O, Series Comma, Where Art Thou?

I know you’re probably wondering: Why read a book on writing when you can Google the grammatical question that plagues you? I get it. I do it too. But I also try to carve out 15 minutes every day with a bona fide book… by bona fide authors… providing bona fide advice.*

While most of us have the ability to write, not as many possess the gift of prose. It takes discipline and determination (and yes, sometimes divine intervention) to calibrate our craft. The good news is that you don’t have to be a professional writer to acquire the skills to write more professionally. The following books—universally praised by those “in the business”—can work wonders. Your readers will thank you.


  1. Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer

You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll learn the “new rules of writing.” This recently released text turns some of those old-school absolutes on their heels. Brace yourself: There are some hard changes ahead.

What you’ll learn: How to update your grammar to 21st-century practices.


2. On Writing Well by William Zinsser

This may have been required reading in college, so you may be tempted to check the box. Don’t. This is a primer worth revisiting every couple of years—after all, even Zinsser himself does, releasing updated editions periodically.

What you’ll learn: How to prune your content to its most essential core.


3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

For some, this may also harken back to younger years, but it doesn’t change the fact that this thin primer is a must for any writer’s bookshelf (virtual or otherwise). Think of it as your personal middle-school English teacher readily available to keep you honest on the principles of composition.

What you’ll learn: The fundamentals of constructing sound sentences.


4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The publisher’s summary describes it best: “As much a guide to writing as an exploration of the emotional challenges of being a writer, Bird by Bird offers a candid and often humorous look at how to tackle these varied obstacles.” While fiction writers were the primary audience for this book, business writers will also enjoy how this literary staple can get those proverbial creative juices flowing.

What you’ll learn: That writing is hard work, even for the pros, and how inspiration can be born of perspiration.


5. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Connect with your inner artist and sharpen your powers of observation with this meditation on creativity. It’s chockful of advice and actionable tasks that help you take concepts from page to practice.

What you’ll learn: How to find your inner voice while listening to those around you.


6. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Oh, the perils of punctuation! If proper grammar is your thing, this is your reading candy.

What you’ll learn: The imperatives of clear punctuation.


7. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Whereas many of the entries on this list of must-reads focus on which rules to follow, Goldberg’s book focuses on freeing yourself from the constraints of convention. There’s something to be said about a well-constructed sentence—even more to be said about powerfully written prose.

What you’ll learn: Text-book grammar is great for textbooks; however, we’re not in school anymore.


8. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I confess I haven’t read this particular book yet myself. (I also confess I HAVE read many of King’s earlier fictional works.) Critics have raved about this essential (and highly digestible) guide to writing. I’ll be picking up a copy from my local bookseller soon. I recommend that you do the same.

What you’ll learn: “How to strip content down to its essence, avoid fluff and write candidly”; and, “edit, but don’t keep coming back to it for improvement, or it’ll never get done.”**


9. Any official style guide (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook)

If you work for a big(ish) company, chances are it has an official style compass, which means it follows a globally recognized grammar and usage guide. While every one of those guides shares similarities on core “immutable” laws, there are some pesky departures (most notably: the series comma).

What you’ll learn: The particulars on punctuation and style.


So, stock your office shelves or download your digital copies of these timeless tomes—whichever your preference dictates—and make this investment in yourself, in your written word and in strengthening every one of your communications, big or small.


Footnotes and Whatnot

*Holly Hunter’s refrain of “bona fide” in the Cohen Brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou? struck a chord with me. What can I say? I like to dust it off occasionally for effect, knowing full well that I, like Hunter’s character, have strayed far from its Latin origins as a legal adverb meaning “in good faith.”

**A shout-out to my editor, Melanie Nolen, for sharing her and her husband’s reviews of the King book. And this is where the “9-ish” of my blog title comes in: Here are Melanie’s additions to this list:

10. Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians

11. Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner

12. But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? by CMOS