Want to Write Better? Read These Books.

From a New York Times story by Judith Newman headlined “Want to Put Something in Writing? Read These Books.”:

“Writing is easy,” the sportswriter Red Smith famously said. “I just open a vein and bleed.” As annoying as I find writers who dramatize their craft, the guy had a point. Every ink-stained wretch will tell you about the skills he’s developed in order to avoid the blank page. Because I have to turn this column in by tomorrow, for example, my house is spotless, there is a pork roast in the oven and I am killing it with 20 strangers on Words With Friends.

If you’re someone who, while perhaps not writing for a living, needs to produce a lot of words, here are a few new books that might help.

Jeff Bezos is the Leonardo of the buying and delivery process, as anyone who’s addicted to Amazon Prime can tell you. In THE BEZOS BLUEPRINT: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman (St. Martin’s, 272 pp., $28.99), Carmine Gallo deconstructs 24 years of Bezos’ letters to shareholders, and shows how Amazon’s founder applies the streamlining spirit to his own correspondence. Gallo diligently covers Bezos’ way with persuasion, story structure and — central to everything — simplicity. That leather wallet you ordered from Amazon may arrive in a box that could accommodate the whole cow, but Bezos’ prose is wrapped up in small, elegant packages. Thank you, Alexa.

If you want to ditch the business buzz-speak and hold yourself accountable — if you’re the kind of writer who uses five words when one will do — study SMART BREVITY: The Power of Saying More With Less (Workman, 224 pp., $27). This master class in everyday business writing comes to you from Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, the creators of Politico and Axios.

“If we really don’t know what we want to say — or more likely, if we don’t really understand what we’re writing about — we paper it over by saying too much,” they write. I felt seen as I read this, and not in a good way.

Because Americans on average check our phones about once every four minutes, and because the average amount of time we spend reading a piece of “content” is 26 seconds, the authors want you to understand the importance of getting to the point. Short, not shallow, they like to say: “Think of smart brevity as a straitjacket on your worst instincts or habits.” They are funny, and they are right — and if you adopt even a portion of their stylistic suggestions, you will win the email/newsletter/shareholder-letter writing game.

James R. Hagerty’s YOURS TRULY: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story (Citadel, 224 pp., $25) is supposed to be a guide to writing memoir — whether it’s an actual book or a handful of thoughtful paragraphs that are meant to be your (or a loved one’s) send-off. But isn’t writing your own obit a little morbid? Hagerty doesn’t think so. (As one funeral director put it, “Talking about sex doesn’t make you pregnant, and talking about death doesn’t make you dead.”) According to this Wall Street Journal veteran, the key to obit writing — or more expansive memoir, for that matter — can be summed up in three questions: What were you trying to do with your life? Why? And how did it work out?

Hagerty gives advice about how to interview, how to tell a story, what to include and what to omit. (“Your life story is not a nomination for sainthood.”) But really “Yours Truly” is mostly an excuse to relive (see what I did there?) memorable obituaries — of the famous, the infamous, the heroic and the deeply quirky. “If an obituary can’t be fun, what’s the point of dying?” Hagerty asks. Consider this line from an obit written by a son for his mother, Margaret Marilyn DeAdder: “Marilyn loved all children who weren’t her own and loved her own children relative to how cleanshaven they were.”

What about writing fiction? Occasionally, in a bout of self-loathing, I tell myself it’s time to finish my short story collection. Or start my short story collection. Or start a short story. Surely books on this subject would help?

I remain convinced that the only way to actually improve your writing, particularly for fiction, is to read your betters, which is why I was happy to see the compendium ON WRITING (AND WRITERS): A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions (HarperOne, 208 pp., $23.99), by C.S. Lewis. The author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” rails against what he calls “verbicide,” the murder of a word, which, he writes, “happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest. Those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides.”

While writing about writing is often deadly, Lewis is as delightful as he is wise. He offered this indispensable advice to an aspiring child writer named Thomasine in 1959: “1. Turn off the radio. 2. Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines. 3. Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.”

Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”

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