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What to Read Before You Write

Let’s talk about what to read before you begin a writing project.

I’m a big believer in doing a lot of research and being very well prepared before jumping into any project, be it writing, making an important purchase (or a not-so-important one), or, well, pretty much anything. I’m a planner. And while it is quite possible to jump directly into a writing project, and everything will probably be just fine, I know there are others out there who like to do some research and read about writing, and who like to get all their ducks in a row before embarking on a project. (The books referenced below can also be found on my “Recommended Reading and Resources” page. Full disclosure: I have not read all of these quite yet–working my way through them–but I have done my own research and found the ones that seem to be the most help to the most people.)

1) Let’s begin with the basics: style and grammar. I wouldn’t worry too much about conforming to one style guide or another, honestly–as long as your spelling and grammar are pretty good and you’re consistent, I don’t think many publishing houses would be terribly worried about whether you’re sticking strictly to Chicago Manual of Style (or AP or whichever) or not.

  • I highly recommend keeping The Elements of Style by Strunk & White on hand. It’s pretty compact, but full of good information. My copy (the fourth edition) is broken up into five parts: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, and An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders). As a starting point, it has everything a writer could need.
  • For something a little more in-depth, A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker is excellent. This is one I was required to purchase for one of my introductory classes in college, but one I have not regretted buying. It’s spiral-bound, making it a little easier to peruse, with handy tabs on the side to easily find what you’re looking for. It is geared toward academic writing, with its sections on MLA, APA, and CMS papers, but contains very helpful information on the mechanical side of writing in its sections on composing and revising, sentence style, word choice, grammatical sentences, punctuation, mechanics, and basic grammar.
  • A fun little book on punctuation is Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. A word of warning (which is also noted by the publisher in the front matter): Ms. Truss is British, and the book uses British examples and British punctuation, which slightly differs from how we use punctuation in the States. In any case, the book is an approachable way to look at the correct ways to use punctuation, with chapters focusing on apostrophes, commas, semicolons and colons, dashes, hyphens, and periods.

2) This next set of books is not for every writer, but can be helpful: the literary memoirs, or how-to books from other writers. I’ve kind of combined them here, as there is quite a bit of crossover. This category is very large, and I’m only focusing on a few here. One way I’ve whittled down the list is to focus on my favorite writers and see if they’ve written something in this vein (and some of them have!), and branch out from there.

  • One of the most-recommended out there is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. Mr. King is one of the most prolific writers of our time, I’d venture to say, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s written a memoir about writing. Not only is it a memoir, though, but he also gives advice to other writers on how to tell a good story and on, well, writing.
  • Another memoir/how-to is Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. This is one that I have yet to read, but I highly recommend John Abraham-Watne’s post on his reading of the book. He boils it down to two main takeaways: “The importance of a close read” and “There are really no ‘rules’ to writing.” There is more to it, of course, and would recommend it to aspiring (and established) writers.
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard seems to be one that people either love or hate. It’s brutally honest about some of the struggles with writing, which in its own way is refreshing. This one I won’t recommend across the board, but I do think it’s worth taking a look at.

3) My last set of book recommendations pre-writing isn’t specific books at all, but rather, just . . . read. Read everything. Read in the genre you write, read outside your genre. You want to see how others write, but you don’t want to copy their styles. Your style is your own. And it never hurts to be well-read, and to be a well-rounded reader.

On that note, I’ll close with a quote from Neil Gaiman:

“You wanna be the next Tolkien? Don’t read big, Tolkien-esque fantasies. Tolkien didn’t read big, Tolkien-esque fantasies. He read books on Finnish philology. You go and read outside your comfort zone, go and learn stuff. And then the most important thing, once you get any level of quality–get to the point where you wanna write, and you can write–is tell your story. Don’t tell a story anyone else can tell. Because you always start out with other people’s voices . . . There will always be people who are better or smarter than you. There are people who are better writers than me, who plot better than I do, but there is no one who can tell a Neil Gaiman story like I can.”

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