The most influential writing books of all time? The winner, no doubt, would be The Elements of Style by the teacher/ student team of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, Roy Peter Clark writes.
Next on the list would be On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which has sold more than one million copies over the last thirty years. If I had to summarize Zinsser’s advice in three words, it would be “Dump the clutter.”
Not far below [on popular lists] Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg; Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; On Writing, by Stephen King; [I would add Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin, post here on the Le Guin book.]
These are noble and practical writing guides that deserve their place on your bookshelf, within arm’s reach of your computer. What I like best about them is that they combine narratives of the writer’s life with elements of the writer’s craft. Over the last ten years there has been one [...] that has elbowed its way into the company of these classics: Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer By Roy Peter Clark.
I was unaware of Clark's book when starting out as a writer. Recently, I picked it up and it has given me good food for thought.
It is strong for non-fiction narrative and journalism. Business communicators and press release writers would greatly benefit. There are ideas for fiction narrative and script writers, but to my mind not quite as strong for them - still worth buying.
The book is light on dramatic structure compared to Story, by Robert McKee (and other dramatic structure books, to be a post another time) but excellent on clarity, sentence and style.
Dwell on Clark's first tip, after this excerpt from his introduction (below video). Listen to Clark on his Let Words Collide concept, via TedX, Youtube).
"...this book invites you to imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft. Think of writing as carpentry, and consider this book your toolbox. You can borrow a writing tool at any time, and here’s another secret: Unlike hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed along."
TOOL 1 . Begin sentences with subjects and verbs. Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
Imagine each sentence you write printed on the world’s widest piece of paper. In English, a sentence stretches from left to right. Now imagine this. A writer composes a sentence with subject and verb at the beginning, followed by other subordinate elements, creating what scholars call a right-branching sentence. I just created one. Subject and verb of the main clause join on the left (“ a writer composes”) while all other elements branch to the right. Here’s another right-branching sentence, written by Lydia Polgreen as the lead of a news story in the New York Times:
Rebels seized control of Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed. Police officers and armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled.
That first sentence contains thirty-seven words and ripples with action. The sentence is so full, in fact, that it threatens to fly apart like an overheated engine. But the writer guides the reader by capturing meaning in the first three words: “Rebels seized control.” Think of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow.
Master writers can craft page after page of sentences written in this structure. Consider this passage by John Steinbeck from Cannery Row, describing the routine of a marine scientist named Doc (the emphasis is mine):
He didn’t need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awakened, looked out through the windshield and saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart of beer.
The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.
Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds on another. He avoids monotony by including the occasional brief introductory phrase (“In the dawn”) and by varying the lengths of his sentences, a writing tool we will consider later.
Subject and verb are often separated in prose, usually because we want to tell the reader something about the subject before we get to the verb. This delay, even for good reasons, risks confusing the reader. With care, it can work:
The stories about my childhood, the ones that stuck, that got told and retold at dinner tables, to dates as I sat by red-faced, to my own children by my father later on, are stories of running away.
So begins Anna Quindlen’s memoir How Reading Changed My Life, a lead sentence with thirty-one words between subject and verb. When the topic is more technical, the typical effect of separation is confusion, exemplified by this clumsy effort:
A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.
Eighteen words separate the subject, “bill,” from its weak verb, “could mean,” a fatal flaw that turns what could be an important civic story into gibberish.
If the writer wants to create suspense, or build tension, or make the reader wait and wonder, or join a journey of discovery, or hold on for dear life, he can save subject and verb of the main clause until later. As I just did.
Kelley Benham, a former student of mine, reached for this tool when called on to write the obituary of Terry Schiavo, the woman whose long illness and controversial death became the center of an international debate about the end of life:
Before the prayer warriors massed outside her window, before gavels pounded in six courts, before the Vatican issued a statement, before the president signed a midnight law and the Supreme Court turned its head, Terri Schiavo was just an ordinary girl, with two overweight cats, an unglamorous job and a typical American life.
By delaying the main subject and verb, the writer tightens the tension between a celebrated cause and an ordinary girl.
This variation works only when most sentences branch to the right, a pattern that creates meaning, momentum, and literary power. “The brilliant room collapses,” writes Carol Shields in The Stone Diaries,
leaving a solid block of darkness. Only her body survives, and the problem of what to do with it. It has not turned to dust. A bright, droll, clarifying knowledge comes over her at the thought of her limbs and organs transformed to biblical dust or even funereal ashes. Laughable.
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If you'd like to feel inspired by other addresses and life lessons try: Ursula K Le Guin on literature as an operating manual for life; Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes; or Nassim Taleb's commencement address; or JK Rowling on the benefits of failure. Or Charlie Munger on always inverting.