Celebrating Five Books That Made Me a Better Writer on World Book Day
As one of Clyde Group’s content specialists, I’m always looking for ways to make my copy tighter, brighter or more in tune with a client’s audience and voice. I’m a strong believer that good writing is grounded in better reading — and not just of news blogs, headlines or self-help books, but of literature and stories that excite our imagination. In honor of World Book Day, I’ve revisited my collection of modern favorites to find the the books that helped me become a better writer because of the exquisite craftsmanship that makes them shine.
I hope the following selection helps you bulk up your reading list and improves and inspires your process the next time you put pen to paper.
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey — A postmodern classic with a setting as big as its mythic leading man, Sometimes a Great Notion isn’t exactly a beach read, but it is incredibly rewarding for writers. Kesey is a master of inhabiting different voices, sometimes in the same paragraph, and his prowess is on peak display as he seamlessly switches between first-person narrators throughout the novel. He is adept at capturing each character’s thought process and inhabiting their headspace by incorporating their unique worldview and vernacular.
As a copywriter, it’s my priority to convincingly convey the voices of others in content, but that can be challenging to do at times without sounding superficial or inauthentic. Kesey reminds me to understand what motivates the speaker, to learn what makes his or her narrative unique and pay special attention to that nuance in my writing.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James — This Man Booker Prize winner is, contrary to its title, an epic spanning several decades. The plot is dense and entangled with the many lives and events leading up to, and in the wake of, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. It’s an intricate and at times convoluted tale of post-colonial aftermath in Jamaica and the role the United States’ would rather deny playing in the conflict. Immersing yourself in Patois while keeping taps on all characters, relationships, voices, dates, double-crossings and collusion is no easy task, but neither is deciphering history. The overall effect is totally engrossing.
Which leads me to my Seven Killings lesson: when dealing with difficult subject matter, a writer must trust that their reader will understand and appreciate the story she is trying to tell, and the more explicit the details details woven into the narrative, the more immersive the overall experience. That also means she better be an expert in the subject matter to be convincing. It’s okay to challenge the reader, just make sure the reward is worth it.
Fun Home, Allison Bechdel — Allison Bechdel’s graphic coming-of-age novel is a visual and textual masterpiece. The juxtaposition, synthesis and collision of words and images are both subversive and enriching, and relies on the reader’s ability to derive meaning from both as they work with and against each other.
It taught me that words are powerful, but a carefully chosen image can complicate, change or enhance their meaning entirely. This has encouraged me to look more critically at visual elements in print publications, on billboards or in television ads. How does the image challenge what I know about the text? How does it make it more interesting? Bottom line: pictures are powerful and, when creating content, should be chosen very carefully.
Flight, Sherman Alexie — A quick but compelling read rich with magical realism, Alexie’s fourth novel features a troubled teenage protagonist named Zits, struggling to come to terms with his mixed Native American and European ancestry. While contemplating a random act of violence, he’s caught in a mass shooting and suddenly yanked back in time through several key events that allow him to explore his heritage and the history that shaped it. Throughout, he experiences pain, loss and betrayal while in the shoes of others.
Flight is a lesson in the power of empathy to change minds and entire lives. It reminds me to put myself in the shoes of my reader or subject, to consider the experiences they bring and how I can best accommodate or communicate with them.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt — Aside from being one of my favorite books, Tartt’s debut novel demonstrated a mastery of scene early in her career. Set among the brick and ivy of a small, elite liberal arts college in Vermont (based on Tartt’s own alma mater, Bennington College) and featuring a close group of friends and their horrible — you guessed it — secret, The Secret History becomes more intriguing because of the level of detail in the academic noir background against which its set. And, as the characters motives and minds change, so too does the setting.
It reminds me not to skimp on scene-setting, and to do more showing (with examples, quotes or mental images) than telling. Setting a scene, even if it’s just a brief landscape synopsis, can really make a difference in establishing the tone of a piece.
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