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Westergaard: Six books that will help you be a better writer

Keep writing. And rewriting.

Nick Westergaard
Nick Westergaard

Communication is an in-demand skill set. It consistently tops lists from employers of skills they desire most in new hires.

Ironically, it also tops lists from graduating MBAs of skills they wish they’d had more of in business school.

I recently started teaching graduate business communication at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. The focus is writing and speaking in a professional setting.

As a professional speaker and reformed theater major, giving advice on speaking comes naturally to me. Though I’ve been a professional writer for nearly two decades, it’s been a bit of a long and winding road.

My first job was as a copywriter at an educational publishing company writing fliers for workbooks. From there I became a blogger, creating digital marketing content to support my consulting work.

All of this led to me writing a book two years ago. I have another one coming later this spring. And I’m writing this column right now.

I’ve also read a lot of books on writing. I revisited many of them in preparation for teaching this course. Here are a few that may help you and your writing.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

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Still a little book, small enough and important enough to carry in your pocket, as I carry mine.” This quote from Charles Osgood sits smack dab in the middle of the cover of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

It had been years since I first picked up this slim primer featuring the writing lessons of Strunk augmented with care by his former student, White. With classic tips like “Omit needless words” and “brevity is a by-product of vigor,” I fell in love with this book again after rereading it last summer.

If you haven’t read it, fix that. It’s the one book on writing everyone needs to read.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Zinsser takes the framework of Stunk and White and further reinforces the idea of decluttering your writing, which he explores in detail showing you how he edited a chapter of “On Writing Well” complete with markups.

The book includes important foundational principles on voice (“Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say — it should sound like you”) as well rules for common non-fiction formats such as interviews and technical writing.

Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark

Tools, by definition, are helpful, useful. Clark’s “Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” is the best tactical, practical book on the mechanics of writing.

Case in point — the subtitle for Part One is “Nuts and Bolts.” Every bit the Poynter Institute scholar, Clark notes that these are “tools not rules.”

The book also features engaging, abstract tools such as “Get the name of the dog” and “write from cinematic angles” as well as writing assignments at the end of each chapter.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

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The winner of the writing book with the most curious name has to be Lamott’s kicky “Bird by Bird.” As a child, her brother was overwhelmed by a book report on birds. Her father’s advice? “Take it bird by bird.”

Lamott, too, takes a laid-back approach in exploring both the writer’s process and personality. Tips on creating a “sh***y first draft” and perfectionism address both of these critical aspects of the craft of writing.

On Writing, by Stephen King

Confession: I haven’t read any of Stephen King’s other books. I don’t think I’m a great fit for his work. I am slow reader who scares easily.

But I have read “On Writing.”

Half memoir and half writer’s toolbox, this loose, conversational read takes you inside the process of one our most prolific — and most-read — authors. King brings his trademark horror to writers’ demons like adverbs and revising, as he details his workmanlike approach to writing and life.

Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley

As someone who came up as a marketing copywriter, I’m quick to point out that all our new digital formats — from tweets to e-books to video scripts — involve writing. If you’re looking for something like “The Elements of Style” but focused on the latest digital marketing formats, look no further than Handley’s go-to guide.

Featuring writing tips and tools along with lessons on story and publishing, everybody who reads “Everybody Writes” will create better, more engaging content.

Obviously, there are many more. But, as Stephen King notes early in his own book, “most books about writing are bulls***.”

These were the ones I found most useful across all aspects of writing — from style and mechanics to the writer’s process mind-set.

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Find what works best for you and keep writing. And rewriting. And get up and do it all again tomorrow.

l Nick Westergaard is founder of Brand Driven Digital; nick@westergaard.com; @NickWestergaard

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.