by Maisie Smith on October 9, 2014
I’m not an English teacher. I break grammar rules all the time. Sometimes my paragraphs only have one sentence. Sometimes they are fragments. Sometimes they are just one single word. I use ellipses… a lot… because I feel they are a good representation of my communication style. Lots of pauses for effect.
When I talk about “being a better writer,” I’m not referring to grammar or sentence structure or word choice. Becoming a better writer is about amping up the creativity. About expressing ideas. About confidence. About inspiring others.
While “On Writing” and “Elements of Style” are great reads for learning the craft of writing, the books I’m interested in sharing with you serve more as catalysts for creativity.
Because better writing comes from unlocking your own brilliance, not from a place of learning the rules.
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Zen in the Art of Writing is my go-to book when I get in a writing slump. Just about every page in my dog-eared paperback copy is marked with pink highlighter and blue pen musings in the margins. The spine is utterly worn out.
Ray Bradbury is a master storyteller and this book of his essays offers practical tips on everything from finding original ideas to developing your own voice and style. He shows that success depends on how well we know one subject: our own lives.
“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
“The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.”
“What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
“Everywhere you look in the literary cosmos, the great ones are busy loving and hating.
What can I say about Chuck Wendig? The dude is unabashedly harsh, like gravel in your wine. His wonky metaphors and creative profanity are delightful, in a NSFW kind of way. His rants are a force to be reckoned with. And every time I need to take a step back because my writing is becoming too vanilla, Chuck is there to keep it real.
“Dig deeper into your own dark places. Tear off the manhole cover and stare down into the unanswered abyss. Speak to your own experiences, your own fears and frights. Shake up your anxieties and let them tumble onto the page.”
“The only way forward is forward. You have a machete. What do you do? You chop, motherfucker. Take the blade. Start hacking. Won’t be fun. Won’t be fast. But it’s the only way to gain ground. Your first way through writer’s block is just to write.”
“Open yourself to the social media experience. Don’t be one of those walled-garden scrod-bots who follows, like, 10 people but has 10,000 followers. Put your ear to the ground like Tonto. Listen to shit. Pay attention. Let the sweet serendipity and weird waves of connection wash over you. People are each their own little rabbit-hole: grab a thread and follow it down into the dark… Without people and their thoughts and their stories, writers are just lonely weirdos screaming into an empty closet.”
500 Ways to Be a Better Writer is a good book to start with, although Wendig’s other nonfiction books are equally butt-kicking: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, 500 Ways to Tell a Better Story, 500 More Ways to Be a Better Writer, Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey, Revenge of the Penmonkey.
Paul Jarvis has a straightforward style of writing that makes me devour everything he creates. When I am reading his books, I sometimes have to remind myself that I am not sitting across a table from him sharing a pie with two forks. If there was a shrink-ray that could miniaturize a person so that I could carry him around in my pocket all day, I would choose Paul Jarvis. I value his advice that much.
In Everything I Know, Jarvis, as the “anti-guru”, provides a template for adventure, taking risks and exploring new territory. It’s all about doing your own thing in your own way while conquering fear and overcoming inertia. I read this book every three months or so to keep myself in check.
“A large part of choosing your path is figuring out which values determine your worth. Once that’s clear, it’s much easier to decide if the work you’re doing will increase or decrease your feelings of worth.”
“We focus on the future, which hasn’t happened yet, and we have no way of predicting. This cuts into focusing on the present and actually starting something. We turn our attention not to our work, but on what could come from it.”
Hugh MacLeod doodles on the back of business cards. They are awesome mini masterpieces. I love his biting, grounded wisdom about improving work and creating a life that really matters.
I received Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys to Creativity as a gift from a friend about a year ago. It blew me away. MacLeod tackles the tough questions like “How do new ideas emerge in a cynical, risk-averse world?” and “What does it take to make a living as a creative person?”
“Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the “creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.'”
“The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props. Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece on the back of a deli menu would not surprise me. Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece with a silver Cartier fountain pen on an antique writing table in an airy SoHo loft would seriously surprise me.”
Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech given in 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was 19 minutes of encouraging people to break the rules, to think differently and, most importantly, to MAKE GOOD ART. This book contains the full text of Gaiman’s speech. If you ever need more creativity, bravery or strength, this would be an excellent book to put on your shelf.
“I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.”
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
“Remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
I don’t remember how I came about this little pocket-sized nugget. All I know is that Do/Story: How to Tell Your Story so the World Listens is one of the best books I have ever read about the power of storytelling. I would stash it in my purse and pull it out to read whenever I had a spare moment. If you have a product to sell, a company purpose to share, or an audience to entertain, people will engage and connect when a well-crafted story is cultivated and shared. This book is all about sourcing, structuring and shaping your stories.
“Stories possess a spark. Stories are the fire we carry to each other.”
“Stories are, at heart, like the baton handed over in a relay team, only they are passed from one generation to the next. They give each of us a visual template of what to expect, a map of the ‘wilderness’, but most of all the best stories provide a sort of psychological preparation for life’s inevitable struggles. In short, stories are prescriptions for courage. They illustrate how to run the race. And win.”
“To make a story unforgettable, you need to find that one image that connects with the audience, that ‘Aha!’ moment. This creates the epiphany we seek in a great story- that surprise revelation or sigh of recognition. This singular image, well positioned, can elevate a story from good… to great. [This] gleaming detail is the one thing that captures both the emotion and idea of the story at once, in one fell swoop.”
I’ve been an Ann Handley fan for a few years, now. She is a master of content creation and I absorb her blog posts, articles, interviews and books with sponge-like intent. Everybody Writes is brand-spanking new… released in September… and I devoured it in a day. What I love about this book is the short, snackable chapters with titles such as “Embrace the Ugly First Draft” and “Ditch the Weakling Verbs.” It’s brevity in action.
We all rely on words to carry our marketing messages. Writing matters. This book gives expert guidance on the strategy of content creation.
“Very often, the people you think of as good writers are terrible writers on their first drafts. But here’s their secret: They are excellent editors of their own work.”
“The truth is this: writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn. We are all capable of producing good writing.”
“Everything the light touches is content.”
To rocking out in the mosh pit of creativity,