Some of my favourite writing is writing about writing.
Maybe it’s because writing about the process of writing tends to approach it as a craft—something that can be learned and practiced and taught and honed. It supports the idea that writers, over the course of our careers, can collect and sharpen a set of tools.
Or maybe it’s that the writers who write about writing care about it and want to share what they’ve learned. Which usually means they’re taking a humble stance, admitting they’re also on the infinite learning curve and they respect how steep it is.
Or maybe it’s because good writing about writing doesn’t just give us a clear explanation; it also gives us a living demonstration of the craft it’s exploring.
As a copywriter, I’ve learned a lot from other copywriters. But I’ve also learned an enormous amount from writers who wouldn’t recognise a marketing funnel if they were in one.
Here are some great books from both categories: marketers and non-marketers. Hope you discover something new.
Books about writing by and for marketers
Your New and Improved Go-to Guide for Creating Ridiculously Good Content
by Ann Handley
You guys already know Ann’s terrific book, but did you know there’s a new edition out?
I love this one because it really is for everybody. We all write in our jobs and many of us review and edit other writers too. This is a clear, comprehensive and fun guide that breaks down what makes good writing good. Full of practical tips and advice, told in Ann’s smart, funny, charming voice.
It’s also the first How to Write book for the age of content marketing, something Ann knows better than anybody (I think she was the world’s first Chief Content Officer—and Marketing Profs was pretty much built on her mojo and talent).
Six sections: How To Write Better; Grammar and Usage; Voice Rules; Publishing Rules; 20 Things Marketers Write; and Content Tools
How To Write Clearly
Write with purpose, reach your reader and make your meaning crystal clear
by Tom Albrighton
Tom is a super-talented freelance copywriter. We’ve turned to him more than a few times over the years and he’s never let us down—one of those rare professionals who just bring their A game every single time.
Tom’s book really does deliver on its title. It’s clear, compelling and concise writing about the specific craft of copywriting. I love his advice. (Oh, and I wrote the Foreword.)
Even the Table of Contents is clear and concise:
Write Like a Thought Leader:
How to find a constant stream of story ideas to position yourself as the go-to-expert in your niche
by Rhea Wessel
I met Rhea at the Marketing Profs B2B Forum this year. When she told me what she does—helping subject matter experts capture their expertise and become thought leaders—I slapped my ample forehead. What a great niche! Rhea spotted a real gap in the market and has executed brilliantly to fill it—founding the Institute for Thought Leadership, writing this book, speaking and consulting.
The book goes beyond writing advice to include things like Finding Your Niche, Becoming an Ideas Machine and Finding Your Stories. It’s a really strong program for any expert who wants to get their ideas out there. Chapter 6 summarizes her Story Framing System—”a process for reducing an idea to a headline to make the story easily understandable for others and yourself”. Great stuff.
Books about writing by great writers who aren’t marketers
The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice
by Tony Hoagland with Kay Cosgrove
Tony Hoagland is one of my favourite poets—funny, moving, startling, true… and always written in a warm, approachable, intimate voice. (When he died, in 2018, we lost a priceless thing).
This super-slim volume is about voice in poetry but its wonderful insights apply to all writing. As writing about writing, it’s up there with the very best, full of sentences you want to scribble down and memorize, like:
“When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it—that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.”
Each short chapter looks at a different aspect of voice, with examples from some great poets and the kind of effortless analysis that makes you go, “Yeah. That.” At the end, Hoagland and Cosgrove give exercises to prompt you to try the techniques yourself. I really enjoy doing them. Fun and freeing.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:
(In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life)
by George Saunders
This is the best writing about writing ever written. A delightful, intelligent, generous exploration of short story writing by a lifelong teacher (30 years at the Syracuse University writing program—they get a thousand applications for, like, six places.), Booker Prize winner (for his only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a masterpiece) and leader of a thriving (and fun-as-heck) Substack community called Story Club.
In this book, Saunders dissects and analyzes seven great short stories by four Russian masters: Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. Reading it, I felt like I’d won some kind of lottery—a great writer and gifted teacher shares his experience and insights from decades of teaching these magical stories.
The approach is simple: “Read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had.”
It’s an absolute gem for both writers and readers.
The Art of Memoir
by Mary Karr
I love Mary Karr so much. She’s a truly great memoirist (The Liars Club put her on everyone’s map but they’re all great) and a terrific poet too. (She also teaches at Syracuse. Imagine having both Karr and Saunders for teachers. Spoiled little bastards.)
You don’t have to want to write a memoir to love The Art of Memoir. It’s smart, frank, funny, sweary, voicey and vacuum-packed with the kind of advice that makes you wonder how you never noticed this stuff before.
Here’s a quote for flavour:
“At unexpected points in life, everyone gets waylaid by the colossal force of recollection. One minute you’re a grown-ass woman, then a whiff of cumin conjures your dad’s curry, and a whole door to the past blows open.” [ed: I’m not gonna mention Proust, you mention Proust].
If you love reading or writing, please discover Mary Karr. This book is a great place to start. I think you’ll thank me.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
by John McFee
I read this along time ago and liked it so much I gave a copy to each of the Velocity writers. McPhee has written 32 books and is a staff writer at The New Yorker, which only hires great writers (I defy you to find a badly-written piece in any issue, ever). He also taught writing at Princeton for decades.
The guy makes geology the most interesting subject in the world. (I know: rocks?…Check out Basin and Range).
Draft No. 4 is derived from eight essays on writing and every one is a jewel. He’s obsessive about structure and illustrates his ideas with a bunch of crazy-looking-but-geeky-cool drawings like these:
No, these last four books are not about copywriting or marketing.
But I’ve learned as much from them as from the more ‘on-the-nose’ manuals.
Even better, they’re all delightful.
If you’re a writer, they’ll make you more thoughtful about your writing. If you’re a reader, they’ll open up your reading.
(Why isn’t Stephen King’s On Writing on this list? Only because I haven’t read it yet. But it’s on my gift list so I will correct that.)
Bonus: a few books about writing by academics
I really enjoyed The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. He’s a great science writer so it’s not surprising he focuses on non-fiction, “particularly genres that put a premium on clarity and coherence.”
Brian Boyd, the Nabokov scholar wrote a dense, quirky, brilliant book called On The Origins of Story which I really liked but sank like a stone and is now out of print. It’s more about the adaptive power of story than about the writing process but it’s a geek’s paradise.
And two classic style manuals
Can’t do a post like this without mentioning The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (White of Charlotte’s Web fame). A classic for a reason. (Little-known fact: Ann Handley almost bought E.B. White’s house in Maine.)
And for tongue-in-cheek pedantry raised to high art, Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English is hard to beat. A taste: “It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.”
Grab one of these and enjoy raising your game!