April 17, 2013

3 books you should read to become a better writer

I'm currently writing a book on the entrepreneur Elon Musk, so I thought that it would be a good idea to improve my writing skills by reading some books on the subject.


The first book I read was On Writing Well by William Zinsser. It's considered to be a classic on the subject, and will tell you how to write fact - not fiction. The book begins with general thoughts to encourage you on your writing endeavors, continues with writing rules, and ends with how to write about certain topics like Science, Business, or Sports.
Key findings from the book is that you should replace the word one with you (one is a boring guy), and you should not overstate the facts. Don't write that someone shuts a door with the sound of an atomic bomb.    


The next book I read was On Writing by Stephen King. This is not only a book about how to write fiction, it's also a shorter biography on Stephen King, ranging from when he grew up, and ending with events how writing helped him to recover from a traffic accident. 
One of the key findings from the book is that you should avoid large amounts of alcohol and drugs. Alcohol is allowed, you don't need to be sober, but you don't need to be drunk when you write. Stephen King has experience from writing books when drunk and doing drugs, and he concluded that, 
"Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit."


The last book I read was The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B White. It was recommended by Stephen King in the book On Writing, and The Elements of Style covers the rules you should you when writing.

To sum it up, here are some key findings from two or three of the books:
  • Less is more. The general rule is that you should embrace simplicity. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components, and remove every word that serves no function, every word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb. Stephen King's rule is that the second draft of his book should be ten percent shorter compared with the first draft.
  • You don't have to follow the rules. The basic rule is that you should write what you think is good writing in an environment you like to work in. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Stephen King listened to Metallica while writing alone in his home. Don't try to please everyone, someone will always complain, or as Stephen King said, "You can't please all of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time."
  • Practice. Good writers know that very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third or the fifth time. Good writing doesn't come naturally, though most people seem to think it does. Stephen King thought that if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot, and he read about 70-80 books a year, including audio-books.

Update!
My biography book on Elon Musk is now finished and you can find the final result, The Engineer - Follow Elon Musk on a journey from South Africa to Mars, at the link below. It got good reviews so these books probably helped a bit.
   

More articles in the same series: Best technical and creative writing resources

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