Writing Masters Share Their Secrets

At times it almost seems there are more books about writing than there are writers. These three modern classics have earned a prominent place on any writer's bookshelf.

The fact that Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books is proof of his talent for churning out commercial fiction. But for all his popularity, King has some deep insights into the creative process that he shares in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, $18), a book that blends his life story with solid writing instruction. The book features a useful example of King's editing process and an excellent reading list.

Anyone who's read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, $16) will remember her indulgence of "sh@#ty first drafts" that lead to "good second drafts and terrific third drafts." As in all her work, Lamott's tone here is self-deprecating and confiding. But it would be an error to mistake that lightheartedness for a lack of seriousness about the writing craft, something she sees as "a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood."

In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial, $16.99), William Zinsser plays the role of curmudgeonly uncle to Lamott's cheerful best friend. His is a meat-and-potatoes instruction manual for writers who are serious about meeting the demands of nonfiction prose. Alongside chapters devoted to genres ranging from memoir to humor, Zinsser offers helpful tips on a variety of topics, all of them grounded in his belief that "clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other."

While these books won't get any aspiring writer's seat in the chair and fingers on the keyboard, they're all useful companions for anyone committed to doing the hard work of producing stylish prose. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

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