I’m passionate about recommending books and articles that are worth spreading. Hopefully, you can discover something worthwhile on this list that changes the way you think. Or that helps you save the world—that would be okay, too.
Recommended books on writing
Thinking on Paper
by V.A. Howard and J.H. Barton
Even if you’ve read all the other books on writing, read Thinking on Paper. Howard and Barton, the directors of the Philosophy of Education Research Center at Harvard University, follow a different approach in their book. Instead of making everything about the audience, they argue that writing has another function: understanding. They explain in detail how to go about writing for thinking and, along the way, eradicate one of the main causes for writer’s block. Highly recommended.
Draft No. 4
by John McPhee
John McPhee, Pulitzer Prize winner, staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, author of over 30 books, and Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, is a pioneer of narrative nonfiction writing. His ideas on structure are so unique that it’s worth reading this book just to get a glimpse of his approach. He’s also a proponent of using dictionaries instead of thesauruses to find the best possible word—the “mot juste.” And why wouldn’t you trust a man who has written a book of 168 pages on oranges?
Recommended reference books
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged
Merriam Webster’s anvil, the W3, warrants a table for itself. However, it’s the largest dictionary I own, and you rarely encounter a word it doesn’t encompass. You want a paper dictionary even if it’s for serendipity alone: around the word you are looking for are nestled several others you wouldn’t have discovered and befriended in the online version.
While the W3 certainly is my go-to, it doesn’t play well with modern words. Whenever I need help with a recent creation, I reach for Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Usage dictionaries are indispensable because we tend to misuse even the words we believe we know everything about. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is probably the most respected one on the market. You usually can’t go wrong with its recommendations even if they appear dusty at times.
English Usage Dictionary
Merriam-Webster’s English Usage is an absolutely acceptable and rather modern example of a usage dictionary. Whenever I feel like my Fowler’s is too conservative, I check against this one.
The Chicago Manual of Style (17th Edition)
The University of Chicago Press
Style manuals go far beyond grammar, punctuation, and citation. It pays to have one ready on your desk instead of relying on summaries on the internet, particularly if you publish yourself, be it a magazine or a book. I use the CMS because it’s typically used by book publishers and magazines. For scientific papers, you should use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and for news articles and some business writing, you’re better off with the Associated Press Stylebook. For college papers and academic articles, you might want to refer to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.
How to Be a Genius
by Craig Wright for Aeon
“How to Be a Genius” is a fascinating examination of what makes outstanding people by Yale professor Craig Wright. (He also wrote a book about the topic, called The Hidden Habit of Genius.) In the article, Wright explores various definitions of genius, even coming up with a rough formula. He also writes about the importance of curiosity, persistance, childlike imagination, and the ability to relax. But he also sheds light on the fact that many great minds were not so great human beings, suggesting that we might have to just endure such behavior for the greater good.Read the article
Structure: Beyond the Picnic-Table Crisis
by John McPhee for The New Yorker
John McPhee is world-renowned for the structure of his writings. In this article, McPhee explains in-depth his process of structuring writings. He also writes about his using the software Kedit that has long been deprecated but is still alive on his computer. You can also find the content of this article in his book, Draft No. 4.Read the article
Draft No. 4: Replacing the Words in Boxes
by John McPhee for The New Yorker
This article is also part of John McPhee’s book, Draft No. 4. He writes about his revision process, from giving birth to the first draft to chiseling out the fourth—the revision phase he enjoys the most. It’s when McPhee looks for replacements of the words he put in boxes during the third phase; it’s the time he dedicates to looking for “le mot juste.” In this article, McPhee also explains why he prefers dictionaries to thesauruses.Read the article