One of my jobs these days is doing writing workshops and tutoring with students at the Writing Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College CUNY (City Unversity of New York network).
I know, sounds fancy.
Students bring in research papers, essays, technical nonfiction like letters for work, almost anything really, and we work with them to help them with structure, ideas, grammar, proofreading, all that. I’m not a proofreader or copyeditor to fix their work; rather, we work together to help them improve their own writing.
Honestly, I really love it. It combines all my work as a teacher, a writer, and a freelancer in copyediting and proofing all in one, looking and helping to work on a range of written martial outside of just critical essays or on fiction or the research writing I teach.
Even though all the students at all the places I teach and work at know that I’ve worked as a writer before, it’s the writing center guys and gals who tend to ask me for a lot more practical writing and critical reading tips. One of the things I get asked a lot is what are some good books to “teach” them how to be better writers.
Stephen King has always been one of those writers I’ve admired more than I’ve actually really liked. Nonetheless, his autobiography-slash-book on writing, literally called On Writing, is a great book. It’s one of the best books about fiction writing i’ve read in a long time, especially if you’re interested in craft and technique. It’s a book I regularly recommend to students. The blending of King talking about his life and craft, as well as his practical tips, give you some cool insight about how he makes books and stories, is an interesting book. I regularly go back to it.
One the more academic side of the scale, there’s big bad voodoo grandaddy of academic writing books, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This is another one I get asked about and recommend constantly. An ex who studied journalism in college actually introduced it to me (my writing bibles in college were Norton anthologies) and I swear by it ever since. If you want to know how sentences really work and how to improve how you literally transmit information with words, this is something you should have. In general, if you’re into literature, into writing, and/or into teaching, it’s a book for you to have in your own personal library. The best part of it is that it’s almost always cheap to find and it hasn’t changed much since the first edition, so you can get a copy anywhere. I think I got my relatively fancy edition for five bucks on Amazon.
I use They Say/I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein with my critical nonfiction writing students a lot these days. It’s a spiritual successor to The Elements of Style in a lot of ways, especially with its focus on the basics of writing, the raw structure stuff. It’s a really good 101 introduction on how to do some college-level writing when it comes to doing response essays and basic nonfiction papers.
Understanding Comics and Making Comics, both by Scott McCloud, are the fundamental bibles of learning how to critically and comprehensively read comics, as well as start making your own. Both were really helpful to me when I started getting serious about comics and cartooning, but even when it comes to non-comics writing fiction-wise, they’re great books. The language and form and structure of a page, how a story should flow, and how you can add or take away from a story with art (in prose’s case, atmosphere) are essential writing lessons.
As I mentioned, I don’t really rely on “how-to” books when it comes to writing. I’m also a firm believer that constant reading and constant writing (practice, basically) are the best learning tools as opposed to manuals. However, I also have, at this point, ten years’ experience in writing, editing, and proofreading, so a lot of stuff that comes naturally to me isn’t necessarily second nature to others. Stuff like these works, which blend textbook-like teaching with realistic and brutally-practical reference, tips, and insight, can be really helpful.
If I had to build a practical course for learning to write (well, beyond the ones I do now), I would probably exclusively rely on these. Books about writing, while not necessarily an absolute for learning how to be a better writer, can definitely be a useful tool if you take from them what you need not to pad your own writing or take it as your own, but to IMPROVE your own overall writing.