“Can you recommend a good book on writing?”

I am often asked to recommend a ‘good book on writing’. A simple enough question, but one that is surprisingly hard to answer. In my attempts to do so, I feel a bit like a sommelier, responding to the question with a few of my own: Are you having the fish or the lamb? Do you tend to like full-bodied reds? That is, it’s hard to recommend a book without knowing what sort of writing project you are doing and what sort of support you are likely to perceive as valuable. This list includes some of the books that I find helpful, allowing you to see what might be beneficial to you. (This list expands on the list of five key sources that I use for writing.) I have tried to include a range of books that are relatively general—that is, ones that I think might meet the criterion of a ‘good book on writing’ for many different writers. In the future, I hope to devote some individual posts to more specialized texts on academic writing.

Needless to say, some of you will gravitate more naturally to online resources for writing. The blogroll (found in the left-hand column) gives some great places to start. I also want to mention the top thesis and dissertation resource list put together by the Online Ph.D. Program site, a helpful source of information on doing a doctorate online.

Note: I’ve included U of T library links for those of you who are local.

Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Fourth Edition (New York: Quill, 2001). This is an interesting and highly readable book about style; it is divided into chapters on diction, linking, tone, meaning, composition, and revision. Barzun includes sample sentences and some hints towards improving those sentences. His aim throughout is to breed an analytical self-awareness about the choices we make when we write. U of T Library Link

Howard S. Becker and Pamela Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Written by a sociologist, this book explores the issues graduate students face when they begin to write scholarly prose. The first chapter (‘Freshman English for Graduate Students’) discusses the way the task of writing changes for graduate students as it becomes a socially organized professional activity. U of T Library Link

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First published in 1995, this book provides invaluable advice about conceiving a research plan, conducting the research, and then conveying the results of the research in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the reader. The book includes sections on the centrality of research; understanding your reader; finding topics; using sources; making and supporting claims; outlining, drafting, and revising; writing introductions and conclusions; communicating evidence visually; and the ethics of research. U of T Library Link

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues. U of T Library Link

Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). In this book, Elbow provides a deeply reflective discussion of writing aimed at a broad audience. The core theme is the reconciliation of the contrary impulses involved in writing: the open and imaginative impulse necessary to get words down on paper and the critical and rational impulse necessary to make those words coherent for the reader. This book will be particularly useful for students who need to draw on their creative side in order to be productive; Elbow’s emphasis on free writing and the ‘magical’ process of writing can be empowering for a writer who is finding the act of writing itself difficult. U of T Library Link

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 2010). This book argues that grounding our own claims in the previous scholarly work is “the internal DNA … of all effective argument”. In other words, all effective academic writers must learn how to situate their contribution within the ongoing scholarly conversation. This book offers concrete strategies for doing just that. By distilling the essence of the most common rhetorical moves in academic writing, this book is able to provide a useful collection of templates for academic writing. Even if using templates doesn’t fit your writing style, reading this book will help to clarify the extent to which effective arguments follow discernible patterns. Recognizing those patterns can help you to strengthen your writing or even to clarify what you need to say. U of T Library Link

Patricia T. O’Conner, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing (New York: Harcourt, 1999). This book, which is not directed at academic writers, offers sound writing advice with a great deal of levity thrown in. The information is accurate, but it is presented with a light hand. The examples are not taken from academic prose and the text does not address the unique challenges of academic writing; however, for some writers, the humorous tone and simple examples might prove valuable. U of T Library Link

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (New York: MacMillan, 1979). This is a classic book on style, one which elicits a wide range of opinions. Strunk’s basic principles are strong and rarely disputed outright; for instance, he urges us to ‘omit needless words’, ‘use active voice’, and ‘avoid fancy words’. However, the brevity of the book can lead to two problems: one, a lack of room for explanations and strategies and, two, a tendency towards the oversimplification of complex writing decision. While these criticisms have a great deal of merit, the book does offer a compelling vision of clear writing. That said, most writers will benefit from a more elaborated approach; the Barzun book (listed above) and the Williams book (listed below) both treat similar issues in a more expansive fashion. U of T Library Link

John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, Third Edition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012). This text is aimed at international graduate students who are new to academic writing in English at the graduate level. It is divided according to types of writing: general-specific texts, problem-solutions texts, data commentaries, summaries, critiques, and, finally, full research papers. While some of that terminology may not be immediately clear to students, the information contained within each chapter is useful and well-designed. The book starts with a particularly helpful chapter that outlines a general approach to academic writing, including excellent advice about formality. Grammatical issues are interspersed throughout the text as they arise in relation to the different writing tasks. The text also has several appendices that address key issues such as article usage and writing definitions. Overall, this is a valuable introductory text that clearly demonstrates its authors’ familiarity with the central challenges facing international student writers. U of T Library Link

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981; the edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost. U of T Library Link

Writer’s Handbooks: Another type of text that writers may be looking for is a writer’s handbook. Handbooks are comprehensive writing resources, with information on grammar, style, usage, documentation, and different types of writing. Four handbooks are listed below, but there are many, many more. These four were chosen because they are widely used, because they are Canadian, and because they are all available from the University of Toronto libraries. One handbook is generally very much like another; you have to try out a number of them to see what suits you and your budget. They differ mainly in length, amount of colour, type of binding, and use of tabs, all of which contribute to the cost of the text. The basic content will be similar. The reason for using a handbook—as opposed to, say, looking for answers online—is the reinforcing effect of finding a consistent explanation every time you look something up. The rules of grammar and usage are hard to remember; it is a definite advantage to use a sound resource consistently in order to help refresh your memory. Handbooks also provide useful information on the different citations styles (APA, MLA, CSE, etc.). During graduate study, students will generally start using a single citation style consistently; at that point, it makes sense to use the style guide published by the relevant organization. The role of a handbook can, of course, be played by an online resource as long as that resource is reputable; I usually recommend using the OWL at Purdue site.

Doug Babington, Don LePan, and Maureen Okun, The Broadview Guide to Writing, Fourth Edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2009). U of T Library Link

Joanne Buckley, Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians, Second Edition (Toronto: Thomson, 2008). U of T Library Link

Diana Hacker, A Canadian Writer’s Reference, Fifth Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011). U of T Library Link

William E. Messenger, Jan de Bruyn, Judy Brown, and Ramona Montagnes, The Canadian Writer’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008). U of T Library Link


13 responses to ““Can you recommend a good book on writing?”

  1. Thank you for the list. 🙂 I can recommend the following three books on writing ( http://www.organizingcreativity.com/2013/01/literature-recommendations-for-scientific-writing/ ):

    Thomson, P. & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. => They cover addressing the community, your contribution and the like — something that is usually neglected, as well as e.g., developing your identity, writing itself, publications plans, engaging with editors/reviewers, or writing with others. Eye-opening regarding the social nature of science and it makes you ask the right questions about your work. I wish this book had been available 5 years ago.

    Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to Write a Lot. Washington D.C.: APA. => Dispels a lot of myth regarding writing. More a “how do I find — or rather make — the time to write”.

    For the nuts and bolts Alley, M. (1996). The Craft of Scientific Writing (3rd Edition). New York: Springer. is a very good book.

    • Thanks, Daniel! The Thomson and Kamler is so valuable, I agree. In a very different way, the Silvia is also helpful. The Alley book I don’t use much although I have it on my scientific writing ‘list’. My favourite resources to recommend on scientific writing are Matthews and Matthews, Successful Scientific Writing, 3rd ed (Cambridge UP) and the Gopen and Swan ‘The Science of Scientific Writing’, American Scientist 78 (1990).

  2. Nadia Aubin-Horth

    The first book I read on writing was when I started as an assistant professor: Professors as Writers by Robert Boice (1990). It was an eye opener: “I am a writer!”. To realize this, after writing a whole PhD thesis was … interesting. It says a lot about how we are mentored as graduate students!

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  8. Great post, thanks. Can you recommend anything for students writing in English as their second or third language?

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