I've long believed that the finest writers around come from two places: marketing copywriting and journalism. Mark Twain, Salman Rushdie and Elmore Leonard all began by plying their trade in the advertising world. In the journalism camp, you can find Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck.. and again, Mark Twain.
Writing to word count has a lot to do with it. The writer's options tighten up severely when an assignment, otherwise a 1000-word job, must be completed in 150 words. Journalists and copywriters both spend their days (and often nights) scrutinizing their work, word by word and sentence by sentence, for opportunities to do more with less. Always, more with less. These writers compose consciously, deliberately, without pretension - and often, they're called upon to train others to do the same.
I make no secret of my feelings about most writing manuals. There really are only about a half dozen in print today worth paying money for, the rest more likely to damage your writing skills than boost them. Of the ones worth your time and cash, virtually all of them were written by journalists seasoned by years of war with word count (William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" probably still being the best available today). The good ones are usually no-nonsense, packing the most useful information possible into 200 pages.
"Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer", by Roy Peter Clark, is one of those books. Clark, as vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute, teaches journalism students how to write - and as an experienced writer and reporter at the St. Petersburg Times and author of fourteen books on writing and journalism, he knows what he's talking about.
"Tools" begins very simply, with the fundamental building blocks of the English language: nouns and verbs, and how they interact to form simple sentences. He then expertly leads the reader, over a span of 250 pages, up from the basics and into each progressively more complicated level of writing: prose style, structure, overall organization, and finally the writer him/herself. At each stage, Clark very consciously eschews flowery and mystical artistic nonsense in favor of straight, practical advice - just clear and crisp talk about how the English language works and what a careful writer can do with it., backed up by solid theory and real life examples. By the time you've reached the end of the book, you've gotten a graduate-level course on how to write, and more than a bit of good advice on being a writer as well.
There are two aspects of "Tools" that I particularly enjoyed. One is Clark's attitude - he clearly belongs to the Zinsser "writing is carpentry" school of thought (he actually uses the metaphor in the introduction), a writing philosophy that stresses the importance of learnable craft over inspiration and "natural talent". He also points out right at the beginning that he didn't invent writing: he simply teaches what he has learned through practical experience and that of countless other writers before him. Clark gives credit where credit is due, deftly keeping his ego away from the reader's ability to participate in the craft's history and legacy. I like that a lot.
The other aspect is how the book itself is organized. Again, it steps the reader through the entire writing process, from the bare fundamentals all the way up to high-level organization and keeping your head straight as a writer facing deadline and word count. Each step is clear, concise, and doesn't condescend or patronize - Clark clearly knows how to treat his reader with respect (a writing skill in itself), and it shows here. At the end of each chapter, Clark also includes a "Workshop", a small set of exercises to help the reader internalize that particular strategy into his or her broader skill set.
If you're looking for a book to show you the path to being a great artistic genius at the typewriter, conjuring verses of magnitude on the wings of angels, "Tools" is not the book for you. But if your goal is to simply learn how to write practically and with the deliberation of a skilled craftsman - or even to just pick up a few tricks of the trade - this is a writing manual you should have on your shelf.