Why read this? : We share some of our favourite lessons from books about writing. Learn why your default word order should be subject then verb. And learn how action, feelings and humour breathe life into your writing. We also share practical lessons on how to write copy which sells and engages customers. Read this to learn great lessons from great books about writing.
We’re big fans of reading books about writing. Our be a better writer guide recommends you start with a few classics like :-
- Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Bock.
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
- On Writing by Stephen King.
But, there’s loads more books about writing out there. That’s why this week, we share some of our favourite bits of advice from other great books about writing.
The books we’ll refer to are :-
- 50 Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clarke.
- First You Write a Sentence, by Joe Moran.
- Ten Things About Writing, by Joanne Harris.
- Breakthrough Copywriting, by David Garfinkel.
- Copywriting Made Simple, by Tom Albrighton.
50 Writing Tools - Roy Peter Clarke
50 Writing Tools was one of the first books we read to learn about writing. We refer back to it often. It’s great for anyone who’s looking for easy, practical tools to make their writing clearer and more impactful.
We’re only going to go into the first of the 50 tools it covers here. But it’s an important one.
The first tool states the default word order in your sentences should be subject, then verb.
This tool works because when you write subject – verb, you do the reader a big favour.
You help orient them to who the sentence is about, and what they’re doing. Subject – verb makes the purpose of the sentence really clear at the start.
When you write a sentence which starts with something else (like this one), the reader (subject) has to wait (verb) to the end to find out the purpose of the sentence.
They have to hold the thought of the first clause, to understand the second clause. That’s harder work than just starting with the subject and verb.
You may occasionally want to hold the subject-verb to the end of a sentence to add some intrigue. To create some variety in your sentences. But if you do it too often, it’s annoying for the reader. It drains their energy, because it makes the reading harder work for them.
The reader (subject) finds (verb) it easier when they know who’s doing what right at the start of the sentence. Start your sentences with subject-verb to make your writing easier to read.
Many writers get this wrong
Such an easy tip. But one many writers forget. (including us from time to time).
Long rambling sentences, which keep the reader hanging on to find out who they’re about, and what’s happening, aren’t good.
So, don’t do this, unless it’s deliberate, and for effect. It’s an easy way to make your writing easier to read.
Incidentally, we’ve read several of Roy Peter Clark’s other books about writing too. He’s such a clear and interesting writer about writing.
Definitely worth a read to learn more about the craft of writing. We’ve learned a lot from reading his books.
For example, Murder Your Darlings summarises advice from 30+ other books about writing. From Aristotle though to Zinsser, as the sub-title of the book puts it.
The Art of X-Ray Reading introduces you to a new way of analysing texts. To read other people’s writing like a writer, so you can learn from them. He analyses classic texts like The Great Gatsby and Ulysses, and opens your eyes to what’s going on below the surface of the writing. Read this and it totally changes the way you look at a piece of writing.
And lastly, there’s his book How to Write Short. It focusses on short form writing. Whether you need to write slogans, tweets, song lyrics or haikus, it’s packed full of great tips on how to make a small amount of words have a big impact.
First You Write a Sentence - Joe Moran
Professor Joe Moran takes this whole idea of subject-verb to another level in his book about writing, First You Write a Sentence.
This book is like a love letter to the art of crafting sentences. It goes deep into the DNA of how to write great sentences.
In Chapter 3, Nouns vs Verbs, he explains why subject (usually a noun) and verb matter so much. He explains how they play very different roles when you write a sentence.
Nouns are like a grappling hook for the reader. They make whatever it is (the subject or object) feel real, because you can imagine what the noun describes.
He also points out concrete nouns are easier for readers to grasp than abstract ones.
Concrete nouns describe things you can see or touch. They’re easier to read than abstract nouns which describe ideas and concepts.
He laments the over-use of abstract nouns which clutter up much academic and management type writing.
Verbs add life to your sentences
But, it’s his section on verbs which really stands out.
Nouns name a thing, but they keep it still.
Verbs say something about the noun, and make it move. And the way to breathe life back into a sentence is to use verbs.
He recommends you review nouns in your sentences, and look for ways you could change them to verbs.
In particular, where you have weak noun-verb combinations.
So, change puts emphasis on to emphasise, for example. Change gives the impression to suggests. Draw attention to could just be notes.
We like this focus on verbs a lot.
First, it tightens your writing. It helps you omit needless and unnecessary words as Strunck and White would say. (see our improving your readability article for more on this). Tight writing is harder for you to write, but easier and more enjoyable for the reader.
Then, there’s the movement verbs add to your sentences. Moran’s book suggests verbs symbolise life and energy. You want your writing to have this sense of movement. Sentences, paragraphs and articles over-stuffed with dry nouns and under-stuffed with verbs don’t move. They’re dull. Energy-sapping. Lifeless.
This writing advice seems obvious when you read it, but is easy to forget. For us, it usually comes as we re-write and edit our early drafts. We realise sentences are too long. Too stuffed with unmoving and abstract nouns. They need some life. And verbs are what brings life to your sentences when you write.
Ten Things About Writing - Joanne Harris
Next, we also learned a lot from reading Joanne Harris’s book, Ten Things About Writing.
She’s best known for the Chocolat series, but has also written loads of other great books, including the excellent Malbry series.
We admire her ability to write in different genres and styles. Plus, she shows great care and attention to detail in the craft of writing.
In Ten Things About Writing, she shares many of lessons she’s learned about writing, and also about being a writer.
Though mainly aimed at fiction writers, there’s so much practical advice here, that all types of writers can learn something new.
The book covers 10 topics, each with 10 sub-topics, and each of those with 10 short and punchy practical tips. It’s Section 5 (Detailing) which stood out for us.
As she puts it, this is about bringing your (fictional) world to life. You can see she’s an expert at doing that when you read her books.
She talks about how to add more realness to scenes by bringing in factors like the weather and the seasons, for example. She also talks about the value of adding sensory factors like scents and colours. And tangible factors like food and sex. But it’s the last couple of topics in this section which we want to dive into.
First, there’s the need to include action in your writing to bring it to life.
Good action stays in the minds eye, and makes it graphic and visual for readers. And how do you create action? Through the proper use of verbs, like we mentioned in the previous section.
Action doesn’t have to be shoot-outs and car chases. It’s something which happens which has a dramatic effect on the story. For the reader, action grabs the attention because they want to know what happens next.
Then, to make the world of your writing more real, you add feelings. You add emotions and make them feel real. Make them feel authentic.
For her, authenticity is key when it comes to writing about feelings. It takes a lot of practice and bravery to get right.
You take the reader into an examination of their own feelings when you write with emotion. So you need to prepare for it to sometimes feel intense and uncomfortable. When our emotions take over, we don’t feel in control, and that’s confronting.
But it’s also very real. Very visceral. Writers who master the art of building authentic emotion into their writing stand out. They set their writing apart from those who use emotion in more trivial or fake ways.
Having taken us deep into emotions, this section in the book finishes on a lighter note, with tips on how to add humour to your writing.
It’s not about jokes and gags, but adding some relief when things are dark in your story. Most business writing doesn’t get that dark. But it can deal with solving serious problems, and problems can take people to dark places in their head.
So, when you know you have readers who are feeling frustrated, angry or worried, humour can be a good way to break those negative feelings. To add some positivity and warmth to a situation.
We also like how the book points out humour shouldn’t be about laughing at someone else’s misfortune. That’s just mean. Humour should be honest and humble. In fact, being able to laugh at yourself as you write, makes your writing more open. More approachable. It shows you don’t take yourself too seriously. That can help readers warm to your writing.
That’s especially important when what you write needs to make readers want to do something.
Breakthrough Copywriting - David Garfinkel
This was one of the first books we read which was more specific to advertising and sales copy.
It’s a great reference book when your writing needs to drive a sale.
It also references lots of classic books on copywriting, though some of the examples sound a little dated.
It’s also targeted towards sales copy for American audiences, which may not suit everyone.
Still, we really like the directness of this book, and the way it sets up the need for sales copy.
He suggests many writers find it hard to write sales copy. It feels like they’re imposing on the reader. That they’re trying to persuade them to buy something they don’t need. They feel hesitant. Uncomfortable.
But he reminds you if you’ve followed the sales copy process properly, none of that is actually true.
You know the target audience. You know what they need. So in actual fact, writing your sales copy is helping them meet that need. Sales copy is something you do for them, not to them.
This gets you into a very different state of mind for writing. It gives your words a different feel. A different energy. When you write sales copy well, you help the reader and make their life better.
So, good sales copy asks for the sale. It drives a clear call to action. It doesn’t worry about imposing on people. He argues it’s better to get a mix of positive and negative reactions than a bunch of neutral responses. Neutral responses go nowhere, and add nothing.
He writes sales copy shouldn’t be quiet and reserved. You want it to be proactive. To stir things up, to provoke, to be bold and to stir emotions.
So next time you write sales copy, ask yourself if it does those things. Have you done enough to stir the emotions? To create desire. To make customers think, yes. I want that!
Copywriting Made Simple - Tom Albrighton
Tom Albrighton’s a British copywriter we first came across on Twitter.
His Copywriting Made Simple book takes a more structured approach to copywriting.
He breaks down each step into very simple, clearly written tips and ideas anyone could use to improve their writing.
It’s not just about copywriting, but also about being a copywriter. So you get advice on working with clients on briefs and getting feedback, for example.
Plus, he covers more obvious areas like writing headlines and calls to action with lots of tips and relevant examples.
It also refers to other books about writing, and adjacent topics like behavioural science. There’s a great chapter on being persuasive which applies lessons from Robert Cialdini’s book Influence to writing, for example.
But the chapter which stood out for us was Chapter 11, which covers engaging your reader.
Engaging your reader
Marketers and agencies love to talk about engagement, But very few can actually articulate what it means. Or even be engaging themselves.
This chapter however is a very engaging read about engagement. It makes tons of great points about how to engage customers with your writing.
First, it asks you to think of engagement as like having a conversation with the reader. You write as if the reader’s there in the room with you. It makes your writing feel more natural. Like you’re having a meeting of like-minded and equal people.
So when you write, you write to share something with the reader you think they’d like to know. You talk in their language to make it understandable, and not dumbed down. You appreciate that as they read your stuff, they’re likely to be busy, bored or tired.
What that means is you treat the reader the same way you’d want to be treated yourself.
It’s kind of a marketing led thought (prioritise the customer), but also about seeing your writing as providing a service to other people.
However, lots of the writing you see (especially on social media) isn’t about this at all. It’s not about serving others, but serving the author. Humblebrags on LinkedIn. Snarky comments on Twitter. Self-serving adverts on Facebook.
Readers have to constantly sift through badly written content to find the good stuff. You want your writing to be the good stuff. So, you write content which feels like it’s for a specific reader. You engage them with writing which makes them feel like they just had a great conversation with you.
Conclusion - books about writing
You can’t be a writer, without being a reader. You read to get ideas and inspiration, and you convert those to your own ideas and inspiration for your readers.
There’s many books about writing to choose from. We reckon we could probably write another dozen articles like this with different advice, and still not scratch the surface of what’s out there. It’s what makes writing such an interesting topic to read about.
Here, we focussed on 3 specific areas.
First, subjects, nouns and verbs. We shared how starting with the subject and verb makes your sentences easier to read. The reader knows right away who the sentence is about, and what’s happening. And by highlighting the power of the verb, you breathe more life, more action into your writing. Roy Peter Clarke and Joe Moran’s books are both excellent reads on this topic.
Then, we have the central part of Joanne Harris book about breathing life into your written world with action, feelings and humour. These make what you write more real. More visceral. They help draw the reader into the world you create with your writing.
And finally, we look at where you most often use writing in the business world. We share 2 different perspectives on copywriting. First, David Garfinkel’s view that sales copy is a service you do for the reader, and not to them. Then as Tom Albrighton covers, you need to think of this copywriting interaction as like having a natural conversation with the customer. That’s how you engage your audience.
All writing connects the writer and the reader. The writer lets the reader into their head, and makes it a worthwhile use of their reading time. That’s why we write, and why we continue to read books about writing.
Check out our articles on writing habits and quick and easy tips on copywriting for more on this topic. Or contact us, if you have questions, or want to find more great books about writing.
Woman with mug reading : Photo by Alexandra Fuller on Unsplash
Man in blue shirt writing : Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash
Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash
Go for it (adapted) : Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Heart Button Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Conversation : Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash