Clear and persuasive writing is essential for effective leadership, but most of us have never had any training aside from maybe an English Lit class in college. And yet, writing is a big part of the job. Emails, presentations, articles, and talks are all opportunities to inspire and inform—and they all begin with writing.
You write every day, so maybe you should see yourself as a writer. That may sound scary, but you don’t need an MFA to improve your writing skills.
I’ve read more than a dozen writing books in the past six months, and want to share the five that rise to the top as particularly useful for anyone that uses writing to encourage and educate.
by Roy Peter Clark
“Think of writing as carpentry, and consider this book your toolbox. You can borrow a writing tool at any time, and here’s another secret: Unlike hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed along.”
Clark’s 50-tool list is immensely useful and applicable, and provides an excellent foundation for anyone reading about writing for the first time. Every chapter plainly states a rule, unpacks it over several pages with explanation and example, then concludes with in-depth “workshop” exercises for immediately applying the tool.
And since most rules can be read in less than five minutes, this book is ideal for the busy leader.
Start here, and equip yourself with a powerful framework for deeper exploration.
by Steven Pinker
“Good writing starts strong. Not with a cliché (“Since the dawn of time”), not with a banality (“Recently, scholars have been increasingly concerned with the question of...”), but with a contentful observation that provokes curiosity.”
You might be familiar with Pinker’s popular works, like Enlightenment Now and Better Angels of our Nature, but the Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist has also written a practical guide for the nonfiction writer.
Pinker describes the aspects of what he calls classic style, which emphasizes clear, direct, and powerful language, making it perfect for business writing.
Pinker says, “The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.”
What if you could say the same about your writing?
Along the way, he provides and updated grammar, with an emphasis on the functional roles of different parts of speech. Trust me: it’s interesting and useful!
By William Zinsser
“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
First published in 1976, On Writing Well continues to dispense practical advice for writers. Its author began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, and has enjoyed decades of success as a writer, editor, and educator. This book pulls from that vast experience.
On Writing Well covers useful advice on tone and style, and digs into various nonfiction forms, such as literary nonfiction and sports writing. While many of those sections may not seem applicable to, say, a CEO, the principles are timeless, and provide a unique perspective not found in the typical business book.
by Ann Handley
“Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn't self-indulgent. Good writing anticipates the questions that readers might have as they're reading a piece, and it answers them.”
Ann Handley provides several chapters on structure and style, but the key difference from other books listed here is her chapters covering brand journalism and channel-specific tips about blogs, tweets, and other social platforms.
This detailed exploration of the nuances of each channel provides leaders with a thorough understanding of how readers experience their messages in various contexts.
by John McPhee
“Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
Nonfiction master John McPhee has written for Time, The New Yorker, and has authored many best-selling narrative nonfiction books. True to form, Draft No. 4 contains essays on topics including story progression, the structure of your story, frames of reference, and more.
While the other books on this list read like handbooks, Draft No. 4 feels like a slow walk through the park with a guru. As a result, you’ll absorb his principles through his stories as the main points sneak up on you chapter after chapter.
While most people don’t write essays for The New Yorker, McPhee’s masterclass on narrative provides a compelling perspective on storytelling that promises to add both style and substance to any leader’s writing.
Stephen King says that, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” If that’s true, then reading about writing is like a double bonus for those looking to improve their writing skills. Reading these books will guide your learning and motivate you to explore new ways to influence and inspire with your writing.
What else would you add to the list?
Cover photo: Susan Yin on Unsplash