The Writer’s Bookshelf: Writing Tools and Storycatcher

The end of summer is approaching, and I’ve been using theme “summer reading list” to corral and write reviews of a number of books that are influencing my thinking. As far as writing and editing books go, I’ve been focusing on two books by authors who are already familiar to me: “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark, and “Storycatcher” by Christina Baldwin.

Both are great reads and can improve your writing, by the end of this summer or any time of the year.

Writing Tools” is written by Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute (a Mecca for working journalists who care about their writing, by the way) and co-author of another of my favorite books, “Coaching Writers: Editors and Writers Working Together Across Media Platforms.” Roy’s always had a wonderful way of explaining writing techniques in a straightforward, cogent manner, and this book is no different.

The subtitle of the book is “50 essential strategies for every writer,” and that is what it delivers: focused instruction on how to improve one’s writing, starting with “micro” issues such as word choice and sentence structure and moving to broader areas such as structure, imagery in writing, and building constructive writing habits.

One of the great strengths of Roy’s approach is that he avoids being pedantic. He notes in his introduction that he is aiming at reaching “a nation of writers,” professional or not, and asserts that the struggle involved in writing that writers moan about is mostly “a con game.”

He says to would-be writers,

“Imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft. Think of writing as carpentry, and this book as 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.”

Roy also includes plenty of examples, both from his own writing and the work of others. Each chapter ends with a brief “Workshop” section, with several exercises intended for the reader to try to assimilate the point of the lesson.

Whether you’re just starting out as a writer, or have been around for a long time and need some instruction that really helps you find new places in your craft to refine and master, “Writing Tools” is a dandy book to have on your reference shelf.

If “Writing Tools” focuses on how to write once you have something to say, “Storycatcher” focuses on looking deep within one’s self and finding out what it is you have to say. Christina Baldwin, a pioneer in the personal writing movement, has written a lyrical book about the place of “story” in one’s life, and how to mine personal experience for narratives that can heal, connect, enlighten or challenge.

She makes clear her book’s theme in the first sentences of her introduction:

“Every person is born into life as a blank book—and every person leaves life as a full book…Story is the narrative thread of our experience—not what literally happens, but what we make out of what happens, what we tell each other and what we remember. This narrative determines what we do with the time between the opening of the blank page the day we are born and the closing of the book the day we die.”

Drawing heavily on her own experiences, as well as those of her students and colleagues, Christina covers a wide range of topics in this book, illuminated by chapter subheads such as “why we make story,” “creating a story of the self,” “how story heals family heritage,” “the map of a story-based life” and “how story shapes the spiritual dimensions of our lives.”

“Storycatcher” has helpful end-of-chapter writing and conversation prompts. It’s an excellent reading choice for people wanting write their memoirs or other types of writing grounded in personal experience, as well as for writers probing the underlying themes of their work, which are often grounded in personal story, either explicit or implicit.

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