If you ever write a book and get someone to publish it, you will be looking for blurbs. The best blurb I ever received came from the jocular Dave Barry, who opined: “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anyone I know who is not already dead.”
That juicy praise got me thinking about all those writing experts who now happen to be dead, some of them for a long time. The names are countless, from A (Aristotle) to Z (Zinsser). More than two millennia ago, Aristotle wrote "The Poetics," and in 1976 William Zinsser wrote "On Writing Well," which, over 30 years would sell more than a million copies.
Do you happen to know Aristotle’s most useful advice for reader and writers? Or Zinsser’s? I am on a journey to find out. I am about to rev up work on a new book, and I could use your help. The book will be published by Little, Brown, my publisher since 2006. It has this working title: "The Big Book of Good Writing Advice."
I recently moved my office from one end of the Poynter Institute to the other. Among the challenges was to find a new place for about 2,000 books that I own. There are about 12,000 books in Poynter’s library. At least half of my books are about reading, writing, grammar, language, rhetoric and literature. The other half are mostly works of journalism — or about journalism. Some of my books are common: "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White; others are either rare or out of fashion: "Talks to Writers" by Lafcadio Hearn. Some are quite old: "The Defence of Poesy" (1595) by Philip Sidney; others are brand new: "Draft No. 4" by John McPhee.
My plan for "The Big Book" is to review from 50 to 100 of these influential works on writing and language. Each chapter will contain: 1) a brief overview of the work and its author; 2) a distillation of the most practical piece of writing advice contained in the work; 3) the testimony of an author (me, myself and others) who have been inspired by the book.
The reader of "The Big Book" will be introduced to some new book friends, reunite with old ones, and, along the way, gather 100 writing tools in the process.
Here is where you come in. If you are reading this, you probably think of yourself as a critical reader and a purposeful writer. Chances are you have read a book or essay that has propelled you in your craft. For me, it was “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell. His revelation of the connection between political abuse and language abuse grabbed me out of my academic chair and shoved me into a newsroom.
If you will be so kind, I am looking for the book that moved you into your craft as a writer in any genre. If you have written a book that you know has been helpful to other writers, please feel free to send me a copy. If you have been the reader of such a book, please email me:
- Name of the work and the author.
- The best lesson you’ve learned.
- Why you would recommend it.
To give you a head start, read this essay I wrote last year for the Poynter website. It features the book, "On the Art of Writing," written more than 100 years ago by the famous British man-of-letters Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. With the pithy advice “Murder your darlings,” old professor Q handed me a knife to pare a 6,000-word draft down to 2,000 words.
With the permission of Little, Brown I will be publishing up to a dozen such essays — preliminary chapters to the book — here on the Poynter site throughout 2018.
Some day all of us writing experts will join the land of the “already dead.” Until then, let’s share our wit and wisdom as a community of living authors trying our best to perfect our craft.
[Please send the titles of writing books you think Roy Peter Clark should consider for inclusion in "The Big Book." You can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.]