My favorite books and online materials about writing and effective reading

This page provides some excerpts from some of my favorite books and some online materials about how to improve writing and write well — write concisely and clearly.

Writing is a game of language, meaning, and connection — it is a high level communication between a writer and his/her readers on paper or on computer screens.

Reading is a game of understanding, conversation, and questioning —  it is the conversation between you (the reader) and your writer.

Easy writing makes hard reading.

—Ernest Hemingway

Note: so hard writing makes easy reading.
I love smooth words, like gold-enameled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish.

—Elinor Wylie

======See below for some excerpts from books about writing

An excerpt from the book (the emphasis is mine, the same for all excerpts below), “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.

“Writing is a craft you can learn,” says Roy Peter Clark. “You need tools, not rules.” 

An excerpt from the tool 21:

In “Why I write,” George Orwell explains that “good prose is like a window pane.
The best work calls the reader’s attention to the world being described, not to the writer’s flourishes.
When we peer out a window onto the horizon, we don’t notice the pane, yet the pane frames our vision just as the writer frames our view of the story.

An excerpt from tool 13 (Play with words):

“Just as a sculptor works with clay, a writer shapes a world with words.”

Review about the book: On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. (check more reviews about this book here.)

Some excerpts from the book:

  • A Writer’s Decisions (pp 261 – 262) on the edition I bought (30th anniversary edition):

‘This has been a book about decisions — the countless successive decisions that go into every act of writing. Some of the decisions are big (“What should I write about?”) and some are as small as the smallest word. But all of them are important.’

‘Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative – good old-fashioned storytelling – is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.’

  • Clutter
    Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds — the writer is always slightly behind.

New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech.
Consider what President Nixon’s aide John Dean accomplished in just one day of testimony on television during the Watergate hearings. The next day
everyone in America was saying “at this point in time” instead of “now.”

 Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.

“It is raining”. There is no need to say, “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation.”
I laughed out loud when I saw this.

“Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself.

  • Definition of a careful writer  (pp 302 – 303) on the edition I bought (30th anniversary edition):

My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he did not know that’s what he was defining. Dimaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said:‘ I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.’’’

“In the digital age, short writing is king. We need more good short writing — the kind that makes us stop, read, and think.”

“Simplify, but not at the risk of clarity and comprehensibility.”

“Keep it short, but not so short that it creates ambiguity.”

“Understand your audience.” “A good writer is a good explainer. With knowledge of readers and their needs, the writer translates jargon, builds definitions based on what is already known, and leads an audience to greater clarity and new knowledge.”

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experience one kind of thing in terms of another.”

This book is not categorized under writing guide, but believe it or not, our writing can be improved or at least it will have an impact on our writing after reading it. This book highlights so many issues in language. It is not like a style manual or how-to-write book, but what makes a difference is: in the context of metaphor(s), the subtle implications of a sentence and the inferences that readers might make from its construction.

Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them.

In this book, Lakoff and Johnson not only discussed how we use metaphorical language absentmindedly in our day-to-day living, but also delved into how we utilize metaphor to structure, conceptualize, and share our understanding of reality. It might not be obvious what exactly the difference is. The authors argue that metaphor is not just a matter of language, but also a process of internally organizing our understanding of the external world. The first half of the book makes the positive case that our perceptions of reality are built upon metaphors. The second half of the book makes the case that other philosophical views fail to adequately account for such conceptual structuring. In the end, the authors argue that an “experientialist” view of truth and meaning not only account for our metaphorical comprehension of reality, but also retain and unite the most compelling aspects of other schools of thoughts that fail to do so.

The first half of the book is a success. The authors provide many and thorough examples of how our understanding of reality is structured metaphorically and how these metaphorical concepts are organized into coherent systems. They provide an explanation of why some mixed metaphors work and why others appear absurd.

The first couple of chapters are pretty good.

The author says “it is good to write clearly, and anyone can.”

Most authors cut weak words when they find them, but some have organized their cutting strategies into useful categories, see below for 5 Principles of Concision from the book:

  1. Delete words that mean little or nothing [actually, certain, really, kind of]
  2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words [various and sundry]
  3. Delete words implied by other words [final outcome, each individual, terrible tragedy]
  4. Replace a phrase with a word [There is a need for voters to –> voters must, the thing to do before anything else –> first]
  5. Change negatives to affirmativesunless you want to emphasize the negative [not many –> few, not notice –> overlooknot include –> omit]

======See below for some books about reading


======See below for some online materials about writing

My notes: This is just for basic and fundamental writing skill improvement. For more advanced and subtle skills, we need to reference some books such as those I mentioned above, and practice the skills in our everyday writing (such as emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and blogs) and work related writing (such as course assignments, papers, reports, and proposals). With the time goes, we will improve our writing and (writer-reader) communication skills in our grant proposal and scientific article writing.

My notes: I saw Prof. McGranaghan’s this particular great post about proposal writing when I searched for assistant professor positions. I still remember it very well and clearly even though I read it about one year ago, and thought I would like to share it with you:)

======Grant writing resources:


======Info related to scientific writing:

Kosslyn employs a points system, which is explicated on his lab website. Anyone who works with him on a project that results in a paper can earn up to 1000 points, based on the extent of their contribution to six different phases of the project: idea, design, implementation, conducting the experiment, data analysis, and writing. The first and last phases—idea and writing—get the most weight. Those who make a certain cutoff are granted authorship, and their score determines their order on the list. Those who earn less than 100 points are acknowledged in a footnote. “It’s very, very rare that there’s any sort of issue,” he says.

Stephen Kosslyn’s point system mentioned in the post (pdf).

  • TBA