books on writing

What is your most beloved book on writing?

We all have them–the worn paperback, pages glazed with yellow highlighting, margins crowded with scribbled notes. The books we hold in our heads, in our composing muscles–these guides have taught us our craft.

The pages of these books contain our “aha” moments. We recognize a long-practiced tic that impedes our readers’ comprehension or delight. (Hey–who knew that “just” does not need to be inserted before every other adjective?) That’s the first step–discovery. These beloved writing books teach us to investigate our own practices. And when we find aspects of our craft that need help, these books tell us how to improve. Concretely. With really good examples.

I could list several most beloved books on writing, but I’ll stick with one for now: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Originally published in 1976, the 30th anniversary edition contains Zinsser’s short introduction detailing the changes he’s made over the three decades and six revisions of the book’s publication history.

One of my favorite chapters is called “Bits and Pieces,” which ranges from adverbs to punctuation, from “creeping nounism” to credibility. Here are the first two paragraphs of a section called “Little Qualifiers”:

Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.

Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident. (70)

If you don’t have a beloved book on writing, go find one. I envy the joy you’ll feel in a first-time reading of Zinsser’s book. But the best thing about these writing guides? As in any relationship, that initial flush of discovery turns into the solidity of a long-term friendship as we return again and again to the wisdom and guidance in these pages. Here are some of the books I consider friends (the list contains a range of books that inspire me–they’re not all writing guides or how-to books):

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Renni Brown and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

James Scott Bell, Plot & Structure

Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes and Fiction First Aid

Louise DeSalvo, Writing As a Way of Healing

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Keri Smith, Wreck This Journal

Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write



Neologisms illustrate that language morphs. Neologisms can also be wicked fun.

Merriam Webster’s offers two definitions: “a new word, usage, or expression” and “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” Hmmm. The word derives from the French, néologisme–né means “born,” and so we have the birth of a new word or phrase.

“Bootylicious” and “soccer mom” win two out of the eight places in Emily Temple’s article at Flavorwire, “The Story Behind 8 of the Most Irritating Neologisms,” a source I found after googling “famous neologisms.” And “google” as a verb is listed as a neologism in “54 Great Examples of Modern-Day Neologisms.” These examples also prove that in order for a neologism to be fully born, it must be used. A lot.

Two current examples serve as neologisms because they’ve garnered new-found celebrity: “iconic” and “meme.” I encountered “icon” and “meme” in my literary criticism classes, where an icon was a sign (semiotics) or a symbol, and a meme belonged to mimesis, or the art of imitation and representation. Notice that the adjective form of “icon” is the current neologism. Listen to the nightly news, and I swear, you’ll run screaming from the living room after the twelfth pronouncement that something is “iconic.” Because “iconic” and “meme” have switched academic addresses to established social media residences, I think they qualify as neologisms.

Word play. Oxymorons (“jumbo shrimp”), portmanteaus (“brunch”), and dare I say, the lowly pun (as Mercutio dies, he says, “Tomorrow … thou shalt find me a grave man”)–these all indicate what we linguistic beings know: language can be a blast. The joy of messing with it, transforming it, re-creating it–that’s a creative rush.

The wicked fun part is celebrated by The Washington Post’s weekly Style Invitationals, which may ask you to create a neologism by offering a new meaning for a word or by altering a word (change one letter or spell it backwards, for instance) and then giving the new definition. Example: coffee (noun) – the person upon whom one coughs. Ha! Check out the archives for each weekly invitational and treat yourself to some wordy guffaws.

And now for another neologism, one that I believe should become an iconic meme. My youngest sister, MJ, came up with the word perplangst. At first, she thought of “perplangsty,” a portmanteau using “perplexed” and “angsty.” “Angsty” is itself a neologism, transforming the noun, “angst,” into a new adjective, “angsty.” But “perplangsty” just doesn’t sound right.* The solid ending of “perplangst” offers a definitive jitteriness, I think. So MJ revised her neologism. If you’re confused some time today, and you’re fretting about being baffled, go ahead–say it: “I’m so perplangst!”

*If, however, you are using the word in a derogatory manner, adding the “y” to the end seems appropriate, as in, “Don’t get all perplangsty on me now!”