I’m not a big fan of writing manuals in general, having found them (when I’ve dipped into them) full of obvious tips mingled with personal quirks, but I’ve always heard William Zinsser’s On Writing Well mentioned with respect, and after reading Zinsser’s essay on how he came to write and revise it, I find myself wanting to read the book:
My model for On Writing Well was American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, by the composer Alec Wilder.
Wilder’s book was one I had been waiting for all my life, the bible that every collector hopes someone will write in the field of his addiction. I was a collector of songs—the thousands of Broadway show tunes, Hollywood movie songs, and popular standards written in the 40-year golden age from Show Boat in 1926 to the rise of rock in the mid-1960s. As a part-time club pianist, I thought I knew them well—the oldest of old friends. Wilder showed me that I didn’t.
To write his book, Wilder examined the sheet music of 17,000 songs, selecting 300 in which he felt that the composer had pushed the form into new territory. Along with his text, he provided the pertinent bars of music to illustrate a passage that he found original or somehow touching. But what I loved most about Wilder’s book went beyond his erudition. It was his total commitment to his enthusiasms, as if he were saying: “These are just one man’s opinions—take ’em or leave ’em.” His pleasure was to praise. …
Thus I saw from Wilder’s American Popular Song that I might write a book about writing that would be just one man’s book. I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.
And of course I’m interested in Wilder’s book as well. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)