3 secrets to great writing, 5 books that get you there

February 25, 2010 | Blogging, Writing

If you want to be a strong writer there are three things one must do.

One, write every day and with great avidity.

Two, read great writing of all kinds.

Three, read great books about writing.

This blog post is about the latter. Books about how to write are legion. Good books about writing are few and far between. I’ve read a ton of them, but only a few have passed muster. So let’s review a selection of the writing books I’d recommend for both aspiring and accomplished writers.

Before I begin, let’s view this information through the proper prism. The purpose of reading books about writing is to keep oneself inspired and to refine the craft. We are never too experienced to learn more. With that in mind, here’s my all-star lineup – minus the very good but interminably mentioned On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Funny, practical and irreverent, Lamott hammers home a point that all writers grapple with – your first draft is going to be “shit” so just get over it. In fact, the best writers in the world write “shitty” first drafts. That is the writing process. Once we accept that even Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison write shitty first drafts and we inevitably will do the same, the game changes quite dramatically. Just sit down and write and don’t sweat the outcome. Create the raw materials. The editing and remanufacturing comes later. Lamott is filled with lots of good advice related to this core message. Check it out and watch your writing improve.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (not to be confused with the Art of War, though it’s obviously a play on that famous title). Pressfield’s book is about all artistic endeavors, though writing is central to his message, if for no other reason than Pressfield is himself an accomplished novelist with The Legend of Bagger Vance to his credit, among other books. “Resistance” is The War of Art’s villain. Every time we even think about doing something artistic Resistance rears it debilitating head in its many manifestations. It might be an unexpected wave of fatigue, or a sudden realization that we have house work or yard work to do. Anything to avoid facing the blank page or music sheet. Given that, procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance. The dynamics change once we recognize and acknowledge Resistance. We have more control over this metaphysical interloper. Then we can take a different approach. As Pressfield puts it in the War of Art:

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. …Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work.”

Here’s how Pressfield describes his own writing process: “I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. …How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session. I have overcome Resistance.”

One more point from Pressfield. He rightly notes that the difference between writers and wannabe writers is that writers understand that overcoming Resistance and sitting down to write is actually harder than the writing itself.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A prolific writer herself, Cameron teachers a technique called The Morning Pages that involves sitting down first thing each morning and writing without stopping until you’ve filled three pages with content. Fill those pages with anything that comes to mind, regardless of how trivial or self-obsessed. As Cameron says, you cannot do the Morning Pages wrong. Do this every morning and some magical things start happening. You might discover personal insights. You might have psychological breakthroughs. From a writing standpoint you will train yourself to set the internal editor aside and simply write without regard to the quality of what you’re producing. Then, when you do your writing for publication, you’re more apt to let it flow without the tyranny of an internal editor casting aspersions on your ever word choice and sentence construction. Having opened the gates the subconscious mind – the fountainhead of creativity – can begin to assert itself.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. As the subtitle says, this is a book about art, independence and spirit. Ueland encourages us to be reckless when we write. Be a pirate, she says. Be a lion. She starts several chapters by quoting the great poet William Blake, in one case using this searing passage from Blake: “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” Clearly, Ueland was an adrenal writer, one who treated the writing process like a moth treats a flame.

Ueland writes: “I kept a slovenly, headlong, helter-skelter diary for many years. This is what it has done for me: It has shown me that writing is talking, thinking on paper. And the more impulsive and immediate the writing the closer it is to the thinking, which it should be. It has made me like writing. For years it was the most boring, dreaded, and effortful thing to do—doubt-impeded, ego-inflated.”

Give the woman a cutlass and steed and everything about her writing changed.

How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. Never mind that you have no desire to write a novel. This book teaches good writing, period. Its principles are applicable to many types of writing because it teaches:

  • Theme
  • Character development
  • The three rules of dramatic writing
  • The ABC’s of storytelling
  • Point of view
  • The fine art of sensuous and dramatic prose

Frey’s instruction is lean, straightforward and practical. He accomplishes more in just 172 pages than most writing books accomplish in three times the space.

There are many more terrific writing books, but these five are exceptional. Let them inspire you and bring forth the creativity you sense is latent within you and seemingly inaccessible.


What infomercials teach us about persuasion

February 15, 2010 | Marketing, Presentations, Writing

Those annoying long-form TV commercials that go on and on about anti-aging moisturizers, body building equipment and get-rich-quick real estate schemes have some things to teach us about effective selling. After all, they sell a ton of product. One sales expert analyzed the infomercial technique and found they all used the same basic three-step formula. Here it is revealed…

Why salespeople freeze when they write

February 04, 2010 | Verbal communication, Writing

I’ve worked with lots of salespeople. Most of them have the gift of gab. So why do people who talk so well have such difficulty communicating in writing? Here’s the answer to that question – as well as the solution. A hint: It starts with the conventional wisdom about the tonal difference between speaking and writing…

The ‘rule of three’ when making presentations

February 01, 2010 | Presentations, Verbal communication

There is a magic in the power of THREE. This guest blog post from presentation expert Olivia Mitchell extends the wisdom of three to the presentations we make, and she explains why it’s so difficult to adhere to this principle. She also explains why the rule of three makes our presentations more powerful. Here’s the scoop…

The e-book strategy to blogging success

January 28, 2010 | Blogging, Writing

Bloggers need to pay much attention to the subjects they choose to write about. Smart bloggers plan ahead, plotting out the subject matter they will tackle during the next month or two. One method for accomplishing long-range planning is something I call the “e-book strategy to blogging.” Here’s how it works…

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