Books on writing and journalism on a shelf

Book it: During your stay-in-place days, check out these journalism and writing guides

By Winter 2020 Magazine Reporting Class
Medill Reports

Why not turn “stay in place” into “read in place”? Whether you’re interested in politics, craft or memoir, Medill master’s students offer their reviews of old and new books on journalism and writing.

Grammar

In “Dreyer’s English,” Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief for Penguin Random House, conversationally and personably makes people care about “unloved” commas and “ear-catching” colons. The Northwestern alum gives casual asides, such as referring to writers who don’t use the series comma as “godless savages.” Whoever heard of a grammar instruction manual that elicits chuckles? Despite being about rules, Dreyer’s English understands everything in writing is flexible. “Sentence Fragments. They’re Bad,” one heading begins. This guide to the gray areas of grammar shows how to use (or break) rules to give writing identity. — Ark Kenlan

Roy Peter Clark, a longtime Poynter Institute writing teacher, uses humor to explain the history and importance of the English language. With examples from the Bible to the Beatles, he dissects how simple rules can elevate and instill deeper meaning into any piece of work. He unpacks practical language and the magic of words and explains how they relate. His passion for prose pops off the pages, and with takeaways and action items at the end of every chapter — like how to find a favorite letter of the alphabet — “The Glamour of Grammar” is a needed addition to any writer’s bookshelf. — Hannah Farrow

Journalists on journalism

“Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide” proves that nonfiction doesn’t need to be non-creative. More than 50 leading American journalists and writers, like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, share their advice about how to make sources feel comfortable, how to distill materials into a polished story and how to get to the emotional core of stories. No long and rambling slog, this anthology includes lively and inspiring one-page essays that help journalists learn time-tested techniques. Even fiction writers can pick up valuable tips. — Xurui Tan

In “The New New Journalism,” New York University journalism professor Robert S. Boynton talks with 20 top nonfiction writers (including Medill lecturer Alex Kotlowitz, author of “There Are No Children Here”) about how they find sources, conduct interviews, organize their thoughts and write their long-form stories. Presented as Q&A’s, these interviews, originally published in 2005, can seem dated and even insensitive today. Of the 20 writers, only three are women and only one is a person of color. Some of them use terms for undocumented immigrants and other marginalized groups with negative connotations today. Though this how-to for journalists is more informative than gripping, it gives a window into how some of the biggest names in the field produce their pieces. — Amy Sokolow

In a five-part structure, novelist and New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” emulates her unparalleled ardor for writing as she jovially navigates through the challenging labyrinth of writing. She offers readers an in-depth look into her life as she draws lessons from decades of experiences. She villainizes perfectionism. Instead, administering a painless antidote of “shitty first drafts” to cure writer’s block. “Bird by Bird” is a writer’s road map brimming with advice for tackling even the toughest of obstacles. This book is the gift that keeps on giving. — Annie Lin

Investigative

With “Catch and Kill,” journalist Ronan Farrow becomes the Bob Woodward of the #MeToo movement. In this thoroughly reported exposé, he expands on his groundbreaking 2017 New Yorker story about the enablers defending movie mogul Harvey Weinstein against sexual assault allegations. Farrow’s relentless commitment amplified a previously whispered conversation regarding the systemic silencing of survivors and reignited journalists’ role in holding powerful people accountable. Farrow colorfully narrates his investigation’s timeline, guiding readers chronologically through the process of unveiling Weinstein and his accomplices. This generation’s “All the President’s Men” should be treasured by survivors, journalists and others who still believe in the media’s responsibility to report the truth. — Megan Sauer

Political

In “Insane Clown President,” a collection of wild dispatches from the 2016 campaign tail, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi chronicles Donald Trump’s rise from a laughingstock to a seemingly unstoppable, unhinged juggernaut of insults and fury. Taibbi helps readers understand how the real-estate developer remarkably and inexplicably became president and how the media helped spur him on. When journalists vilified him, Trump’s supporters only loved him more. For those still puzzled by what Taibbi calls “the horrors” of the 2016 election, this account offers a clear-eyed look at what went wrong. — Brandon Dupre

For political news junkies, Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” paints a surreal, behind-the-scenes picture of the Trump administration, from when Donald Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015 to when Robert Mueller started investigating Russian interference in the election. Through taped, deep-background interviews with anonymous, firsthand sources, Woodward recreates the unfiltered dialogue of characters like former aide Steve Bannon, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump himself. While it covers real events, the book reads like a work of fiction. — Michael Lee

“The Boys on the Bus” takes an entertaining deep dive into the world of political journalism. In a first-person account, Timothy Crouse shadows writers reporting on the 1972 campaign, which concluded with Democratic Sen. George McGovern losing spectacularly to President Richard Nixon. The Rolling Stone journalist’s observations highlight the reporting pressures to conform with the pack and the struggles to cover a president who demonizes the media. Crouse provides little historical context about the characters and events, making the stories about once-familiar politicians, such as Hubert Humphrey or Edmund Muskie, sometimes confusing. However, his ruminations on the shortcomings of objectivity in an age of misinformation remain highly relevant. — Maura Turcotte

In his memoir “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics,” practitioner Barton Swaim explores what it’s like to ghostwrite for former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. The Republican, infamous for saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was visiting his mistress in Argentina, is habitually dissatisfied with his and his colleagues’ work. Using detailed descriptions of Sanford’s mood swings and bullying, Swaim unpacks how politicians often treat their staff when no one’s watching. Despite his frustration with the job, he shares how he learned to write with meaning buried under layers of “verbiage.” It’s a must-read for people who want to understand the truth behind political language and the importance of words. — Emine Yücel

Historical

In “The Journalist and the Murderer,” controversial writer Janet Malcolm convincingly critiques objectivity. She lets readers decide whether Joe McGinniss ethically reported on convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Special Forces captain found guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and two children. It reads like a murder mystery in many ways, leaving readers to determine whether they think MacDonald actually committed the heinous triple murder. It also doubles as a psychoanalytical piece, as Malcolm consults with psychiatrists who testified during both MacDonald and McGinniss’ trials. Although the core question regards journalists’ commitment to transparency while researching a story, Malcolm’s approach makes this nonfiction piece appealing to audiences far beyond aspiring writers. — Neena Rouhani

Memoir

In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard uses metaphors to describe the ins and outs of writing a book, often in outlandish ways. “It is a lion you cage in your study,” Dillard writes. “As the work grows, it gets harder to control.” Weaving in personal anecdotes about her life and friends, she covers topics from inchworms to fireworks, somehow connecting these bizarre subjects to the artistry of literature. On each page, this guide presents imaginative ways to look at the world with the reassurance that writing doesn’t come easily to anyone and suggests novel ways to start putting pen to paper. — Mackenzie Evenson

As its name suggests, “On Writing” is part memoir and part “how-to” guide on writing. Divided into three sections, King’s story begins with his childhood memories, including a babysitter who locked him in a closet when he was covered in vomit. King recalls reading and writing to escape to imaginary places. Along the way, he interrupts his storytelling to share basic tools and practical advice about how to formulate an idea or sell a novel. King offers a no-frills approach and even critiques his own work. He later describes a near-fatal car accident that left him with devastating injuries. During his struggle to survive, King says his two loves, his wife and writing, helped him recover. In this introspective story, he inspires both fellow writers and everyone else. — Olivia Lee

Inspired by Buddhist philosophy, author and Zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg explores writing as a practice much like meditation. Comprised of short, standalone chapters, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within” focuses less on technical craft and more on exercises, prompts and experiences that can jumpstart the creative process. These strategies involve physical and mental effort, such as building your own writing space, recording your dreams, communing with other writers and embracing messy, illogical first drafts — all told in Goldberg’s gentle yet persistent prose. Her takeaway message? All writing is valuable as long as you do it. — Rikki Li

Getting published

Susan Shapiro’s “The Byline Bible” is a thorough resource for unpublished writers in need of guidance. The longtime writing professor lists practical tips and tricks for crafting a great nonfiction piece, composing an excellent pitch to the correct editor and figuring out what to do after it’s been accepted (or rejected). By including dozens of examples of stories her students published in regional magazines and even in The New York Times, Shapiro establishes her authority as the right person to trust to finally break into the writing business. Aspiring writers on a budget won’t be disappointed with this $20 purchase. — Gurjit Kaur

A combined effort of E. B. White and his professor William Strunk Jr., “Elements of Style” serves as an invaluable handbook for anyone who wants to become a decent writer. From grammar rules to sentence composition, it’s packed with down-to-earth advice, such as: “Write in a way that comes naturally to you.” “Don’t inject your opinion.” “Avoid fancy words.” This 105-page primer helps writers struggling with a 100-word memo or a 2,000-page novel on the journey from an unorganized first draft to a polished final piece. — Shreya Bansal

Language lovers and David Foster Wallace fans will find much to enjoy in “Quack This Way,” a novella-length transcription of one of the writer’s final interviews. Staged in February 2006, the 96-minute dialogue dealt with writing and usage, the domain of the kind of grammarians that DFW affectionately called “snoots.” Though the resulting volume is packed with memorable advice and engaging conversational volleys, its downfall lies in its timing — had its subject lived long enough to see the rise of audio, this good book would have made a great podcast. — Sarah Cahalan

Photo at top: A small collection of journalism and writing books on a shelf. Students from the winter 2020 magazine reporting class offer insights on these texts, among many others. (Karen Springen/MEDILL)