Thursday, January 18, 2018

Editor's Notes #41: Best Books on Writing and Editing Part 1—My Thoughts



Now that the first couple weeks of January are a tired memory of back to work, back to school, back to healthy eating, a wee bit of self-care and readjustment to routine, I'm ready to get things rolling again here. I have a lot of things I'm excited about this year, and one of them deals with my reading life, of course.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a few sort-of goals for 2017 that were more in my head than written anywhere, but since I had so few of them, they were pretty easy to remember.

For my professional growth, I set out to have one non-fiction book—related to editing or writing—happening at all times. This one yielded some fun reads. And before you say that there is nothing funny about grammar and "How to Write the More Better Stuff" books out there, I need to stop you. There are some terrific books that are instructional but far from boring (even for those who hate grammar rules). I firmly believe that reading books geared toward the writing craft helps my editing.

Copy editing deals with the hard and fast rules more often than not—the nonnegotiables, as I think of them—so a quick search through The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, the Associated Press Stylebook or similar books will yield answers without much fuss. Commas, punctuation, common spellings, even UK v. US styles . . . all very black and white.

However, line editing is slightly different and involves sentence structure, POV inconsistencies, awkward phrasing, clichés, verb tense, ambiguity, and more. This is where the writing books come in handy for me. The more I know about why sentences are constructed in a particular way for a particular purpose, the better I become at spotting when something is "off." This not only makes the editing itself more thorough, but it also speeds up my work process as I become more adept, and errors sort of jump out at me. I also may or may not get a teeny thrill when I catch something particularly tricky.

One of my favorite books from 2017 was It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande. This is, as the subtitle claims, "a writer's guide to crafting killer sentences." The book is practical but filled with good, sarcastic, wicked sass, and that's one of two reasons I loved it. The second reason is that the writing advice is as solid as they come. It covers a lot of ground but never gets boring. Casagrande has a handful of books out there I plan on working my way through, including Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. I'm a sucker for a great title.

The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon is also a favorite of mine, though not technically one I read in 2017. Again, like Casagrande's book, it's filled with humor while not compromising on solid information. Where else can you find a chapter on serial commas that includes the following example?
She attended the wedding feast in her Buster Brown collar, her water moccasins, her spring-loaded pelvic girdle, and her coiffeur's interpretation of Medusa at the Mardi Gras.
I also own another book by Gordon, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, which looks promising but which I've not yet gotten through. It is set up as a gothic narrative with a cast of characters that includes a vampire (of course), bat, wolf, pizza chef, mastodon, and more. I don't see any reason why this book shouldn't be a win.

I finally got around to reading Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which has been read by probably every writer out there, and a great many non-writers who simply like Stephen King. I didn't know what to expect from this and was almost overwhelmed by how much I enjoyed it. I used to love reading his books when I was in college and then somehow got away from them as life got busy, marriage and kids took over, and my reading tastes shifted. But the autobiographical portion of this one rekindled my desire to read his stuff, and the writing advice portion of it was just so practical and no-nonsense that it made me want to write a book. If you happen to be in the .001% of the population who has not read this gem, I suggest you get your butt to the bookstore.

I'm currently in the middle of Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon. This one is slow going for me, probably because I've now become spoiled by funny, entertaining writing/editing books like the ones mentioned above. However, I'm persevering through this one, because it's actually good. It's just not entertaining, which doesn't diminish the kind of writing advice it includes. At first, I found it ironic that the subtitle talked about the kind of sentences I "love to read" but the sentences I was reading in it were not as lovable as I'd expected. I don't agree with 100% of his advice, because he seems to be a lover of longer sentences, and I imagine his more devoted followers might lean toward purple prose if given the opportunity. However, I have to admit the sometimes-tedious detail he goes into when deconstructing sentences for analysis is helpful when all is said and done. He even says, at the end of an exercise on page 93, "We do not actually think like this when we write! This is a highly artificial and arbitrary exercise, but there is no better way to internalize the various logic patterns available to the writer who knows how cumulative sentences work." So let me say that I do recommend this one, but know what you're in for when you pick it up.

I've shared some of my favorites with you in this post. Part 2 will be focused on your favorites, and the books I've seen recommended over and over again in writer and editor groups. So if you would, please drop me a line at lyndadietz4@gmail.com and tell me what your favorite writing books are, and why. I'll gladly include them.


14 comments:

  1. The title of the first one is funny. I still need to read On Writing.
    Even as an editor, you still need to learn and grow.

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    1. These are all great books for sure. I feel I should always be learning and growing in the rest of life, and my work is no different. I've noticed my editing becoming easier in the sense that I notice things faster and more completely, if that makes sense.

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  2. These made me! The book that changed my writing life was The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. I've always been able to string words together fairly easily, and I think I share that with nearly all serious writers. The Marshall Plan taught me how a book is structured, how to build the suspense, where the surprises go; the framework to hang the words on, I guess you'd say. The same book doesn't work for everyone, and I went through scores of them before I found this one, but if you have a weakness in any aspect of your Craft, there's likely a book out there that can change your life, too. It's just a matter of sorting through the pile until you find it.

    Great subject, Milady, and one that a lot of writers likely haven't realized yet. This sort of brings new meaning to my tagline of "read well, and write better!" All the best...

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    1. My next post is based on the recommendations of my author readers, so I'll have to look into The Marshall Plan between now and then. And you are correct: what works well for one may not work for another, but there is THE book out there for each person who seeks.

      I love your tagline! I smile every time I read your blog posts. Thanks for the visit!

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  3. "I'll come back and read this later."

    What? Does that not make a proper comment? (You know I had to! :P)

    I think these are fantastic books. Possibly the only one I haven't read is The New Well-Tempered Sentence, but I'll be honest, I'd only read it for her humor lol I'll leave my sentences and serial-comma usage in your capable hands. The other books are great, even Landon's. Keep going and there are treasures in there.

    I love that you're sharing these with us, you know I'm a sucker for learning the craft, so even if I've read some, it's a good reminder to freshen up my knowledge.

    I have to say Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a must for novelists. I find it instrumental for story arcs, structures, and such. I'd say it's as great for writers as it is for content editors which is why I've even made up an outline template based on it. Hands down a must read! So, like, go read it . . . ;)

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    1. Seriously. Everyone knows nobody ever comes back to that mythical "later." I'd rather hear a generic "great post, thanks for sharing" than to know someone took the time to come here but couldn't spare five minutes to read less than 1000 words.

      I'm not surprised you've read almost all of these, and probably more. You're my personal Google when I can't find what I need online. I'll have to look into Save the Cat since I've never read it. And if it's great for content editors, I'm there! It's practically jumping into my Amazon cart as I type.

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  4. This is so weird. The post I read before yours also mentioned Stephen King's On Writing! The blogger enjoyed the book, but didn't agree with King's advice on how to get an agent. Check it out if you're so inclined. http://www.colindsmith.com/blog/2018/01/18/how-not-to-get-a-literary-agent-by-stephen-king/

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    1. Ha! Colin and I must have been in tune somehow. I did read his post, and I agree with him that King's advice on querying an agent is outdated. Not that I have much experience with that end of things, but anything that gives examples of how to communicate/query from almost twenty years ago is bound to be outdated in at least a few areas. The rest of the book, though, is chock-full of great stuff and well worth the read. I like the fact that Colin rereads it each year. Much like my favorite fiction books, I have certain reference books I go back to again and again, and gain new insight each time as my skills improve and certain things are second nature to me that weren't always that way.

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  5. I adore wicked sass. A lot of people praise King's book.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. I think sassy people enjoy when someone writes like they would. You and I fit that mold.

      King's book is fascinating, even if you're not a writer or editor. The biographical portion made me want to reread a lot of his stuff, and explore the things I hadn't gotten to yet.

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  6. Hi Lynda - well you've introduced me to some books I'm now interested in reading ... better get myself organised that way. I've taken note - and will see if I can get them from the library ... and I'll be back to read part 2 next week sometime - cheers Hilary

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    1. Glad I've inspired you! If you have any to recommend, I'm featuring those in part 2, so let's hear it. Thanks for the visit!

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  7. I love the sound of June Casagrande and Karen Elizabeth Gordon's books - I'm going to have to pick those up! I always like learning more about the technical bits of writing, and firmly believe that knowing what I'm doing rather than just doing it can only help. And I'm glad you enjoyed On Writing! It was the first writing craft book I ever read, and it's fantastically encouraging :)

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    1. Those really are some great books! I think I learn better when there's humor involved.

      I didn't know what to expect with On Writing but knew "everyone" was recommending it. Obviously it made an impression, and yes, it's encouraging enough that it made me want to write more than just blog posts. Some day, maybe.

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