Great writing on writing

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I have always been a big fan of great writers, as I was raised in a household of voracious readers.  My father is a photojournalist and my mother has always loved to read.  My older sister is an editor, and although my brother ended up being a scientist, he toyed with the idea of being an English major while an undergraduate student.

My fondest memories of summer vacation are my family members lined up on lounge chairs by a lake or ocean, book in hand, drinking a cup of coffee and being thoroughly engrossed in a good book.  Occasionally one of us would be so overtaken by a beautiful passage that we would have to break the silence and read aloud.

As I made my way through the business world, I realized that good writing was a key skill for just about anyone.  The more you can share ideas, generate excitement, educate, train and inspire with your words, the more successful you tend to be.  With the recent popularity of blogging, this has become even more important.

So if you are like me and write for part of your living, constantly strive to do it better (grammar is the bane of my existance – I am sure you see my errors on the blog) and want to read some great writing on writing, here are my suggestions:


Guy Kawasaki wrote about If You Want to Write A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland.  It is an uplifting, witty, helpful and supportive book for writers.  Written in 1938, it is still relevant today.

My Dad first told me about Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.  She is a hilarious writer who provides great insight into the process of writing, evidenced by some of her chapter titles:  “Shitty First Drafts,” “Perfectionism,” “How Do You Know When You Are Done?,” and “Jealousy.”

My Dad also tipped me off to Eats Shoots & Leaves The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.  I can’t believe that my family is the only one who enjoys passages such as this one:

“The consequences of mispunctuation (and re-punctuation) have appealed to both great and little minds, and in the age of the fancy-that email a popular example is the comparison of two sentences:

A woman, without her man, is nothing
A woman:  without her, man is nothing”

And if it has been awhile since you picked up your college version of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, you may be interested in the new, illustrated version.  This is the slim, classic text for cleaning up your meandering writing to make it crisp, clear and compelling.


My favorite blog on writing is Matthew Stibbe’s Bad Language.  An interview with his “fabulous proofreader” yielded this gem which has stuck with me ever since I read it:

(Matthew’s Question) What are the most common mistakes?

‘They’re/their/there’ is a constant source of confusion, as well as ‘where/were’ and ‘you’re/your’. Similarly I see a lot of mix-ups of ‘pair/pear’, ‘discreet/discrete’ and ‘loath/loathe’ (which I loathe). No one seems to know where to put apostrophes anymore.

Also, a new one I’m seeing everywhere – full stops seem to be escaping from self-contained parentheses at an alarming rate. If parentheses appear at the end of a sentence then the full stop goes outside (like this). (But if the whole sentence is contained in brackets, the full stop stays in.) However, people seem to think the full stops deserve their freedom. I shall be campaigning to keep them imprisoned. (emphasis added by Pam – I LOVE this metaphor)

A reader alerted me to this great post on Common Errors in Technical Writing.  If you have been around for awhile, you have probably fallen victim to evil and convoluted technical writing, especially if it accompanies software you must install or furniture you must assemble in 30 minutes or less.

I hope these resources get you started reading about good writing … the first step to writing well!

And if you have more good resources, let me know and I will update this post.

18 Responses to “Great writing on writing”

  1. The best nuts and bolts book for me has to be ‘The Art of Fiction’ by David Lodge.

  2. Carnival of the Creators #15

    …she shares a number of books that are not only beautifully written, but are about the art of writing!

  3. madame l. says:

    Did you mean “existence”?

  4. 4600+ Posts Mega Update

    So what happens if you drop off the face of the Internet for 2 months? For me, I came back to find over 4600 blog posts to read and actually had a guy verbally abuse me because I havent responded to his email (apologies to him and everyone!).

  5. Andurin says:

    I’m a big fan of the Writing Tools blog over at the Poynter Institute, written by Roy Peter Clark.

  6. Doing Media says:

    Sometimes you have to be reminded

    Pamela Slim has a great post on writing over at Escape From Cublicle Nation that reminded me to break out my copy of Elements of Style and brush up a bit in the writing department.

  7. Todd O'Neill says:

    The night before I read your post I lectured on content and writing for my Web Publishing class. Have Strunk and White been thrown by the wayside? When I mentioned it as a great, no, THE source for simple rules for writing the students looked at me like I had three heads. And I had forgotten about seeing the illustrated version!
    Some great resources here. I’ll be stashing them and acquiring them and passing them along. Thanks!

  8. My personal favorite writing book is The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. It’s not comprehensive, by any stretch of the imagination. However, it’s genuinely entertaining, and manages to make the rules of grammar fun (and makes sense of them, to boot!).

  9. Intrepid says:

    Thanks for the link, Pam! I think one of the biggest factors in the deteriorating standards of writing today is our choice of means of communication – SMS, IM, scraps, and what have you!

  10. As a writer who occasionally writes about writing, I salute you for celebrating the power of the written word. I second your vote for Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write” and offer three titles that are more obscure but every bit its equal: “Write to the Point,” by Bill Stott, and two books by Peter Elbow: “Writing without Teachers” and “Writing with Power.” But the best way to write well is to read the masters, from daily journalists like the L.A. Times’s Dan Neil and the New York Times’s Verlyn Klinkenberg to critics like Robert Hughes and A.O. Scott to fiction writers like Alice Munro and Eudora Welty. Read, read, read; then pick up a pen and begin.

  11. Shari Horne says:

    Fantastic post! I’m also a huge fan of Bird by Bird, and I’ve had an on-going love affair with The Elements of Style since the 10th grade.

    I also keep The Chicago Manual of Style close at hand, because it will answer any, and I mean ANY, grammar or usage question one could possibly have.

  12. Let’s not forget its/it’s… it’s everywhere, and typically “it’s” replaces “its”, hardly ever the other way around… curious.

    The grammar of the above sentence (is it even a sentence with the …?) is dubious, and I find myself re-reading it self-consciously :-).

    PS Smileys are surely grammatically incorrect (in, fact, grammatically meaningless, although otherwise full of meaning)… but please note that I did put a period after mine.

    IMHO, grammar is decaying because a) people are in a hurry and b) the world, especially NA, is dumbing down due to the efforts of marketing to make everything “easy” for us, in order to sell us products & services that we often don’t need. Since any time gained is lost to other products & services in the (by necessity) growing economy, these two points are related, which reflects the absurdity of modern living.

  13. Great topic. I still think back to part of the reason I got my first job (auditing & accounting) was because I had taken an advanced writing class in college. Funny…now I don’t account or audit (other than my own finances) but I sure am writing a lot!

    Love your book recommendations. My biggest realization in going from someone who sometimes writes to being a writer was to JUST WRITE. Get out of my head, critic, and doubts, and put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and write. It has done wonders for me and my writing has gotten me the most “buzz” and connects than any of my other marketing techniques.

    In terms of a writing story… if you ever go to the middle Oregon coast, there is a hotel there called the Sylvia Beach Hotel. It is a hotel dedicated to writers and writing. Each room is fashioned after a famous author (Poe, Agathie Christie, etc.) and the top floor with a commanding view of the ocean is the reading room. I had never spent such amazing evenings as I did sitting up there in a room full of adults where you could hear a pin drop because everyone was reading. Paradise…..

  14. ann michael says:

    Hello Pam!

    There are two resources that come to mind for blog writing.

    One is Successful-Blog:

    and the other is CopyBlogger:

    Both of these resources are not primiarily about writing (there are other blog topics) but they do regularly cover writing for a blog. They’ve covered topics like how to write an effective title, dealing with writer’s block, and some of the nuts and bolts stuff as well.


  15. “Bird by Bird” is one of my favorite books about writing ever. Great recommendation!

  16. Non-native speaker says:

    “good writing … the first step”
    “good writing… the first step”

  17. Boofus McGoofus says:

    Like Eric, I also recommend On Writing. I’d also suggest (for those who enjoy Eats, Shoots, and Leaves) Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma (or the Elephants of Style — they’re essentiaally the same book).

  18. eric wright says:

    I consider Stephen King’s On Writing to be one of the best books on writing I have read. It is personal, insightful, and an enjoyable read.

    I recommended it to many people who wrote for me while I was an editor.