Writing is an art, so it is unquestionably personal. But there is also a science to engaging readers through careful choices in content, language, and mechanics. As I work in the margins and the grey areas between the conventional and the creative, I always reach for the insight of the masters that I trust.
The books on this list (and its sublists) have served as invaluable textual mentors throughout my academic career, in my own creative writing endeavors, and importantly, in my role as an editor. (I’m working (slowly) to annotate the entries below, but until I’ve finished, feel free to comment below with questions.)
Modern Grammar & Style
Here’s my list for must-have resources for strong prose in any genre. I prefer grammars based on real-life English (rather than antiquated Latin rules imposed on modern English) and style guides that use what we know about how the human brain engages with written language and various rhetorical devices.
Garner’s Modern American Usage
(Bryan Garner, 2009) Writing eloquently doesn’t mean sounding like a pedantic jackhole. Garner’s grammar is fantastic at clarifying the difference between the well-written and the stilted. It literally (almost) got me through grad school. It’s pretty comprehensive and covers a myriad of grey areas without relying on traditional prescriptive grammar but on examples from real English. Garner’s published a new edition (Garner’s Modern English Usage, 2016), though I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet. (Have you?)
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
(Steven Pinker, 2014) I am a massive fan of anything written by Pinker, so imagine the squeal I emitted when I saw his name on a book of style. (I think my husband said “shrill.”) This guide was everything it promised to be: fascinating, informed, and practical. His advice is based on scientific knowledge about the human mind and our cognitive (and emotive) interaction with a text and how it should inform our writing.
On Writing Well – 30th Anniversary Edition
(William Zinsser, 2006) Guess this one goes without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway. This one serves as a great reference book, and I’d attribute this to it’s common-sense organization. Great for nonfiction writers.
The Subversive Copy Editor – Second Edition
(Carol Fisher Saller, 2016) This “manual” is meant for editors and was published as “advice from Chicago.” It’s not a grammar or stylebook per se, but it covers the lesser known priorities of those in the profession. I love the the insight from decades in the industry (even if it’s focused primarily on copyediting), but it also provides writers with an interesting peek into the concerns of the “other side.” My two favorite takeaways:
- My first goal as I approach any writer’s work is to do no harm.
- You may have hired me (thank you!), but in the end, I work for your readers.
Elements of Fiction
What’s the difference between impossible-to-put-down and uninteresting? Predictable and cliché? Flat and multidimensional? Oh-so-much. Writing good fiction isn’t easy, and even when you’ve got a solid story to tell, success hinges on getting several aspects just right: characterization, tension, dialogue—the list goes on. Here are some sources that offer expert advice and, importantly, great examples for clarity on mastering the art of storytelling.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
(Renni Browne & Dave King, 2004) I almost always point my clients in the direction of this book.
(James Scott Bell, 2014)
How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career
(James Scott Bell, 2016)
What Every Novelist Needs to Know about Narrators
Booth takes us beyond person and omniscience to explore the innumerable (and often ignored) possibilities for our narrators. Dramatized or undramatized? Reliable or unreliable? Distant and unfamiliar to the reader (morally, intellectually, or emotionally) or near and relatable? As Booth illustrates, none of these choices are not binary; each comes in shades and has a rhetorical or literary function.
For me, the most valuable bit is the exploration on the possibilities in the elected distance (temporal, emotional, intellectual, moral, physical, etc.) between our reader and the many voices in our book and the effect on reader involvement.
Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction
(Larry Brooks, 2011)
Publication Style Manuals & Dictionaries
The Chicago Manual of Style – 17th Edition
(The University of Chicago, 2017) Subscription-based. The physical book is massive and works well as a doorstop.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association – 6th Edition
(APA) Super specific in some areas, vague in others. I rely on the APA blog for the latter.
New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide – Second Edition
(Oxford Reference, 2014) Boasts expertise that goes back further than Great Grannie.
The Chicago Guide to Grammar
(Bryan Garner, 2016)
Trisha’s Secret (or not-so-secret) Toolbox for Creative Writing
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
(Charles Darwin, 1872)
You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation
(Deborah Tannen, 2007).
Corpora like the BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English