How to Blog about Your Hobby, Part 6: Back to Basics

When I first started working wood, I took a few classes in joinery, but I also picked up some good books about my craft and started reading them. I learned a lot both from the classes and from the books.

Learning the craft of writing is no different. You have already been taught the basics in school—words, sentences, paragraphs. That is enough to get anyone started. But you should also read some books that will instruct you in the finer points of writing well.

I hate most books about writing. They come in two types, the creative writing manuals and the composition textbooks. The creative writing manuals are focused on writing fiction or poetry or memoir and tend to offer vague advice about “writing rituals” and “getting in touch with your inner self.” The worst belong in the self-help sections of your local Books-A-Million. The composition textbooks are equally bad, but in a different way. Most of them read like they were written by a Senate sub-committee. (Many of them were written by large committees.) Though their advice may be good, their own writing is dull and dense, utterly devoid of the vitality and energy that characterize good writing.

There are, however, a few good sources for learning to write well. Here are three works that have been most helpful to me as a student of the craft. I love them because they are clearly written and engaging to read, just like a good blog post should be. I recommend looking at them in this order.

1. “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell. You may already know Orwell as the author of Animal Farm or 1984, but in this essay, he explains the differences between good writing and bad writing, and he explains that bad writing has serious, real-world consequences. Orwell provides the kick-in-the-pants that all aspiring writers need.

2. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Almost the only writing textbook worth reading, this slim paperback outlines simple rules for writing clearly and precisely. Best of all, the book is written in the same the crisp, straightforward writing style that it recommends to others.

3. On Writing Well by William Zinsser, who has been a professional journalist and writing teacher for many years. In this book, he elaborates on principles set out in The Elements of Style but goes much further, addressing crucial topics like rewriting and editing your own writing. He also has chapters on how to write typical journalistic pieces like the arts review, the interview, and the personal memoir. This is perhaps the best single-volume writing guide I have ever seen.

The above authors will take you a long way in refining your writing style. They give good advice, and they teach by example.

There are, after all, only two ways to learn to write well, and both are necessary: read good writing, and write regularly. The rest is details.

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