What to read to become a better writer

From The Economist:

The first words are the hardest. For many of us writing is a slog. Words drip with difficulty onto the page—and frequently they seem to be the wrong ones, in the wrong order. Yet few pause to ask why writing is hard, why what we write may be bad, or even what is meant by “bad”. Fortunately for anyone seeking to become a better writer, the works recommended here provide enlightenment and reassurance. Yes, writing is hard. But if you can first grasp the origins and qualities of bad writing, you may learn to diagnose and cure problems in your own prose (keeping things simple helps a lot). Similarly heartening is the observation that most first drafts are second-rate, so becoming a skilled rewriter is the thing. These five works are excellent sources of insight and inspiration.

Politics and the English LanguageBy George Orwell. Available on the Orwell Foundation’s website

Starting with Orwell’s essay may seem as clichéd as the hackneyed phrases he derides in it. Published in 1946, this polemic against poor and perfidious writing will be familiar to many. But its advice on how to write is as apposite now as then. (Besides, it is short and free.) Orwell analyses the unoriginal, “dying” metaphors that still haunt the prose of academics, politicians, professionals and hacks. He lambasts the “meaningless words” and “pretentious diction” of his day; many of the horrors he cites remain common. To save writers from regurgitating these, Orwell proposes six now-canonical rules. The first five boil down to: prefer short, everyday words and the active voice, cut unneeded words and strive for fresh imagery. The sixth—“break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”—displays the difficulty of pinning down something as protean as language. But this has not stopped others trying.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and GraceBy Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. Pearson Education; 246 pages; $66.65 and £43.99

In “Style”, Joseph Williams, who taught English at the University of Chicago, instructs writers on how to revise their scribblings into something clearer, more concise and coherent. (Aptly for a text about rewriting, it is the latest in a long line of reworkings of Williams’s teachings on the subject, which appeared under various titles.) Unlike Orwell, who devised high-level rules for writers to wield by instinct, Williams proposes nuanced “principles” and shows how to apply them. Whereas, for instance, Orwell exhorted writers to “never use the passive where you can use the active”, Williams explains how passives can sometimes help create a sense of flow. This forms part of his coverage of “cohesion” and “coherence”, which could upend the way you write. Insightful, too, is Williams’s guidance on pruning prose and on the ills and virtues of nominalisations—nouns formed from verbs (as “nominalisation” is from “nominalise”), which often send sentences awry. Such technical details, summary sections and practice exercises make “Style” the most textbook-like work on this list. It may also be the most useful.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG will note that some editions of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace are monstrously overpriced (Pearson nearly always overcharges for books it sells into the education market). If you do some hunting on Amazon, you can find much less expensive editions, including used books. PG will defer to others concerning whether Mr. Bizup and other co-authors of more recent editions have added valuable content not present in the original.

Additionally, there is a notable absence of Amazon’s Look Inside feature for easy browsing.

One additional point for those who do not wish to overpay for books is that PG was able to find copies available from his local public library.