If you’re learning to write in English, it’s easy to find advice. However, a lot of that advice is contradictory or just not very good. Here are five solid books that can help you write more clearly and powerfully.
1. Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
Clark builds each of his chapters around a single idea. Some of these ideas are familiar but easy to forget. For example:
- “In short works, don’t waste a syllable.”
- “Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.”
Other ideas feel fresh and exciting:
- “Play with words, even in serious stories.”
- “Put odd and interesting things next to each other.”
Usually, Clark develops an idea so that it truly sinks in, but not so much that the reader gets bored.
Clark also addresses some key questions about writerly psychology. The popular image of the writer (tortured, alone, feeling alternately blocked and inspired by an ethereal Muse) is both wrong and unhelpful, he says. Most writers depend on a “support group” – people who can provide feedback, encouragement, and (when the time is right) criticism. But “limit self-criticism in early drafts”.
For me, Clark’s most bracing advice has to do with purpose.
- “Build your work around a key question.”
- “Draft a mission statement for your work.”
For a lot of writers, this will feel anathema – like watching bureaucracy murder romance. It shouldn’t. In fact, for non-fiction writers, it’s often essential.
I read a lot of student writing, and when it goes bad, it’s often because the writer hasn’t figured out what he’s trying to say. Instead, he just sort of started writing stuff, kind of realized that it was scattered, and then tried to shovel it in passable shape. There’s nothing romantic about this process; whatever real inspiration or clarity the student had is usually buried in the mud. But it doesn’t have to be.
2. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
William Strunk taught writing to Cornell students for 46 years, and he used an early version of Elements as a classroom handbook. One of his students, E.B. White, later edited the volume; it was published in 1959, and it’s still one of the best style guides we have.
The book is divided into several short sections: one on usage, another on principles of composition, and then a few guidelines on form and style. Strunk corrects common writing mistakes, but he also explains the consequences of those mistakes. Here are Strunk’s famous admonitions:
- “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”
- “Omit needless words.”
This is the kind of advice that most writers never stop needing to hear.
3. Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation by Janis Bell
This book is a resource for solving writerly problems. It's meant to sit alongside your computer, ready for action.
Sometimes, Bell's book plays this role perfectly. Her explanation of how tenses change in the subjunctive mood, for example, is incredibly useful. She also breaks down the uses of the primary punctuation marks into helpful categories.
Unfortunately, Bell’s guidelines sometimes simplify to the point of distortion. She insists on a firm distinction between “if” and “whether”, even though we sometimes use both to mean the same thing (and nobody gets confused). She declares:
- “Periods and commas belong inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. Don’t even think of placing them outside – just tuck them in.”
Many of her readers will be curious: why shouldn’t I place periods and commas outside closing quotes, especially if the punctuation isn’t part of the quote? And wait – don’t they write that way in England? And hang on, don't we put other punctuation marks (colons, semicolons, dashes) outside the quotes?
But these are minor complaints from a grammar-obsessed dude. For the most part, the book does just what it says it will do, offering readers a flashlight and a helping hand when they're lost in dark grammatical woods.
4. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
I've spent the last few weeks burying myself in English style guides. Most of them tell you what you have to do, what you can't do, and what’s up to you. This can feel arbitrary: if you’re curious about language, you don’t just want to follow the rules. You want to understand where they come from and whether they help or hurt the cause of clear communication.
In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker takes on these questions directly, drawing on his psycho-linguistic expertise to show how some principles of grammar and usage reflect basic facts about how our brains work. For example, in a list of three or more items, we typically put the most powerful item at the end – because it’s too taxing on our short-term memory to put it anywhere else.
But Pinker also explains how some of our grammar rules are just the arbitrary pronouncements of uptight grammarians.
- The “no split infinitive” rule.
- The taboo of placing a preposition at the end of a sentence.
Following these rules proves that you’re familiar with the conventions of the English language, but it doesn't reflect anything deeper – and sometimes, you might need to break them.
5. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
History is fascinating and language is fascinating…but the history of a language? Before I read Bill Bryson’s book, this felt like a bridge too far; I imagined page after page of medieval arguments about grammatical trivia.
In Bryson’s hands, though, the story of English becomes the story of England – and of much of the rest of the world. We watch as waves of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Jutes, and others crash onto English shores and leave their linguistic legacy. Later, it goes the other way, when England colonizes a third of the world and blends its language with a hundred others. The result: the largest, wildest, and perhaps most incorrigibly inconsistent language on Earth.
Bryson’s a wonderful storyteller – the kind of guy I’d sit and listen to for hours in a pub. He’s got a pocketful of storyteller’s gems, too:
- The distinctive British pronunciations of words like “path” (pahth) and “bath” (bahth) are only a couple hundred years old. Back in Shakespeare’s day, Brits pronounced these words like Americans do today.
- Many words have changed their meanings drastically over time, sometimes coming to signify the opposite of what they meant just a few centuries before. This is part of what makes it hard to read old literature.
- One surprising example: the word nice, which used to mean…well, not so nice.
To read more about the previous meaning of the word nice, check here.
I’ve read a lot of style guides recently, and most of them have strong views about how English should look and sound. Bill Bryson isn’t worried about most of these debates. Instead, he gets a kick out of the many magnificently weird ways people have put our language to use, and he knows that many more changes are on the way.
To purchase the books, follow the links below:
- Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
- The Elements of Style
- Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in
- Grammar and Punctuation
- The Sense of Style
- The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
Matt Bieber is an italki community tutor. He also writes about English grammar and usage on Real Clear English.