PhD Candidate in American Studies

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4 Great Books About Writing

This summer, I have committed myself to finding and carrying out a daily writing practice that forces me to consistently think about my work and progress in the design and product of my dissertation. Right now, I am structuring my writing around time: I set a timed, daily goal which I then split up into smaller writing chunks throughout the day. Each chunk (for morale and mental health) is followed by a break. I have found that time—rather than word or page count—has allowed me the freedom to be a bit messier in my drafting process and to consider other activities (revising, deleting, brainstorming, mind-mapping, etc.) as part of the writing process too. I try to write in different registers for different places (my dissertation, a book review, this blog) throughout the day so that I stay alert. I read in my discipline to remind myself that I belong to a genealogy of scholars whose ideas have inspired me to commit to this each day. I read fiction (at least a chapter a day) to remind myself that writing can be beautiful and playful and moving.

This writing schedule and outlook has slowly developed from reflecting on the advice given to me in books about writing. As I move into the dissertation phase, I am reading more about the practice of writing: the act of writing itself and the act of writing beautifully and/or effectively. And with this post, I hope to share some books on writing that may help others finding themselves in need of some guidance.

1. On Writing Well – William Zinsser

on writing well.jpg

Although this book is not primarily for academic writers, there is a reason why it's a bestseller. Zinsser's emphasis on simplicity and clarity in writing prose is a lesson I still think about often when I write, as so much of clear writing he attributes to clear thinking:

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don't know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it's not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

For my purposes, I found his fist two parts on "Principles" and "Methods" of writing to be most useful, although his chapters on different forms of non-fiction writing (travel, science & tech, humor) are quite compelling in their own right.

Here's to getting that fuzz out of the machinery.

2. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace – Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb

This is a book about crafting beautiful prose. It is also what helped me revise my writing sample for my application to graduate school, so it holds a special place on my bookshelf. My copy has become a bit ragged from me thumbing through its pages, as it's most beneficial use for me has been in the revision process. I typically read in order, reviewing one chapter and then applying its principles to my marked-up draft before proceeding to the next lesson. It's focus is on the more granular elements of writing (word choice, transition, word placement) so the process itself makes for a slow one, though its payoff is incredible. They say it best:

...use what you find here not as rules to impose on every sentence as you draft it, but as principles to help you identify already-drafted sentences likely to give your readers a problem, and then to revise those sentences quickly.

An outline of the book can be found here.

3. The Elements of Academic Style – Eric Hayot

This book is probably one of the most influential books I've read while in graduate school, as it is specific to scholars in the humanities who (ideally) spend most of their day writing. More importantly, though, it covers a wide range of subjects: the emotions and fear associated with writing, how we are taught to write as graduate students and what we must unlearn, the practical mechanics of an effective essay structure, paragraph, sentence, word. It's quite remarkable. Although Hayot's chapters on those mechanics are important to processes of revision, those parts of the book that speak to the larger strategies of writing and writing consistently are where his work really shines. Not only does he share personal anecdotes involving his writing, he also treats writing as developing "psychological and behavioral patterns" that are needed to produce longer works of scholarship. His naming of the fear and anxiety in producing scholarship is refreshing and validating, while he asks his reader to push through, to write through:

The ultimate truth about graduate school is that successful academics are not always the smartest ones in their cohorts. They're the ones who manage that anxiety well, who learn to live with their fears and continue, despite everything, to write.

His chapter on "Eight Strategies for Getting Writing Done" is indispensable for me—the list is tacked up by my desk.

4. Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics – Joli Jensen


This book is one that I've just finished reading, and have also enjoyed because it deals with the obstacles (whether institutional or emotional) of academic writing and has provided some great advice for overcoming these obstacles. Each part deals with a different stumbling block involved in writing in the academy and gives practical advice for maintaining consistency in writing and research as well as time management. Much like Hayot's work, I appreciated her focus on improving the practice of writing rather than improving the writing itself, especially in this stage of my academic career. Her notion of "craftsmanship" is one that I repeat to myself often:

Craftsmanship is the concept that can stabilize us when we feel buffeted by academic anxieties. Treating our writing as a craft reminds us that scholarship is always, at least in part, an apprenticeship. It keeps us in touch with the fact that academic writing is something we can learn how to do.

Books Still On My To-Read Shelf

What books do you recommend for academic writing? Let me know in the comments!