I'm an English professor, and I spent the first 15 years of my career trying to write like one. You might be surprised by what that's like. We don't emulate the fiction writers we most admire. We too rarely practice what we preach to our composition students — namely that good writing is simple and direct. In fact, we're notorious for maze-y sentences and ugly jargon. The point seems less to attract readers with clear prose than to smack them over the head with a sign that says, "Aren't I smart?"
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to start writing for general readers, not just my fellow Ph.D.s. To do so, I knew I needed to unlearn my worst academic habits while studying the best techniques of great writers. Here are three fun-to-read books that helped my writing.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Today in our series Three Books, we're going to hear about writing. The recommendations come from Jonathan Gottschall who says he has a list of books that will help you write well.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: I'm an English professor. For the first 15 years of my career, I tried to write like one. It might surprise you what that's like. We preach to our students good writing is simple and direct. But we don't practice that. We're notorious for mazy sentences and ugly jargon. We don't attract readers with prose. We smack them over the head with a sign that says, look how smart I am.
A few years ago, I started writing for general readers, not just Ph.D.s. I needed to unlearn my worst habits. Here are three books that helped me change. They're also fun to read.
In his book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," Stephen King tells us how to make stories work. And he shows us, too, using tales from his own life. His account of being hit by a speeding van is as violent and visceral as his best fiction. He tells us to toss material that doesn't work, even if we love it. He quotes the saying: Murder your darlings. Then there's the great commandment. If you want to be a writer, King says, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
For William Zinsser, clutter is the disease of American writing. It leaves us strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. In his book "On Writing Well," he braids together good advice. There are mercifully lucid guidelines on punctuation and grammar. There are tips: how to write about business, sports, science, technology. Zinsser follows Thoreau's famous teaching: Simplify, simplify. Writers must rewrite and revise, razoring away everything showy, stripping language to its cleanest components.
"Advice to Writers," put together by Jon Winokur, is a collection of quotes. It's like the trench wisdom of generations of authors. Mark Twain: When you catch an adjective, kill it. Hemingway on persistence: He claimed to scrawl 91 clunky pages for every sparkler. Flaubert on the necessity of revision: Prose is like hair, he wrote, it shines with combing. This book takes the mystery out of the writing process. Accomplished authors just muddle their way toward something good.
As the sportswriter Red Smith once said: Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. You don't have to be an aspiring author to learn from these books. Writing is sweaty work, but on the best days, you'll agree with the ancient Egyptian sage Ptahhotep: Be a scribe, he said, your body will be sleek. Your hand will be soft. Your servants answer speedily. Beer is poured copiously. All who see you rejoice in good cheer. Happy is the heart of him who writes. He is young each day.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the new book "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.