Writing well takes a lot of practice—and a little guidance from professionals can go a long way. Here are three new books brimming with insights and instructions for writers of all kinds.
Memoirs are as popular as ever, but for those who aspire to tell their stories, starting off with a blank computer screen can be quite daunting. Enter Beth Kephart, author of five memoirs and a teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania. If you can’t enroll in her class, at least you can read her new book, Handling the Truth. Kephart describes a memoir as “a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream,” with a creative process that is different from writing fiction. She presents the countless questions that memoirists must ponder: Who are you? Where have you been? What do you believe in? What is the sound of your voice? An extensive appendix featuring more than 75 recommended memoirs makes this a must-read for anyone seeking their own truth, written or not.
LESS IS MORE
Although short-form writing has been around for millennia (think haiku), it’s no longer just for poets and ad writers. With attention spans waning and Tweets limited to a mere 140 characters, writing efficiently has become an essential skill. Lucky for us, Roy Peter Clark has written How to Write Short. Clark’s succinct (naturally), snappy chapters feature writing exercises to get unwieldy writers practicing what he’s preaching. The first section introduces the concept of short writing, with examples and tips galore. For instance: Start paying attention to short writing that is typically overlooked, like the predictions contained within fortune cookies. The second section concentrates on writing short “with a purpose.” In other words, once you know how to write short, you need to know why—which often involves getting a point across, so Clark’s tips on how to sell an idea or craft the perfect headline will come in handy. This engaging tome is packed with sage advice for communicating in the digital age.
HOW NOT TO WRITE
You know bad writing when you see it—dangling modifiers, mixed metaphors, affected dialogue and seemingly ubiquitous clichés, the ineradicable cockroach-like pests of the written word. Wretched Writing isn’t your typical writing guide in that it dishes up examples of what you shouldn’t do, whether you’re posting a status update or tapping out the next Great American Novel. This compendium of “crimes against the English language” highlights several felonies committed by Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros—often considered one of the worst published novelists of all time—but right alongside hers are the missteps of Jane Austen, Jonathan Franzen and other literary greats. The types of atrocities include alliteration, obsessive; romance, unromantic; and simply words, wrong. Featured under anatomy, problematic is this head-scratcher: “She sat huddled in a chair, covering her ears with crossed legs.” Though perfect for quick reference, this writing guide is also a thoroughly amusing page-turner, a statement I once would have filed under impossibilities.