I own about 1,500 books, many of them about writing. Among those are 19 of my own, including the latest, Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice From Aristotle to Zinsser. Thanks to book designer Keith Hayes, it looks supercool. How did he see that the nib of a pen looks like a dagger?
By all means, judge my book by its cover.
Murder is a writing book about writing books, about 50 of them, most of them modern, but some going back to the Ancient Greeks. That Aristotle guy could really write.
The phrase “murder your darlings” was delivered 100 years ago by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to his students, a reminder that finding a sharp focus might require a writer to cut some favorite phrases.
Each book mentioned in Murder has had some impact upon my own writing and teaching. In one sense this is a tribute to their collective influence, some of it glancing, but some of it soulful.
I could have easily selected 50 different books, but some choices were irresistible, especially because of their track records. Popularity matters. My 2006 book Writing Tools has reached 250,000 copies in print and been translated into eight languages. More gratifying than those numbers is the testimony from readers of all ages on how it helped them.
While there is no indispensable writing book, these five measure up. Each is different. Together they stand out for their practicality and spirit. More important, in the age of grotesquely expensive textbooks, they are cheap. I bet you could find used copies of all of them for less than 30 bucks — total.
1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. More than 15 million copies, in multiple editions, says it all. It has its cranky critics, but this is the first book that offered readers practical advice on the process of writing. Two books, really, with two different meanings of “style.” For the teacher, Strunk, style meant what most good writers should agree on. For his student, White, style was the way to make your writing stand apart.
2. On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Over 30 years, this has sold more than a million copies. Its author was an editor, teacher, what we used to call a “man of letters.” It has a thesis: that writing in America is infected by clutter. The writer’s job is to cut it out so it no longer obscures the most vivid language. Zinsser applies the discipline of cutting clutter to drafts of his own work, one of the most helpful demonstrations in any writing book. Zinsser was a mensch. At the age of 90, he was taking poetry lessons from a young tutor.
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She drives me crazy. Her books on religion are so sympathetic to others, yet in her own writing she is so tough on herself. Unlike the books above, Bird by Bird is not a simple inventory of writing strategies. It’s an account of how to live a life of language, with its struggles and triumphs. Anecdote: Her young brother was struggling with a school report on the birds of Africa. Their father steps in: Bird by bird, son. Just take it bird by bird.
4. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. What does the writing process have to do with Zen? Almost everything, according to the prolific Goldberg, who is an author, teacher, visual artist and expert on Eastern religions. While I prefer the sequel, Wild Mind, this book has been lifting writers up for three decades: “If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.” Goldberg is the writer I would most like to bump into at a coffeehouse in Santa Fe.
5. On Writing by Stephen King. The King of horror fiction may be the most popular writer to write a book about writing. It even has its scary moments, such as the terrible accident where King is struck by a panel truck. While not so strong on the technical aspects of the craft, King offers something more foundational: the keys to productivity. How he can write a draft of a novel in a single season: a quiet place, a reliable set of tools, limited distractions and a target of productivity, in his case 2,000 words per day.
I’ve come to think of Murder Your Darlings as a book version of the greatest writing conference ever assembled. Please join.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, since 1977. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice From Aristotle to Zinsser
By Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown/Spark, 340 pages, $27
Meet the author
Roy Peter Clark will discuss and sign his new book at these events.
Jan. 25: 2 p.m. Free. Haslam’s Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 822-8616. haslams.com.
Jan. 26: 2:30 p.m. Admission $5, applicable to book purchase. Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 253-0222. oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.
Feb. 19: 6:30 p.m. Free. Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 755-9456. tombolobooks.com.