How does one learn to write well? There are countless methods and paths, suggested by educators, successful authors, and fellow writers alike. There are shelves of books, a branch of the self help genre, dedicated to teaching methods for developing and improving literary talents. There's no shortage of technical material, style guides from various schools of thought. As with most disciplines, a writer benefits from a sort of "muscle memory", an automatic or innate understanding of the mechanics and aesthetics of the craft. For my money, the following examples are the cream of the instructional crop, and the books I'll have on hand during this year's National Novel Writing Month.
William Strunk, jr and E. B. White's classic collection of basic style guidelines is as brilliant as it is brief. At only 105 pages, it's easily the shortest piece of resource material in my collection, but page-for-page it is also the most thorough and informative work available. It's invaluable, and recommended that every writer, at some point, become familiar with its teachings.
Elements of Grammar
Another brief work, though slightly longer than Elements of Style, Margaret Shertzer's Elements of Grammar is similarly indispensable. In some ways more technical than Elements of Style, Shertzer's guide is nevertheless a marvelous resource, summarizing the basics of sentence structure and defining the building blocks of the English language in a way that better enables the writer to construct more solid works.
A Dictionary. ANY Dictionary.
This should go without saying, but the number of writers who eschew the use of a dictionary might surprise you. I've always found them useful, not only for referencing correct spelling and definitions, but for the simple fact that the dictionary is a collection of words, many of which I might not have otherwise encountered. My preferred editions tend to be older, but truthfully any dictionary will suffice. I use Webster's New World Dictionary--Compact Desk Edition (1963) and Webster's Little Gem Dictionary. (1925)
In Stephen King's masterful On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, the legendary writer warns that "One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones", later asserting that the basic rule of vocabulary is " use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful." It's this last bit (emphasis mine) that makes a thesaurus so handy. Perhaps the first word that comes to mind isn't colorful enough, or perhaps you've used the same word so many times that it's become redundant, and therefore less apt. As with dictionaries, any thesaurus will suffice. I prefer Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1937), in the original arrangement, which was categorical as opposed to alphabetical. Another suitable collection of verbal alternatives is Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms Antonyms & Prepositions.
There are a number of works that, while not essential, I've found prove informative, useful, and to a certain extent entertaining. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is indispensable as an introduction to a host of idioms and phrases which we often hear but about which we rarely learn more. Similarly, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler compiles myriad phrases and notes on usage, oftentimes employing a dry wit that defies its place on the reference shelf. Other extraneous reference materials that I'll be perusing in preparation for NaNoWriMo include: The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein, and its humorous "sequel", Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Out-Moded Rules of English Usage; The American Language, by H.L. Mencken; The Dictionary of Cultural LIteracy; and The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions.
Books on the Craft of Writing
In addition to the reference materials above, I find it extremely helpful to have a number of works on the actual topic of writing, beyond the nuts and bolts of language. The aforementioned On Writing is both informative in terms of the more technical aspects of style and usage, and inspirational in that it details aspects of Mr. King's life as an author, and how his life led him to that point. Other works in this vein include Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande; On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner; and a collection of topical tidbits from a variety of well-known authors, Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights.
Truth be told, this is is by no means exhaustive. Depending on the genre in which one will be writing, there are countless other works that might prove useful as inspiration or reference. Whether it be an autobiography of an author successful in that particular milieu, or an encyclopedia germane to the subject, one does well to build a strong foundation for their work in progress. As my WriMo novel will fall under the auspices of literary fiction, I've been touching upon favorite works in that arena; since my novel will be semi-autobiographical, I've been reading works of a similar nature (such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn) as well as revisiting works that struck a chord with me in terms of identity, like Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse and Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I don't intend to do much reading once National Novel Writing Month has begun—I prefer to keep my voice and story free of influence while writing—I will spend the remainder of the week reviewing these and other materials, so that when the time comes, my novel—written in earnest haste—will at least have been built upon as firm a foundation as I could afford it.