To Read or Not to Read: 100 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING by Gary Provost

Confession time: In preparation for National Novel Writing Month 2014, I bought a lot of books about writing. I started November with the best intentions, though my novel stalled around 20,000 words (insert excuse about the end of November being busier than I thought it would be here). And of course, I didn’t have time to read all the writing books I bought, either. But hey, if there’s ever a month for over-ambitious goals, it’s NaNoWriMo!

But it’s a new year, and one of my resolutions is to finally read through my huge stack of writing books. (The stack also includes a couple books that are leftover non-required reading assignments from my college creative writing classes. Which I’ve been meaning to read for years.)

As I read, I’ll share my thoughts here. Reading writing books can be a drag, especially when you’d rather be reading fiction or actually writing. I’m here to help narrow down what books are right for you and which are worth picking up. Hopefully, even if you decide not to read some of these books, I’ll be able to share a few pearls of wisdom that will help you improve your writing anyway.

Let’s start with the basics. The first writing book I picked up was this slim volume:

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

100 ways 2-coverimageWhy I bought it:

I want to write more better.

But seriously, I just bought this because of the good reviews on Amazon. I’m a sucker for quick reads with good reviews.

What it’s about:

It’s a no-nonsense guide that helps you avoid common writing mistakes. It’s good to read cover-to-cover or to keep around as a reference.

The good:

• 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing is a super quick read (I read it during a few subway trips to and from work.)

• It gives a lot of smart advice about keeping your writing clear, concise, and powerful, plus it’s a great refresher on a lot of those grammar lessons you might have forgotten from high school.

• The book’s tone is light, humorous, and easygoing.

The bad:

• The book felt a little basic to me, but that might be because I studied English and creative writing in college. If you’ve taken writing classes recently, you might already have a lot of these do’s and don’ts in mind. I’d suggest that my fellow English majors flip through before purchasing to make sure there are enough tidbits that seem new to you.

• Parts of the book were dated, such as advice about what type of dictionary and encyclopedia to buy (p. 3) and what color typewriter ribbon to use (p. 156). While these outdated details were quaint, I wish the space could be used for something more useful for writers today. The book could use an update for the Internet age.

Pearls of wisdom:

• Great advice about writing a strong beginning: “Cross out every sentence until you come to the one you cannot do without. That is your beginning.” (p. 39.)

• A warning about wordiness, that bad habit of “using long words when there are good short ones available, using uncommon words when familiar ones are handy, using words that look like the work of a scrabble champion, not a writer.” (p. 51.) Avoid wordiness. It’s bad.

• Sage words about the problem with having a great story concept but bad execution: “A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.” (p. 57.)

• The evils of adjectives: “They are too often brought in when they are not needed. The careless writer drags them in to provide information which would be more interesting if it came directly from a noun.” (p. 78.)

• On making the reader not hate your guts: “Readers will like you if you edit from your work French phrases, obscure literary allusions, and archaic words that are known to only six persons in the world.” (p. 91.)

Bottom line: Should you read it?

Definitely pick it up and keep it close to your writing desk if you need a refresher on the basics of good writing or if you’ve been getting feedback about style, grammar, or clarity issues in your writing. If that’s what you struggle with, this book will help.

Since 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing is a general guide for any kind of writing (including but not limited to articles, memos, novels, essays, short stories, etc.), don’t read it if you’re seeking specific advice about writing novels, such as character development, plot structure, or planning techniques.

This is a great book about basic style and efficient, engaging writing, if that’s what you’re looking to improve.

Next time, I’ll share my thoughts on How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. Stay tuned!

What are your favorite books on writing? If you’ve read 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, what are your thoughts? If not, do you think you’ll pick it up?

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Christine Barcellona

Editor / I blog and edit for Swoon Reads, plus I'm the editor for our paperback line, Square Fish. Find …

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