The essence of a writer is to be a good reader.
I haven’t read many books on writing in my life. Yet I want to become a better writer.
Since I decided to transform my passion into a job, I wanted to improve my skills and become better at storytelling the challenges of a young foreign writer. But instead of reading many useless books, I took a softer approach. So I decided to start reading the best sellers to build the basics and then deepen each topic based on my needs.
After one year of consistent but naive work, I decided to read what today I consider the 3 must-have books that helped me improve my articles:
- The Elements of Style, by E.B. White.
- On Writing, by Stephen King.
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.
They are the trinity of my stylistic guide. So I wanted to write an article to suggest and summarize the lessons I learned from these 3 must-have books that helped me improve my articles.
The accuracy of White.
The Elements of Style was the first book of its kind that I have ever read. And besides being skeptical of its length, today, I consider it the introductory guide for any writer. Not only because of its simple rules but also for the misused words and expressions section, which is a gold mine for foreign writers like me.
White taught me how to use the active voice, put statements in the positive form, and replace useless jargon with concrete words.
This last lesson, in particular, terrified me at the beginning. Because I believed in the word count and lacked the maturity to be clear and short. But after reading his book, I realized I was overexplaining things sometimes. I was boring my readers by sharing the same thought from different perspectives. Which might have been creative training for me, but it was not pleasurable for my audience.
Still, I learned to write in a way that comes naturally because this is what readers want. They will not perceive your words as genuine if you hide them in the name of style. And when that happens, you can’t build a trusting relationship with them.
Also, before these books, I neglected — or I should say I doubted — how to use the dash. But now I do, I hope.
Lessons from The Elements of Style.
- If you use the active voice, you have more power. So do surrender to weak, passive, and vague words. There should be no doubt in your piece (if not intended).
- Cut the useless parts from your articles. If you are overexplaining, you are boring.
- Write as you think, or your readers will understand you are trying to hide your thoughts.
The consistency of King.
I have to confess: I never read anything written by King. I know he is a best-seller writer, but I dislike the genre. What I appreciate is his productivity. I don’t know how he does it, but he always publishes a minimum of one book a year. And it impresses me.
So the main reason why I read his book is that I wanted to steal his secrets and achieve his consistency myself. I discovered, however, there is no secret. The only way of being consistent is to write at least one thousand words each day, six days a week, sometimes even seven. This is the most important lesson I took from On Writing.
But King is a narrator, so I tried to pay attention to his craft more than his ideas. And I learned many new expressions. Perhaps, although, yet, either and rather than — I did not use any of those before. But observing his craft gave more variance to my style too.
Also, I learned an important formula I still apply to all my articles:
Second Draft = First Draft — 10%
According to King, the first draft is always full of imprecisions and filling words. In this step, the author is uncovering the story himself, so there is much uncertainty and misleading information. Yet once you understand the story, you can sharpen it and make it more appealing for your ideal reader.
King confesses that he always wrote for his wife. And every time he edits his drafts, he thinks about making her enjoy the story. So I understood I had to write to someone too. I had to create an ideal reader to keep in mind each time I edited my articles. And this reader later became my brand persona.
Lessons from On Writing.
- If you want to become a writer, act like one. Write at least one thousand words every day. And don’t take more than one day off per week.
- Finding stories is a creative exercise, but narrating them requires grammar and style skills.
- The first draft is only for you. Nobody should read it because you are still figuring out the story. So the second draft should be shorter. As a rule of thumb, at least 10% less.
- If you want to tell good stories, you need to have an ideal writer in mind. Because stories without a receiver are not worth narrating.
The completeness of Zinsser.
On Writing Well was the first book I wanted to buy but the last I read. The topic aligned well with my goals because I wanted to learn to write non-fiction, but their variety discouraged me at first.
I have a problem with completeness. And even if I don’t like a book, I can’t keep myself from finishing it. So I knew that I would have read all of it even if I didn’t care about the parts on memorials or travel pieces. But I had to get in the mindset that reading about everything would help me in the future. Perhaps, one day, I will need those travel suggestions for one of my articles. So the first thing I learned from this book is to appreciate good communication skills no matter the topic.
The second lesson dealt with fancy words. And Zinsser provided a list of words writers should stop using to appear relevant. From his point of view, simple words are always more efficient, and you should never replace:
- help with assistance
- many with numerous
- man/woman with individual
- first with initial
- try with attempt
- and enough with sufficient
Still, the parts I appreciated more about this book were dedicated to the recipient and rhythm of an article.
Zinsser shares a common idea with King about the audience and thinks everything you write should address an ideal reader. Also, to make the reader stick to your articles, he suggests leading and ending the piece with the most exciting parts of the topic. Hence, it is even better to cut the ending as much as possible. This way, you leave the reader with a sense of unfinished work that triggers his interest and curiosity.
Lessons from On Writing Well.
- Use simple words instead of fancy ones.
- Use the first person because your opinion is your most powerful tool.
- If you are not consistent, you will never master any skill.
- The leading and the ending of an article should be the most exciting part of your article (or section, or paragraph).
- Don’t give your readers all the information. Leave them with a little bit of curiosity.
White, King, and Zinsser wrote some masterpieces — 3 must-have books that helped me improve my articles like nothing else before.
As a foreign writer, I ignored some English styling rules. So having them explained made me understand why some structures are better than others. And why some writers have success while some others don’t.
But reading those books is not enough. I will always search for other stylistic guides and rulebooks that can help me improve my articles. And I will read those books at least ten more times to get everything out of them.
Also, I know many purists are reading, but grab a pencil and take notes when reading this kind of book. It helps you a lot reviewing important lessons once in a while.
The essence of a writer is to be a good reader. This is the only lesson I had to learn. And even if it took me three books, today, I know nothing makes me improve more than mindful reading.
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