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Thursday, January 18, 2007

On great reading for writers...My thoughts...

Michael Stelzner's Writing White Papers blog collected nominations for the Top Ten Books for Writers and is in the process of cutting the list down to size.

Michael dropped me an email (apparently that's a perk of making the Top Ten Blogs for Writers list) reminding me to make my nomination/participate in the voting. I haven't done it yet and I'm not sure I will.

I was corresponding with another writer today who asked me a similar question about the writing books I found valuable. I didn't really have a good direct answer to the question.

After that correspondence, I decided to tackle the subject here.

I don't read a lot of offline "how to write" stuff. Seeing what's happening at Writing White Papers and the other discussion I mentioned has me thinking about why I don't and what kind of materials serve as my "learning tools" since I don't read that much from the "how to" shelf.

There's nothing wrong with "how-to" books. Nothing at all. Anyone who tells you that you can't learn how to write from someone else's suggestions is overstating things. There may be some kind of natural ability involved and experience as a reader is important, but you certainly can learn from others.

I'm going to drop two names from my (increasingly distant) past. I wasn't an English major in college, but I did take more than the required number of courses in the English department. Two of my professors, Gar Bethel and Troy Boucher, had a definite influence on my approach to writing and my understanding of the craft.

They might be surprised to hear that from me. If they remember me at all, they probably remember me as just another not-so-motivated undergraduate who managed a decent grade without ever appearing that engaged in class. Little do they know that Gar's poetry class and Troy's lit courses supplied direction that still matters. They demystified writing, served as living examples of what it meant to write, and had some very solid core technical hints, too.

I also glean many valuable "how-to" insights from my daily RSS feed reading exercise. My addiction to industry blogs continues to grow...

So, I do know that you can learn more than a little bit about writing from other people. That begs the question as to why I don't read more of the "how to" stuff today.

I think the answer comes from the potentially weird way I ended up writing for a living.

I've always loved reading and writing. Somewhere in my head, the idea of becoming a pro has always been bouncing around. I didn't set out to do this, though.

I went to college. I went to grad school. I went to grad school again. I went to law school. In between, during and for several years after those various stops I did a lot of different things in a few different places. Many of them involved writing as part of a gig, but none of them were "writing jobs." Between some of the jobs, all of the coursework, and my love of text I kept reading.

When it came time to hang up a shingle in this business, I did so with a varied professional and academic background and a healthy dose of books in my mental bloodstream.

Now, when people ask me what they should read in order to become a better writer, I tell them to pick up Kundera's "Immortality" or "The Joke." I tell them to read the New Journalists (particularly Hunter S. Thompson). I give a thumbs up to Marcuse, Burke and other more theoretical thinkers who don't make good "at the beach" reading. I recommend Sexton, Bukowski, the beats and other contemporary poetry.

Everyone who wants to be a better writer should probably read "To Kill a Mockingbird" occasionally. Don't cheat and watch the movie, even though Gregory Peck is great.

Read many papers, many periodicals and many blogs.

Alberto Manguel's "The History of Reading" inspired me to look at gobs of other great stuff. Kassiola's "The Death of Industrial Civilization" surreptitiously taught me a few things about persuasion even though I doubt that was really on the author's mind. Fred Inglis' combination of that sort of gentle left-leaning British perspective combined with occasional bursts of bombast and some great subject material made "The Cruel Peace" valuable to me a as a writer.

Forays into social pyschology gave me Festinger and cognitive dissonance theory. Grad school courses imprinted Aristotle's perspective on my noodle. Law school taught me a lot about how not to write.

I watch television commercials carefully. I listen to radio ads. I'm the guy who doesn't skip the ad pages in the magazines. I even read my spam to see if anyone is doing anything particularly exciting in terms of email marketing. I pay attention to what's happening with others and what kind of techniques seem to be working.

But I don't read much "nuts and bolts" writing books. I guess I believe that the best way for me to be informed is by ingesting text at every turn and continually analyzing it based on my own background and the new perspectives I develop in the process.

The great response to Stelzner's nomination process and the glowing reviews many writers are giving to some of those texts, however, is beginning to make me think I should consider keeping my expanded horizons in place while simultaneously spending more reading time closer to "home."