In honour of World Book Day, here’s a personal selection of 9 books that can help make you a better writer. And none of them have the word ‘content’ in the title…
1. Seeing things as they are by George Orwell
The best way to write well is to read great writers, and this collection of George Orwell’s best journalism is a good place to start. Orwell remains an inspiration for many writers for the unvarnished pithiness of his prose, his ability to get to the heart of a topic, and the warmth and generosity that shine through his deceptively plain style.
Orwell talked of good prose as a window – the writing does not draw attention to itself but rather gives transparently on to the thing itself. He made me realise that simple language is often the result of great intelligence.
2. Confessions of an advertising man by David Ogilvy
Still the most entertaining and useful account of the ad trade, from the man who virtually wrote the book on commercial creativity.
Such is the fame of his wisdom, you’ll find much of the material oddly familiar: ‘The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.’ ‘The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife.’ And: ‘The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.’ For a sampler, check out this wonderful description of his own writing and editing process
3. On Writing by Stephen King
A practical and personal account of the craft of writing by one of the world’s biggest-selling novelists. King interweaves nuggets of writerly wisdom with an account of his painful process of recovery following the car collision he endured in in 1999. Indeed, with this book he virtually writes himself back to health and sanity. My favourite quote: ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’.
4. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M Williams
Perhaps the best book ever written in an attempt to answer the question: what’s the secret of good writing? Williams looks in particular at the art of writing about complex subjects in simple ways, going well beyond the clichés of business-writing manuals to deliver thorough, practical guidance on how to organise sentences and paragraphs to best effect, and how to inject greater logic and focus into everything you write. Not an easy read, but one that richly repays careful study.
5. Grammar and style for examination candidates and others by Michael Dummett
Dummett, a former professor of logic and language at Oxford, wrote this delightfully waspish but laser-sharp little book because he was so fed up with the sloppy English of the undergraduate essays he had to mark.
He is always alive to the misplaced metaphor or the syntactic loose end, and his rigorous linguistic analyses are peppered with amusingly melancholy asides throughout. And he has some interesting advice on how reading Wodehouse can help you avoid writing clichés…
6. Bad thoughts by Jamie Whyte
Simple writing, as the Economist Style Guide reminds us, comes from clear thinking. So although this is a book about the latter, its application to the former will be readily understood. In this ‘guide to clear thinking’, philosopher Whyte takes to task journalists, politicians and other self-styled experts for their fallacious arguments, logical slips and idle thinking.
7. Into the Woods: How stories work and why we tell them by John Yorke
Storytelling has become a rather over-used buzzword of late in digital marketing, and it’s not uncommon to see otherwise perfectly sensible businesses struggling to apply recondite narratological theory or Jungian archetypes to the creation of what are basically glorified case studies.
This book, by the man responsible for more hours of British TV drama than anyone else, draws on every narrative theorist from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell to Aaron Sorkin to reveal the underlying fundamental structure that all stories share, from blockbusters to soaps to a simple fable. Wide-ranging and insightful, it’s frankly the only book you need on the subject.
Don’t forget, though, there are no shortcuts to good storytelling. Here’s how to get it right in your b2b content
8. Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds
This is on the face of it a book about how to be a better PowerPoint designer. But it’s full of insights about information design and harnessing your creativity, presented in an artless visual style that compellingly practises what it preaches. And besides, we could all do with improving our slide decks…
Reynolds’ tips might also help you with your visual storytelling. What’s the point of an infographic, for instance, if it doesn’t tell a story of some sort? Here’s how to brief in a good infographic…
The one, the only, guide you need to English as it is really spoken. Frighteningly thorough and yet pleasingly accessible, this dictionary is a collection of learned essays on all the most debated points of usage – the rules you need to understand, and the ones you can safely ignore.
You’ll never worry about splitting an infinitive again, and you’ll come away with all the ammunition, chapter and verse, you need to send your inner pedant packing. (A good writer is a pedant about style and clarity, of course, just not about bogus language peeves.)