A perfect writing craft is elusive; especially if you are not writing in your first language. Many people in the former British colonies choose English as their preferred medium of expression and may need help with their prose. This week, I present my favourite ‘help-with-improving-your-English-prose’ books. Tried and tested, all of them have been around for a while, and are recommended by language coaches and trainers of the English language.
Title of the Book: Becoming a Writer
Author: Dorothea Brande
Published in 1934, this is still one of the most relevant books on improving your writing. This wise book is designed to simply help you get over yourself and start writing.
Title of the Book: A Writer’s Reference
Author: Diana Hacker
With sections covering: Composition/Style: Composing and revising, academic writing, sentence style, word choice; Correctness: ESL challenges, punctuation, mechanics, researching, MLA papers, APA and CMS papers, basic grammar, an index and an easy tab that takes you to the section directly, this is one of the most-used reference guides to the English language.
Title of the Book: Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Author: Anne Lamott
Lamott makes clear that writing is not for the fainthearted, the easily bored, the fame-seeking. She uses stories, anecdotes, reminiscences, funny and sad jokes, shared experiences – to tell the reader, just do it. (The book’s title was inspired by long-ago advice given to her brother by their writer father as the boy sat, paralyzed, before an ornithological report due at school the next morning. The father urged his son to just write it. The son asked how. “Bird by bird, buddy,” the father told him. “Just take it bird by bird.”)
Title of the Book: How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms
R. W. Holder’s popular and successful dictionary of euphemisms is now under this title and works like a thesaurus offering a collection of jocular and evasive expressions for sex, death, murder, crime, prison, and much more. Here are almost five thousand euphemistic expressions listed in alphabetical order. For each word or expression, Holder includes examples from real authors, along with entertaining explanations of the word’s origins and meaning.
Title of the Book: What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
Author: Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Organized by the elements of fiction and comprised primarily of writing exercises, this text helps students hone and refine their craft with a practical, hands-on approach to writing fiction. A very good option for novice writers, these exercises are designed to develop and refine two basic skills: writing like a writer and, just as important, thinking like a writer. They deal with such topics as discovering where to start and end a story; learning when to use dialogue and when to use indirect discourse; transforming real events into fiction; and finding language that both sings and communicates precisely.
Title of the Book: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style
Author: Virginia Tufte
This book offers comments on more than a thousand sentences chosen from works in this century and the last and gives insight into how professional writers write English effectively.
Title of the Book: On Writing Well
Author: William Zinsser
This is a classic. On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write whatever you want to write.
Title of the Book: Woe is I
Author: Patricia T.O’Conner
An indispensable survival guide to the English language, offering fresh insights into our daily struggles with which and that, who and whom, colons and semicolons, and more. Find jargon-free, witty answers to all your questions about the basics as well as the subtleties of grammar, style, and usage. Whether you’re intimidated by possessives, baffled by pronouns, or simply have no idea what a gerund is, Woe Is I can come to your rescue.
Title of the Book: Reading Like a Writer
Author: Francine Prose
Francine Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters to discover why their work has endured. Written with passion, humor, and wisdom, Reading Like a Writer will inspire readers to return to literature with a renewed vigour, and understand how established writers use sentences, paragraphs, characterisation, plot and detail to enhance tehir prose. And, most important, Prose cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which all literature is crafted.
Title of the Book: When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse
Author: Ben Yagoda
Yagoda takes you on an interesting tour of the parts of speech of the English language and adds advice from great writers on how to write better. such as Mark Twain (“If you catch an adjective, kill it”), Stephen King (“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”), and Gertrude Stein (“Nouns . . . are completely not interesting”).
By no means is this an exhaustive list, or the best list. But these are books recommended to me by my mentor and names I pass on to anyone who cares to ask for suggestions.
Happy writing, peeps!
(Suneetha Balakrishnan is a bilingual translator, writer and journalist from Kerala. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
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