Books on How to Write Well

The best books to read when you’re seeking to improve your writing depend on your immediate goals and your skill level. I’ve compiled a list of excellent books about writing with various goals in mind.

1] If you want a quick and accessible book to increase your grasp of the writing basics and help you avoid common writing mistakes and weaknesses, try How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda. (The awkward title is Yagoda’s way of pointing out how jarring bad writing can be.)

2] If you’re confident about your writing skills and want an advanced exploration that incorporates information about how our brains work, I strongly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style.

3] For a quick and sharp mentorship in convincing business writing, check out the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner. (The “HBR” stands for “Harvard Business Review.)

4] If you want to put your writing into perspective by understanding trends in academic writing, like what percentage of journal articles in your field use the first person (“I”, “we”), you’ll appreciate Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword.

5] To improve your research skills, look for the detailed explanations of research strategies in The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams.

6] When you’re interested in an acknowledged classic book on writing, look for The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

7] To explore how literary techniques can enhance your non-fiction writing, I recommend Voice and Vision, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Not everyone enjoys books about writing as much as I do, but they can quickly help you enhance your skills. Please leave a comment if you have any other books on writing you’d like to recommend.

Good luck with your writing!

When to Use a Final Comma in a List

One of the tricky questions about comma usage is how to use commas in a list of items.

For example, should it be:

I love to eat apples, oranges, and bananas.    OR    I love to eat apples, oranges and bananas.   ???

Technically, both versions are correct. But I prefer the second. I try to make my writing as clear, simple and elegant as possible, and part of my strategy is to eliminate anything unnecessary. The final comma in a simple list is unnecessary, so I leave it out.

Sometimes, though, you need to add the final comma to preserve your meaning. Here’s an example I love from Ben Yagoda’s book How to Not Write Bad (the title is a joke, by the way, to demonstrate how jarring bad writing can be).

Imagine a student writing about what he is grateful for. Yagoda shows how the final comma in a list is sometimes not superfluous. There’s a big difference between:

I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.    AND    I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

In the first statement, the student is clearly listing three things for which he is thankful. In the second, he appears to be claiming he’s the offspring of Ayn Rand and God. That final comma sometimes makes a crucial difference in meaning.

You often also  use a final comma in a list of items when the items are longer. Here’s an example:

He returned many items from the storeroom to  their original owners, including a bicycle once ridden by Joe Clark, a colourful kite featured in a film about South Africa, and a white ribbon used to alert troops in World War Two to the surrender of a village.

The final comma improves readability in cases like this.

So, sometimes the final comma is needed. Other times you can use it or not. The most important thing is to keep your use consistent throughout your document. So if you use the final comma in a short list once, use it every time. Or if you plan to leave it out of a short list, make sure you leave it out every time. You can make an exception and plop a comma in there, though, whenever it improves readability or is needed to shape the meaning.