3rd in an intermittent series of reviewing my writing books, with an aim of reducing how many I have. (4th really but the on and off the shelves post didn’t include any reviews)
Exercises In Style by Raymond Quineau
This is an odd little book. On a crowded bus at midday, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat is vacated, the first man takes it. Later, in another part of town, the man is spotted again, while being advised by a friend to have another button sewn onto his overcoat. Queneau retells this unremarkable tale ninety-nine times in a variety of styles ranging from Cockney to Sonnet to Mathematical formula.
I’m not sure it’s a book I’ll refer to a lot – but it is very short so it might remain on the shelf. A decision I’ll review at the end of this process (if this testing ever has an end – as no doubt more books about writing will come into the house and the shelf will become overstuffed despite my efforts.)
Contemporary Essays In Style edited by Love and Payne
This is a real mixed (Aeolus) bag. Within are such luminaries as Winston Weathers (more on him anon) and Francis Christensen – Author of The New Rhetoric. It is split into 3 (rhetoric, linguistics and criticism) and although there’s some good stuff in here (Weathers’s The Rhetoric of the Series for example) there’s a lot in here that just didn’t speak to me. So one for the discard pile.
The Anatomy Of Prose by Majorie Boulton
This was much better. Boulton, a teacher, wrote a whole series of books with the title ‘The Anatomy of.’ This one is the companion to The Anatomy of Poetry. It’s well-written, if a little schoolmarmy, but the ground is better covered by Winston Weathers’s book (see below) She wrote the book because she couldn’t find a good one on the subject to give to her students. If you can’t get hold of the Weathers this one is a good substitute.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
This is a real classic and is a good basic introduction to style and the various non-fiction genres (like memoir, science writing etc.) I bet most writers have read this one. The first 50 pages and the last two chapters are the most useful but in the middle of that are almost 200 pages on the various non-fiction genres. Not that these are not useful – but if I was going to write a memoir and wanted advice on how to do so I’d probably buy a book about writing memoirs rather than read a basic introduction chapter here. So, like the Boulton, I’m glad I read it – but it’s not one (for me) to refer back to often. So another for the discard pile.
The Strategy Of Style by Weathers and Winchester
In finding the cover to upload I note that this book is over £80 on Abebooks. (The later edition – The New Strategy of Style – is £30+)
I hate it when writing books advise you to buy an old out of print and hard to get hold of book. But basically that’s what I’ve done isn’t it? Sorry. For my money (and I bought this for less than £5 several years back) this is a better nuts and bolts (for non-fiction composition mainly) than most of the other books I’ve read on the subject (including the ones above.) Weathers and Winchester: “To be a good writer, you must master as many of the principles and techniques of composition as you can.”
Style by Joseph M Williams
I note that there is an updated version of this book with a slightly different title, from a different publisher which is more expensive. I’ve not read that new version so can’t say if it’s worth the money (over £40 on Amazon)
If the Weathers is a nuts and bolts of how to compose a piece of prose then this is a philosophical companion. Williams’s main concern is for the reader and therefore offers the writer a method of understanding why bad writing is bad, how readers read and why style guides are just that – guides, not a list of unbreakable rules. Between this, Strunk & White and Weathers you’d have all the tools to write well I think.
As well as the above I learned a lot about good writing, i.e. writing as communication, from The Copyeditors Handbook. Which is a reference book I know I don’t need to put to the test as I have referred to it plenty of times in my editorial career.
Next time round I’ll be staying in the How to English category, but with books that are perhaps on the boundaries. Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.
After that I’ll be making a detour into poetry. Stay tuned for that – I’ve had a couple of poems published but in no way would I ever describe myself as a poet – or even someone who understands poetry. I do feel that the basics of poetry – how the voice works, word sounds and rhythms etc. can teach you a lot about how to write prose.
After that I’ll be tackling the large number of books I have about how to write fiction…
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