Polishing Your Prose, Part 3: 4 Recommended Writing Books


[Catch up on the entire "Polishing Your Prose" series HERE.]

Whether you're currently a writer or simply aspire to be one, it's important to always be working on your craft. A successful writer not only reads books within the genre in which he or she is writing but also reads nonfiction book on writing to further help think outside the box and "polish your prose," so to speak. So this month I'm taking a step back from practical tips and recommending 4 books you can use as solid resources for helping you write better.

(These are in no particular order.)

1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser

"You won't write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product." (84)

About the author: William Zinsser is a writer, editor, and teacher. On Writing Well is one of 18 books he's authored on the subject of writing. 

About the content: On Writing Well is largely considered to be one of the best nonfiction books there is. It was originally published in 1974 and has since sold over one million copies. Zinsser's conversational style is engaging and easy to follow, and he writes on a number of topics, starting with the simplicity of word choice all the way to why and how we should view nonfiction as literature. I borrowed many of his principles for my post on removing the flab, and I almost never go a day without using a Zinsser quote in one of my edits. This is an excellent resource that I believe no writer should be without. 

2. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

"This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions--how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place." (3)

About the author: Sol Stein is an editor who has edited for numerous best-selling and critically acclaimed writers. He's written nonfiction books on writing as well as screenplays, TV dramas, and nine novels. 

About the content: Like Zinsser, I use quotes and examples from Stein in many of my edits. He writes on plotting, suspense, characterization, dialogue, and flashbacks, just to name a few, and every chapter contains numerous examples of bad and good, breaking down each to show how to go about implementing these tips into your own writing. 

If I were to give critique to this book, it would be that Stein occasionally comes across as arrogant, using examples from his own work, his students', or clients'; he rarely, if ever, fails to remind readers that these are award-winning or in some way best-selling authors that he knows personally. It's mildly annoying, but the information is so solid that I am able (for the most part) to ignore his narcissistic comments. I am quick to recommend Stein on Writing to anyone who asks me for a writing book, simply because there is a wealth of information there that would be useful for a writer at any stage.

3. Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld

"Many writers understand one element of a scene, but not how all the elements work together, inform each other, and create a narrative that is compelling and capable of maintaining a reader's attention." (1)

About the author: Jordan Rosenfeld is a contributing editor for Writer's Digest magazine as well as a freelance writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications.

About the content: Rosenfeld clearly does not have as impressive a resume as the other three authors on this list. But I wanted to include this book because I do feel it would be helpful for the beginning writer. By that I mean, I wouldn't recommend Make a Scene to someone who was already well versed in the language and structure of story arch and scene development, fearing they would find it too simplistic. Again, however, this book would be excellent for a beginner who wants the basics of creating a powerful scene. 

The chapters are all about scenes: launching a scene, ending a scene, dramatic scenes, action scenes, flashback scenes; even scene transitions are addressed. Rosenfeld includes bulleted lists within each chapter that she calls "muse points," which would be helpful when revising your own scene. 

My critiques for Rosenfeld--and caution to any reader--are twofold. First, the grammatical style she uses is inconsistent at times and confusing in others. The other concern is with the examples she uses from published novels, which are not always helpful or completely applicable. Still, her lists and writing tips are clear and concise and would be useful for a beginning writer.

4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

"You want your manuscript to be as strong as it can be before you have it worked on. After all, why pay for editing you can do yourself?" (Introduction to the Second Edition)

About the authors: Renni Browne left mainstream publishing in 1980 to found The Editorial Department, which is a national book-editing company. Dave King is a contributing editor at Writer's Digest. 

About the content: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers covers everything from show and tell to dialogue mechanics in a way that's easily accessible and engaging. They occasionally use examples from works they've personally edited, but it doesn't come across in the self-gratifying way of Stein. 

At the end of each chapter is a checklist of notable questions to ask yourself about your writing. These questions range in topic but are always well suited to the chapter in which they are found. At the end of each chapter is also a short section that contains exercises to get you thinking. Browne and King have included an appendix holding their answers to the exercises in case you get stumped. 

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers would be an excellent addition to any writer's library. This is not to say that having this book will allow you to skip the editing process completely. There is, after all, no substitute for a professional editor to offer an unbiased opinion and constructive critique. But this book offers practical advice and a clear path of action steps to follow to make your work as polished as it can be before you send it out to the world.

 Next month I'll be back with part 4, which will discuss dialogue.