Writing about writing: My favorites (so far)

Monday, November 6, 2017
My friend Brad Farris wrote me earlier this month* to share small-business consultant John Jantsch‘s list of the best books on writing. Brad flattered me with a challenge to put together my own list.

I can’t say this is a list of the best, because I have yet to get to so many no-doubt wonderful books about writing, including Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftwhich I need to get around to. [Update, Nov. 6. 2017: I’ve now read it, and it’s great. The only book on writing that has brought me to tears. Highly recommended, even though King's core advice echoes the essentials of The Elements of Style.]

But here’s a brief rundown of the writing about writing I’ve found most influential:

The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Since high school, when I first encountered White’s revision of his old English professor Strunk’s guide to writing well, it’s shaped everything I’ve written — in print, on air, online. Along with the AP Stylebook, it’s the one text I require for my journalism students at Roosevelt University. White’s description of Strunk’s philosophy has helped me see the writer’s job as similar to a lifeguard’s: “Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground or at least to throw a rope.”

On Writing Well
by William Zinsser

Zinsser applies Strunk and White’s work directly to journalism, with rigor and enthusiasm: “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser’s follow-up 1983 guide, Writing with a Word Processor, helped a lot of writers learn to stop worrying and love the computer. And Roger Ebert’s brief 2002 essay for Yahoo Internet Life magazine, “In Cyberspace, Writing is a Performance,” remains central to the way I teach journalism“In some imaginary sense, you are reading this right now, even as I write it. I have keyboarded in so many e-mails, so many forum messages, so many arguments and replies, that I instinctively think of this activity as a conversation. ... To write it on a monitor is somehow to create it publicly.”

Writing Broadcast News — Shorter, Sharper Stronger
by Mervin Block

Block’s ruthless, sarcastic and funny directives for getting to the point — forged in the fires of broadcast news, where every second and every syllable count — are all the more useful now, when almost everyone is in essence, as Ebert notes, writing broadcast news. Every newsroom should bake into its culture Block’s “Dozen Deadly Don’ts,” including this one: “Don’t start by saying someone ... is in the news. ... Go ahead and tell the news. That’s what a newscast is for. That’s why they call it a newscast. Everyone who’s mentioned in a newscast is ‘making’ news. So when writers say someone ‘is making news,’ ... they’re wasting time.”

What are your favorite books about writing? Please comment below.

* Originally posted Jan. 11, 2014.