Bookfool- Thanks for your favorites list!

    Teresa- I don't know if I could follow his rules all the time. It reminds me a Hemmingway's way of writing. I'm not a fan of Hemmingway.

    Trish- I know, my grammar has become awful as I age though I shudder at what young people write. They never had rules to begin with!

    Susan- Thanks for the list!

    Rebecca- Bird by Bird seems to be a popular one. I'll have to get it.

  12. I meant I haven't read *the other*

  13. If you haven't already found Jack Hodgins' A Passion for Narrative, I think you might appreciate the Canadian references. I also really enjoy interviews with writers, like the Paris Review series and The Believer and Salon collections. This week I've picked up The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook, edited by Danial Alarcon, but I haven't read enough to say more than that, although it seems promising. Good luck with Nanowrimo!

  14. I am by no means a purist when it comes to Strunk & White, but I do love that book. It has helped me enormously. And, like Teresa, I don't think a world without adjectives is always a good one, so bloggers and creative writers need to take it with a grain of salt. But I certainly would like to hand out copies of it at work.

  15. Elements is useful. I loved Stephen King's On Writing.

  16. The Elements of Style got me through University. I still have the same copy from back then.

  17. I came back to tell you my favorite books on writing, and I see my post about it is already showing up as a link back here! Interesting, as I just posted it, here:

    I was surprised nobody mentioned William Zinsser's classic On Writing Well, which I would recommend even before Elements of Style by Strunk and White. These would be my top two, but I also wrote about Zinsser's Writing to Learn.


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