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A typology of books about writing (Inspirational, Thematic and Developmental)

No writing book is all-encompassing, and therefore, I cannot in good conscience answer the question I get asked the most: which book on how to write/how to survive graduate school is the best? As I said on Twitter: “none of them”. Anybody who has written a book on this topic will agree: you gain insights from other authors, so you should read more than one book. Nobody has the last word on anything, least of them writing.

Acwri books 2

I recently read Anne Lamott’s amazing “Bird by Bird”, and doing so really made something click in my head. I can now understand more clearly why I can’t recommend ONE single book but instead MUST recommend several. Being able to change my mind about something is EXACTLY why I am a professor and a researcher: I am able to develop new ideas and challenge my preconceived notions of a phenomenon through reading, reasoning and absorbing new knowledge.

I stand by my statement.

I don’t think any of them are “THE BEST” or “THE MOST SUITABLE” for you or for anyone. As much as they’re all fantastic in their own right, each one of these books provides different insights, and therefore you should buy a small library containing a few of each type. Books that inspire you, volumes that help you develop your skills and tomes that will be thematically specific to your work.

I develop this typology of books (Thematic, Developmental and Inspirational) below.

In my case, I need to read books that inspire my analytical thinking (on waste and discards, on water, on activism and social movements, on protest, on methods). Those are to me the THEMATIC BOOKS. I need to read how OTHER scholars I respect write about the subjects I care about.

Of course, you will find inspirational, pithy quotes in Thematic and Developmental books, surely. No typology is perfect and no categorization is without its flaws. But the main insight I gained in reading Lamott yesterday and answering a query on which was the best book am now more convinced that there is no authoritative, definitive guide to academic writing (or research or writing) because we all need different components of the process.

You will learn different things from reading my work on water than you would absorb from others.

There are MANY excellent books that will teach you A METRIC TONNE of stuff that you NEED to learn. But sometimes you will find yourself staring at a wall, or devastated that you got a rejection from a journal, or simply stuck with your writing. So you’ll need INSPIRATION.

I also found different patterns from various “memoir-type” writers.

Stephen King and Henry Miller write more forcefully: “sit your butt on the chair every day for X number of hours until you get Y number of pages done”. I find Lamott much gentler: “you may need a system”.

And it’s true. I don’t write book reviews on my blog (I do in journals). I write sets of Reading Notes.

In conclusion: Develop a syllabus-like approach to reading “how to write” and “how to do academic work” books.

Of course, everyone wants to write (or read) “THE Authoritative Book on How to do Academia”. But think of learning about scholarly life as a lifelong syllabus: You write syllabi because your students need to be exposed to a variety of ideas and learn bits and pieces from others.

So no, I don’t think I can point you to THE best book on writing. I can give you some ideas on what to look for in a book and share with you pearls of wisdom I have distilled from each one.

But you’re going to have to invest in building a small library of books on these topics.

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