Books about writing non fiction
March 4, 2007 6:49 AM   Subscribe

I need recommendations on books about nonfiction writing.

I hope to, in a few years, start working on a nonfiction book. I've done research and writing in college (earned a history degree), but want to understand a bit more about writing an actual book. I would want to write something readable, not an academic-style in-depth reference work.

I would like to find some good books that talk about writing styles and other such things. Not something that gets bogged down in how to organize your book, but just focuses on style, tone, structure, et cetera.
posted by BradNelson to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
William Zinsser's On Writing Well is excellent; we used it in my literary non-fiction class in undergrad. I highly recommend it.

Also, believe it or not, Stephen King's On Writing has some good general advice in it. I haven't read the whole thing, but his advice to "slash your babies" (I think that's the term he uses -- basically, to recognize when a phrase or idea you really like isn't working) is something that helps me frequently when I write.
posted by AV at 7:07 AM on March 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Follow the Story


The New New Journalism

...are both excellent sources of advice from writers of journalistic nonfiction books. Although, to me, the main risk in this kind of book (which these ones avoid) is getting bogged down in issues of language and style, while what I really wanted is some good advice on basic organization and structure. Given that you specify the opposite, bear this in mind, though the second book is a really fantastic read anyway.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:12 AM on March 4, 2007

Peter Elbow: "Writing with Power". It's on your process--keeping productive. And he's all about voice and style. Also, "write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day" is applicable, probably. Start writing it now! Or start writing smaller pieces, or blog.
posted by mecran01 at 7:15 AM on March 4, 2007

The Economist magazine produces a Style Guide that has a lot of good tips in it. Depending on what sort of non-fiction you are thinking of writing, their discussions of regional language variation may be quite useful.
posted by sindark at 7:34 AM on March 4, 2007

Ann Lamont's "Bird by Bird"

I would also second the Stephen King recommendation.
posted by troubadour at 8:56 AM on March 4, 2007

Books by Howard Becker are great for social science types and enetertaining to boot. I can vouch for at least two, Writing for Social Scientists and Tricks of the Trade. I also recommend Style by Joseph Williams.
posted by B-squared at 9:36 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm always touting this one, but The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is both an example of awesome nonfiction writing and a book that has a lot of great stuff to say about writing itself. "How to Tell a True War Story," especially. It's not explicitly a "writing" book like On Writing or Bird by Bird (which are both great, but focus more on fiction--of the two, I prefer the King), but it's taught me more about writing than any other single book.

Also, don't forget Strunk & White.
posted by lampoil at 9:47 AM on March 4, 2007

Some online resources:

* The Elements of Style (Strunk's Part)
* 50 Writing Tools
* The Able Writer

You can also hunt around my delicious "writing" links:

Oh, and I second Zinsser's On Writing Well.
posted by stungeye at 9:56 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

another vote for Zinsser
posted by caddis at 11:41 AM on March 4, 2007

This post includes a pdf file you can use as a basis for working on your prose style. The post describes how to use the book, and the link is to used copies (so: inexpensive).
posted by LeisureGuy at 11:52 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

While I agree with any number of these suggestions, I would find one or two book that you truloy think are unusually good and carefull explore the sentences and paragraphing structures. Tip:
read pages of this selected writing aloud.
posted by Postroad at 11:56 AM on March 4, 2007

Love the Zinsser book. Essential. Also, try A Writer's Coach by Jack Hart.
posted by jbickers at 12:09 PM on March 4, 2007

Yet another vote for Zinsser, and a recommendation for Joseph Williams Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Williams shows how to make writing work at the sentence and paragraph level. And he punctures some grammar myths along the way.
posted by dws at 12:10 PM on March 4, 2007

One book that I love about the ESSENCE of writing is Rita Mae Brown's "Starting from Scratch". While it is not, per se, about nonfiction, it IS about writing clarity and the emotional side of being a writer.
posted by polexxia at 12:26 PM on March 4, 2007

I second dws on Joseph Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. There's also a textbook edition, titled Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, with exercises and a partial answer key. Zinsser and Lamott are also good.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:50 PM on March 4, 2007

If you want advice on structuring expository writing for maximum clarity, you can't do better than Jacques Barzun's Simple and Direct.
posted by tangerine at 2:30 PM on March 4, 2007

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