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Language » Writing Books
The best books on creative writing, recommended by andrew cowan.
The professor of creative writing at UEA says Joseph Conrad got it right when he said that the sitting down is all. He chooses five books to help aspiring writers.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
1 Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
2 on becoming a novelist by john gardner, 3 on writing: a memoir of the craft by stephen king, 4 the forest for the trees by betsy lerner, 5 worstward ho by samuel beckett.
How would you describe creative writing?
Creative writing is an academic discipline. I draw a distinction between writing , which is what writers do, and creative writing. I think most people in the UK who teach creative writing have come to it via writing – they are bona fide writers who publish poems and novels and play scripts and the like, and they have found some way of supporting that vocation through having a career in academia. So in teaching aspirant writers how to write they are drawing upon their own experience of working in that medium. They are drawing upon their knowledge of what the problems are and how those problems might be tackled. It’s a practice-based form of learning and teaching.
But because it is in academia there is all this paraphernalia that has to go with it. So you get credits for attending classes. You have to do supporting modules; you have to be assessed. If you are doing an undergraduate degree you have to follow a particular curriculum and only about a quarter of that will be creative writing and the rest will be in the canon of English literature . If you are doing a PhD you have to support whatever the creative element is with a critical element. So there are these ways in which academia disciplines writing and I think of that as Creative Writing with a capital C and a capital W. All of us who teach creative writing are doing it, in a sense, to support our writing, but it is also often at the expense of our writing. We give up quite a lot of time and mental energy and also, I think, imaginative and creative energy to teach.
It is hugely rewarding, engaging with the students, but it is hugely frustrating as well, because the larger part of it is engaging with an institution. I’m sure I’m not alone in being very ambivalent about what I do!
Your first choice is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer , which for someone writing in 1934 sounds pretty forward thinking.
Because creative writing has now taken off and has become this very widespread academic discipline it is beginning to acquire its own canon of key works and key texts. This is one of the oldest of them. It’s a book that almost anyone who teaches creative writing will have read. They will probably have read it because some fundamentals are explained and I think the most important one is Brande’s sense of the creative writer being comprised of two people. One of them is the artist and the other is the critic.
Actually, Malcolm Bradbury who taught me at UEA, wrote the foreword to my edition of Becoming a Writer , and he talks about how Dorothea Brande was writing this book ‘in Freudian times’ – the 1930s in the States. And she does have this very Freudian idea of the writer as comprised of a child artist on the one hand, who is associated with spontaneity, unconscious processes, while on the other side there is the adult critic making very careful discriminations.
And did she think the adult critic hindered the child artist?
No. Her point is that the two have to work in harmony and in some way the writer has to achieve an effective balance between the two, which is often taken to mean that you allow the artist child free rein in the morning. So you just pour stuff on to the page in the morning when you are closest to the condition of sleep. The dream state for the writer is the one that is closest to the unconscious. And then in the afternoon you come back to your morning’s work with your critical head on and you consciously and objectively edit it. Lots of how-to-write books encourage writers to do it that way. It is also possible that you can just pour stuff on to the page for days on end as long as you come back to it eventually with a critical eye.
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There are two ways in which you can start to get that wrong and produce bad work. One is where you don’t allow the critic in at all. And so it is just a constant outpouring of unmediated automatic writing, which can become a kind of verbal diarrhoea. And the other side of that is where you allow the critic too much authority and the critic becomes like a bad dad who finds fault with everything and doesn’t allow the child to produce anything. And that results in a sort of self-sabotaging perfectionism, which I have suffered from. I got very blocked, and I read this book and it unblocked me.
Good! Your next book, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist , is described as comfort food for the aspiring novelist.
This is another one of the classics. He was quite a successful novelist in the States, but possibly an even more successful teacher of creative writing. The short story writer and poet Raymond Carver, for instance, was one of his students. And he died young in a motorcycle accident when he was 49. There are two classic works by him. One is this book, On Becoming a Novelist , and the other is The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers . They were both put together from his teaching notes after he died.
On Becoming a Novelist is the more succinct and, I think, is the better of the two. He talks about automatic writing and the idea, just like Dorothea Brande, of the artist being comprised of two people. But his key idea is the notion of the vivid and continuous dream. He suggests that when we read a novel we submit to the logic of that novel in the same way as we might submit to the logic of a dream – we sink into it, and clearly the events that occur could not exist outside the imagination.
What makes student writing in particular go wrong is when it draws attention to itself, either through bad writing or over-elaborate writing. He suggests that these faults in the aspirant writer alert the reader to the fact that they are reading a fiction and it is a bit like giving someone who is dreaming a nudge. It jolts them out of the dream. So he proposes that the student writer should try to create a dream state in the reader that is vivid and appeals to all the senses and is continuous. What you mustn’t do is alert the reader to the fact that they are reading a fiction.
It is a very good piece of advice for writers starting out but it is ultimately very limiting. It rules out all the great works of modernism and post-modernism, anything which is linguistically experimental. It rules out anything which draws attention to the words as words on a page. It’s a piece of advice which really applies to the writing of realist fiction, but is a very good place from which to begin.
And then people can move on.
I never would have expected the master of terror Stephen King to write a book about writing. But your next choice, On Writing , is more of an autobiography .
Yes. It is a surprise to a lot of people that this book is so widely read on university campuses and so widely recommended by teachers of writing. Students love it. It’s bracing: there’s no nonsense. He says somewhere in the foreword or preface that it is a short book because most books are filled with bullshit and he is determined not to offer bullshit but to tell it like it is.
It is autobiographical. It describes his struggle to emerge from his addictions – to alcohol and drugs – and he talks about how he managed to pull himself and his family out of poverty and the dead end into which he had taken them. He comes from a very disadvantaged background and through sheer hard work and determination he becomes this worldwide bestselling author. This is partly because of his idea of the creative muse. Most people think of this as some sprite or fairy that is usually feminine and flutters about your head offering inspiration. His idea of the muse is ‘a basement guy’, as he calls him, who is grumpy and turns up smoking a cigar. You have to be down in the basement every day clocking in to do your shift if you want to meet the basement guy.
Stephen King has this attitude that if you are going to be a writer you need to keep going and accept that quite a lot of what you produce is going to be rubbish and then you are going to revise it and keep working at it.
Do you agree with him?
Yes, I do. I think he talks an awful lot of sense. There is this question which continues to be asked of people who teach creative writing, even though it has been taught in the States for over 100 years and in the UK for over 40 years. We keep being asked, ‘Can writing be taught?’ And King says it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, but what is possible, with lots of hard work and dedication and timely help, is to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. And his book is partly intended to address that, to help competent writers to become good ones. It is inspirational because he had no sense of entitlement. He is not a bookish person and yet he becomes this figurehead.
He sounds inspirational. Your next book, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees , looks at things from the editor’s point of view.
Yes, she was an editor at several major American publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster. She went on to become an agent, and also did an MFA in poetry before that, so she came through the US creative writing process and understands where many writers are coming from.
The book is divided into two halves. In the second half she describes the process that goes from the completion of the author’s manuscript to submitting it to agents and editors. She explains what goes on at the agent’s offices and the publisher’s offices. She talks about the drawing up of contracts, negotiating advances and royalties. So she takes the manuscript from the author’s hands, all the way through the publishing process to its appearance in bookshops. She describes that from an insider’s point of view, which is hugely interesting.
But the reason I like this book is for the first half of it, which is very different. Here she offers six chapters, each of which is a character sketch of a different type of author. She has met each of them and so although she doesn’t mention names you feel she is revealing something to you about authors whose books you may have read. She describes six classic personality types. She has the ambivalent writer, the natural, the wicked child, the self-promoter, the neurotic and a chapter called ‘Touching Fire’, which is about the addictive and the mentally unstable.
It is very entertaining and informative and it is also hugely affirming. I identified myself with each one of the six types. There is a bit in each of them that sounded just like me. And I thought, well if they can get published so can I. You do often worry that you are an impostor, that you are only pretending to be a writer and that real writers are a completely different breed, but actually this book shows they can be just like you.
Your final choice is Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett .
This is a tiny book – it is only about 40 pages and it has got these massive white margins and really large type. I haven’t counted, but I would guess it is only about two to three thousand words and it is dressed up as a novella when it is really only a short story. On the first page there is this riff: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
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When I read this I thought I had discovered a slogan for the classroom that I could share with my students. I want to encourage them to make mistakes and not to be perfectionists, not to feel that everything they do has to be of publishable standard. The whole point of doing a course, especially a creative writing MA and attending workshops, is that you can treat the course as a sandpit. You go in there, you try things out which otherwise you wouldn’t try, and then you submit it to the scrutiny of your classmates and you get feedback. Inevitably there will be things that don’t work and your classmates will help you to identify those so that you can take it away and redraft it – you can try again. And inevitably you are going to fail again because any artistic endeavour is doomed to failure because the achievement can never match the ambition. That’s why artists keep producing their art and writers keep writing, because the thing you did last just didn’t quite satisfy you, just wasn’t quite right. And you keep going and trying to improve on that.
But why, when so much of it is about failing – failing to get published, failing to be satisfied, failing to be inspired – do writers carry on?
I have a really good quote from Joseph Conrad in which he says the sitting down is all. He spends eight hours at his desk, trying to write, failing to write, foaming at the mouth, and in the end wanting to hit his head on the wall but refraining from that for fear of alarming his wife!
It’s a familiar situation; lots of writers will have been there. For me it is a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is something I have to keep returning to. I have to keep going back to the sentences, trying to get them right. Trying to line them up correctly. I can’t let them go. It is endlessly frustrating because they are never quite right.
You have published four books. Are you happy with them?
Reasonably happy. Once they are done and gone I can relax and feel a little bit proud of them. But at the time I just experience agonies. It takes me ages. It takes me four or five years to finish a novel partly because I always find distractions – like working in academia – something that will keep me away from the writing, which is equally as unrewarding as it is rewarding!
September 27, 2012
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Andrew Cowan is Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Creative Writing programme at UEA. His first novel, Pig , won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Betty Trask Award, the Ruth Hadden Memorial Prize, the Author’s Club First Novel Award and a Scottish Council Book Award. He is also the author of the novels Common Ground , Crustaceans , What I Know and Worthless Men . His own creative writing guidebook is The Art of Writing Fiction .
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Top 10 books about creative writing
From linguistics to essays by Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison, poet Anthony Anaxagorou recommends some ‘lateral’ ways in to a demanding craft
T he poet Rita Dove was once asked what makes poetry successful. She went on to illuminate three key areas: First, the heart of the writer; the things they wish to say – their politics and overarching sensibilities. Second, their tools: how they work language to organise and position words. And the third, the love a person must have for books: “To read, read, read.”
When I started mapping out How to Write It , I wanted to focus on the aspects of writing development that took in both theoretical and interpersonal aspects. No writer lives in a vacuum, their job is an endless task of paying attention.
How do I get myself an agent? What’s the best way to approach a publisher? Should I self-publish? There is never one way to assuage the concerns of those looking to make a career out of writing. Many labour tirelessly for decades on manuscripts that never make it to print. The UK on average publishes around 185,000 new titles per year, ranking us the third largest publishing market in the world, yet the number of aspiring writers is substantially greater.
Writers writing about writing can become a supercilious endeavour; I’m more interested in the process of making work and the writer’s perspectives that substantiate the framework.
There’s no single authority, anything is possible. All that’s required are some words and an idea – which makes the art of writing enticing but also difficult and daunting. The books listed below, diverse in their central arguments and genres, guide us towards more interesting and lateral ways to think about what we want to say, and ultimately, how we choose to say it.
1. The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner An intellectual meditation on the cultural function of poetry. Less idealistic than other poetry criticism, Lerner puts forward a richly layered case for the reasons writers and readers alike turn to poetry, probing into why it’s often misconceived as elitist or tedious, and asks that we reconsider the value we place on the art form today.
2. Find Your Voice by Angie Thomas One of the hardest things about creative writing is developing a voice and not compromising your vision for the sake of public appeal. Thomas offers sharp advice to those wrestling with novels or Young Adult fiction. She writes with appealing honesty, taking in everything from writer’s block to deciding what a final draft should look like. The book also comes interspersed with prompts and writing exercises alongside other tips and suggestions to help airlift writers out of the mud.
3. Linguistics: Why It Matters by Geoffrey K Pullum If language is in a constant state of flux, and rules governing sentence construction, meaning and logic are always at a point of contention, what then can conventional modes of language and linguistics tell us about ourselves, our cultures and our relationship to the material world? Pullum addresses a number of philosophical questions through the scientific study of human languages – their grammars, clauses and limitations. An approachable, fascinating resource for those interested in the mechanics of words.
4. Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle The collected lectures of poet and professor Mary Ruefle present us with an erudite inquiry into some of the major aspects of a writer’s mind and craft. Ruefle possesses an uncanny ability to excavate broad and complex subjects with such unforced and original lucidity that you come away feeling as if you’ve acquired an entirely new perspective from only a few pages. Themes range from sentimentality in poetry, to fear, beginnings and – a topic she returns to throughout the book – wonder. “A poem is a finished work of the mind, it is not the work of a finished mind.”
5. Feel Free by Zadie Smith These astute and topical essays dating from 2010 to 2017 demonstrate Smith’s forensic ability to navigate and unpack everything from Brexit to Justin Bieber. Dissecting high philosophical works then bringing the focus back on to her own practice as a fiction writer, her essay The I Who Is Not Me sees Smith extrapolate on how autobiography shapes novel writing, and elucidates her approach to thinking around British society’s tenuous and often binary perspectives on race, class and ethnicity.
6. Threads by Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramayya and Bhanu Kapil Who occupies the “I” in poetry? When poets write, are they personally embodying their speakers or are they intended to be emblematic of something larger and more complex? Is the “I” assumed to be immutable or is it more porous? These are the questions posited in Threads, which illuminates the function of the lyric “I” in relation to whiteness, maleness and Britishness. Its short but acute essays interrogate whiteness’s hegemony in literature and language, revealing how writers from outside the dominant paradigm are often made to reckon with the positions and perspectives they write from.
7. Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison An urgent set of essays and lectures from the late Nobel prize winner that collates her most discerning musings around citizenship, race and art, as well as offering invaluable insight into the craft of writing. She reflects on revisions made to her most famous novel, Beloved, while also reflecting on the ways vernaculars can shape new stories. One of my favourite aphorisms written by Morrison sits on my desk and declares: “As writers, what we do is remember. And to remember this world is to create it.”
8. On Poetry by Jonathan Davidson Poetry can be thought of as something arduous or an exercise in analysis, existing either within small artistic enclaves or secondary school classrooms. One of the many strengths of Davidson’s writing is how he makes poetry feel intimate and personal, neither dry or remote. His approach to thinking around ways that certain poems affect us is well measured without being exclusive. A timely and resourceful book for writers interested in how poems go on to live with us throughout our lives.
9. Essays by Lydia Davis From flash fiction to stories, Davis is recognised as one of the preeminent writers of short-form fiction. In these essays, spanning several decades, she tracks much of her writing process and her relationship to experimentalism, form and the ways language can work when pushed to its outer limits. How we read into lines is something Davis returns to, as is the idea of risk and brevity within micro-fiction.
10. Essayism by Brian Dillon Dillon summarises the essay as an “experiment in attention”. This dynamic and robust consideration of the form sheds light on how and why certain essays have changed the cultural and political landscape, from the end of the Middle Ages to the present time. A sharp and curious disquisition on one of the more popular yet challenging writing enterprises.
How to Write It by Anthony Anaxagorou is published by Merky Books. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com .
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- Toni Morrison
- Zadie Smith
- Lydia Davis
"What books should I read next?"
17 Best Books on Writing to Improve Your Fiction Writing Skills!
What are the best books on writing to help you improve your fiction writing skills? Here, I’ll list some of my favorite titles. These creative writing books carry a wealth of incredibly useful style tips, plot structuring ideas, and other advice to guide your authorial efforts.
I think these books about writing will give you the confidence to dive into your passion with greater ease. However, please also remember that very few authors enjoy overnight success. Instead, we all need many years of practice to fine-tune our writing skills. So, be sure to stay committed and keep those ideas coming!
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My list of best books on writing to enhance your fiction writing skills.
1. on writing: a memoir of the craft.
Who doesn’t know Stephen King? An international household name, King has given us some of the most iconic horror stories of all-time, selling millions of books along the way.
The first half of On Writing is essentially King’s memoir of his early life as an author. This is a highly engrossing read in and of itself!
However, I think aspiring creative writers will especially love the second part. Here, King shares concrete fiction writing tips to help us on our journey. This includes telling us how to get rid of needless adverbs, the art of showing not telling, building engaging dialogue, and so much more.
In short, I find On Writing to be one of the best books on writing available. King knows how to hook you in, all while contextually teaching you how to vastly improve your fiction writing skills.
Haven’t yet read Stephen King? Check out our list of best King books to start with for beginners!
2. The Elements of Style
The Elements of Style is widely regarded as one of the best books about writing ever, for both fiction and nonfiction authors alike. Originally published a century ago, the tips inside have largely remained timeless, helping millions to improve their authorial style along the way.
The book is a back-to-basics approach. It teaches us often overlooked grammar rules, the skill of concise writing, good sentence structures, and much more. In addition, this 2018 revised edition updates any earlier advice that might have become obsolete or less relevant in recent years.
I think it’s fair to note that quite a few reviewers still prefer the Fourth ‘pure’ edition of The Elements of Style – which includes credits to E. B. White . However, personally, I welcome the revisions made in this specific version.
In short, The Elements of Style doesn’t focus on more specific fiction writing techniques. However, it’s a solid starting point which covers the core stylistic elements of English writing that, in the long run, will empower your skills as an author. The more tools in your arsenal, the better!
3. Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
Roy Peter Clark is among America’s most influential writing teachers. Condensing thirty years of experience, Writing Tools is packed with some truly phenomenal tips on improving your creative craft.
The book comprises four main sections: ‘nuts and bolts’, ‘special effects’, ‘blueprints for stories’, and ‘useful habits’. Together, they’ll guide you on mastering key writing basics as you learn how to put together exciting stories that’ll pull your readers in.
In addition, I love how Clark successfully breaks down his generous info into 55 concise and easy-to-digest tips. This makes it much more convenient to flip to a specific page to remind yourself daily of good fiction writing practices to uphold.
In short, Writing Tools is by far one of the best books about writing to inspire you to greater creative heights. An incredibly valuable toolbox for all aspiring authors!
Want to improve your productivity? Check out our list of best books to enhance your work output – with fewer distractions!
4. The Making of a Story A Norton Guide to Creative Writing
Alice LaPlante offers great insights into the art of creative writing. She walks you through the entire process – from nurturing your initial idea spark to creating story arcs and characters that leap off your pages.
The Making of a Story is full of writing lessons that are all wonderfully supported with clear real-world examples (both fiction and nonfiction). In addition, LaPlante uses simple language to explain her points, keeping things both engaging and educational.
I particularly loved her chapter on how adopting different viewpoints can impact the way readers understand a story. In addition, she guides you in putting together effective dialogue that smoothly pushes your narrative along, without forsaking character development.
Overall, I highly recommend The Making of a Story as a go-to resource for anyone keen to take their creative writing to the next level.
5. Story Genius
Lisa Cron has released one of the best creative writing books on the market – with a twist! Specifically, she grounds all her tips in scientifically inspired strategies that’ll hugely aid in improving your storytelling effectiveness.
I’m really won over by Lisa’s lighthearted style that makes her creative writing points fun to learn and follow. In addition, she shares a lot of unique advice that isn’t found in most other books on writing. This includes, among other things, learning how to write strong risk / opportunity scenarios that neurologically stimulate readers to keep turning your pages.
In short, I think Story Genius works as a great companion book to The Making of a Story .
Enjoy YA dystopian fiction? Here’s our list of 15 addictive series like The Hunger Games!
6. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need
You gotta love the quirky title! However, beyond that, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is a five-star reviewed treasure trove filled with awesome writing tips.
In essence, ‘Save the Cat!’ is a tried-and-tested story-writing methodology for fiction authors. Here, Jessica Brody guides you through 15 major plot ‘beats’ to help shape your novel from its early stages to completion. These cover narrative, character development, conflict and resolution, and so on.
Above all, I think the Save the Cat! approach is very useful to both ‘pansters’ and ‘plotters’. It aids everyone in striking a good balance between creative flow and coherent structure, thus keeping readers’ interests alive.
In short, if you’re looking for the best books on writing, give Save the Cat! Writes a Novel a try. You’ll take in a truckload of useful pointers that’ll inspire your writing for years to come!
7. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript
Writing electrifying dialogue is a key part of great storytelling. With this focus in mind, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue specializes in helping you breathe life into all your characters and their interactions.
James Scott Bell covers a lot of ground. This includes showing you how to write riveting tension into your dialogue, tips on crafting memorable conversations, using effective punctuation for impact, and much more.
Moreover, I love the section that teaches us how to smartly mix in descriptive actions (e.g. character verbs) with powerful dialogue that sticks in readers’ minds.
An enticing plot always benefits from convincing and purposeful speech. In this regard, I consider How to Write Dazzling Dialogue to be easily one of the best books on writing available.
Ready for the undead apocalypse? Check out our list of the best zombie books to sink your teeth into!
8. The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface
Building a strong plot is a major part of novel-writing. However, to truly stand out, you’ll also need to stir people’s emotions. Here, Donald Maass teaches you how to evoke memorable feelings among your readers, thus elevating the overall power of your work.
The biggest takeaway I had from reading this book is the importance of revealing one’s inner and outer journeys. In other words, you’ll need to lift the veil on a character’s emotional state as he / she interacts with his / her physical environment and others.
Ultimately, Maass explains how the end-goal of all emotional storytelling is to allow readers to experience what your characters are really going through on a deeper, more visceral level.
Overall, I believe The Emotional Craft of Fiction is one of the best creative writing books that shows you the way to add emotional weight to your words.
9. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure
Good fiction often rests on compelling character arcs. Here, K. M. Weiland shares her approach to creating dynamic / evolving characters that work to retain readers’ interests. Much of her advice builds upon the classic Three-Act Story Structure.
Personally, I find Weiland’s tips to be highly nuanced. For example, she details how authors should avoid pitting their character arcs against the grain of the main plot. Instead, these two aspects of storytelling should compliment each other for the sake of a greater whole. In addition, Weiland consistently raises key writing questions for you to ponder over as you craft your own novel.
However, keep in mind that a lot of her book focuses on constructing ‘positive’ character arcs – less so on ‘flat’ or ‘negative’ ones.
Overall, I strongly recommend Creating Character Arcs as a good resource for strengthening your character development skills – a big asset of the creative writing process.
Keen to bloom your very own garden? Here’s our list of beginner books that’ll help you bring your garden to life!
10. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Looking for books on writing that are both fun to read and informative? Writing Down the Bones is a great place to start! Natalie Goldberg walks you through all the fiction writing basics. This includes tutorials on how to let your creative ideas flow, using verbs effectively, learning to listen as you write, and so on.
I also loved Goldberg’s coverage of less-often discussed authorial topics. For example, she explains the importance of finding an ideal physical location to write (e.g. the perfect cafe, etc.) – as well as her tips on overcoming writer’s block and self-doubt.
In addition, I think what makes Goldberg’s book unique is her weaving in of spirituality – specifically, her view of writing as a highly spiritual process. This distinct perspective separates her from other best creative writing books on this list.
Overall, Writing Down the Bones offers a little bit of everything for aspiring authors. Its spiritual tone might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, I think the book is a great fit for anyone who sees writing as both a practical craft and psychological mindset.
Other best books on writing to look out for!
11. bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life.
With thousands of five-star reviews, I regard Bird by Bird as a proven classic filled with writing wisdom for all fiction authors. Anne Lamott dispenses tons of creative writing tips (e.g. working on your first drafts, choosing the best plot ideas, etc.).
In addition, she also explores the many meaningful joys – and challenges – of striving to become a professional writer.
12. How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
Nope, Randy Ingermanson isn’t calling you a ‘snowflake’! Instead, the Snowflake Method is a 10-step approach that maps out your entire creative writing process. The book also presents its ideas through the lens of a fictitious novelist. Meta, much?
In short, when it comes to the best books on writing, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method is an ideal fit for those looking for a zany – yet, fruitfully methodical – technique to authoring your bestseller.
Deepen your thoughts with these beginner books about philosophy!
13. Write Your Novel From The Middle
Write Your Novel From the Middle posits a distinct writing strategy – start your novel from the middle, not the beginning or end!
For bestselling writing instructor James Scott Bell, working from the middle of your plot lets you quickly uncover the true heart of your story, early on. Subsequently, you’ll find it far easier to develop the rest of your book around this narrative epicenter. Brilliant!
14. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity
I see Ray Bradbury as one of the best sci-fi writers of all time! So, naturally, I also fell in love with Zen in the Art of Writing . Through several essays, he shares his seasoned wisdom on how to master the craft of creative writing.
Above all, Bradbury’s highly motivational advice will inspire you to keep writing, refining your skills through passion, practice, and patience.
15. Stein On Writing
After so many years, I love how Stein on Writing has stayed relevant to millions of fiction and nonfiction authors today.
Unlike some best books on writing, Stein focuses less on strict theory. Instead, he pragmatically guides you on ‘fixing’ specific writing issues. This includes trying to liven up a flat story, repairing pacing issues, and so much more.
16. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
Ever read a book you just couldn’t put down? If so, you’ll soon realize every author needs to weave a certain kind of magic to create a true page-turner.
In this regard, Les Edgerton presents you with his special formula to consistently produce alluring scenes that hold your readers’ attention throughout. In short, Hooked teaches you all that its title suggests!
17. Writing the Breakout Novel
How do you write a novel that truly stands out the rest? Donald Maass is once again here to help! In Writing the Breakout Novel , he details many of the common characteristics that today’s bestselling books tend to share.
Eye-opening and easy-to-read, I believe this essential writing guide will greatly improve your chances of authorial success!
Know of other best books on writing? Drop us an email with your favorite creative writing books and we’ll include them in this list!
Best Creative Writing Books for Writers to Better Their Skills
Creators rule the world.
They lead far into the future, changing minds, making people think, wonder and fear. They amaze, delight, humor, inform, instruct, entertain, and give us a picture of a world only you, a creative writer, have to offer. In this article, we will cover the top books by some of the most profound experts in history that teach you not just how, but why - each step of the way.
In 2021, it was estimated that there were over 49,000 writers in America alone. That is a staggering number until you stop and compare it against the estimated US population of 336 million .
Becoming a writer is a journey in which there is no singular roadmap because there is no singular type of writer.
It can be argued that the most popular type of writer is the creative writer.
What is creative writing?
Many people think that creative writing is only when you sit down to write fiction. However, that leaves out the numerous genres and styles of creative writing that can be done.
Creative writing covers everything from prose, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Any kind of writing done in the name of creation is creative writing. At its core, creative writing is an art form no different from painting or sculpting. The medium just happens to be the written word.
What should I read to improve my creative writing?
There are plenty of people who desire to be creative writers, but perhaps they need a little guidance on how best to channel their creative voice, or even develop that voice in the first place. There is no singular way to develop that creativity, and it can be arduous.
Fortunately, thousands upon thousands of writers have walked their own path to unlock their creative ability.
Many of those writers have even written books on how they learned to be creative writers. No matter what genre you are in, if you truly wish to become a creative writer, here are some books that get you on your path to literary greatness.
Best books on creative writing
- Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine
Gail Carson Levine is the author of such fairy tale stories as Ella Enchanted . In her book Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly, she goes over all her favorite tricks of the trade that helped her win the Newbery Honor .
She covers the genesis of story ideas, how to keep yourself from getting hit with writer’s block.
It could be argued that this creative writing book is skewed more towards younger writers or only fiction writers with an affinity for fantasy, but at the end of the day, all fiction-based writing has a layer of fantasy. Learning to harness one’s imagination is the key to all sorts of creative writing skills.
- Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle
Poetry is a form of creative writing that many struggle with. There are so many jokes about poems that do little more than rhyme the words “moon” and “June” together that sometimes it can be difficult to feel confident as a poet.
There is no such conflict in Madness, Rack, and Honey .
Mary Ruefle’s book is a collection of lectures that deal with poetry. Each of these lectures is impassioned, talking about not only the function of poetry as an art form but what poetry is like when it is at its most effective.
This is a crucial read for anybody who is even remotely interested in poetry.
- A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
There is a misconception that poetry is mysterious and inaccessible. One must have a “poet’s soul” to be able to write poetry. Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook manages to politely dispel that notion by showing how poetry works through prose.
Poetry becomes far more accessible in this book as Oliver shows how poems are created, guiding the reader through concepts such as meter and rhyme. By giving the reader these basics, Oliver lets them in on the ground floor and gives them a foundation to experiment later on.
A Poetry Handbook is a fine starting point for any budding poet.
- Essayism by Brian Dillon
Some people may not necessarily think of essays as being in the same category as creative writing. The truth is that essay writing often requires a degree of creativity to distinguish themselves from one another and ensure that the topic is engaging for the reader.
In Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction , is a book that highlights some of the greatest essayists of all time. It portrays not only Dillon’s passion for the form, but it also illustrates that even something as seemingly academic as an essay can also be a form of true self-expression.
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Whether you are an aspiring writer or any other form of artist, there is a good chance that you have heard a voice in your mind telling you that you are not good enough to be creative. When that voice gets loud, you can drown it out with The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles .
Steven Pressfield has created a book to help you win the battles against creative block and self-doubt, battles that most creatives must go through at one point or another.
Pressfield’s book examines the source of self-doubt and gives the tools necessary to overcome them, no matter what form they may take. You will receive the necessary writing tools to strengthen your resolve and determination.
Whether you are a writer, artist, or beginning a new business venture, this book will help you overcome imposter syndrome to become the creative you want to be.
- The Writing Life by Marie Arana
Sometimes you do not need an instructional book to learn how to become a creative writer. Sometimes you simply need to hear directly from people living the writer’s life you are striving for.
Marie Arana’s book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work is exactly the book you need if you want perspective on what it is like to live and work as a writer.
Featuring statements from fifty different writers, you will learn what made them start to realize that they wanted to write, what their creative processes are, and what living as a writer is truly like.
It may not give you an abundance of technical information, but it will certainly give you some wisdom.
- The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass
Many writers and books out there advocate for the use of story structure and methodology to write fiction. However, sometimes the intention behind this instruction can get lost. At the end of the day, if one truly considers their writing to be an act of creativity, one needs to acknowledge that the core tool of all creative writing is emotion.
Donald Maass’ book The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface is designed to teach you how to harness the emotional nature to create compelling fiction writing. Rather than give you rules designed to teach you the mechanics of writing, you are given topics that delve into why those mechanics are effective at eliciting emotion.
Some may argue that this is a form of emotional manipulation of the reader, but that ignores the truth that all art is designed to elicit an emotional response. Writing should be no different in that regard.
- The Lonely Voice by Frank O'Connor
The short story has always had an interesting place in creative writing. In some ways, it can be more profitable than trying to sell novels, allowing the writer to express big ideas in a shorter number of pages. Frank O’Connor, a celebrated literary critic, essayist, and short story writer, focuses on what makes the short story unique in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story .
Above all, O’Connor sets out to define just what a short story is. The misconception is that a short story is nothing more than a miniaturized novel form. Instead, O’Connor argues that a short story is a full-fledged work of art and should be treated as such.
O’Connor believes that the short story is capable of doing and portraying things that a novel cannot. He also believes that characters are freer to be more human, as you are not trying to shoehorn them into hero or villain roles.
If you are interested in the short story as a potential playground for your writing, then The Lonely Voice is worth your time. You may not agree with every point that O’Connor raises, but his dedication to the belief that the short story deserves the same level of care and respect as a novel is one you certainly can.
- Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
One of the most important elements of creative writing, particularly in the realm of fiction, is the plot. The plot is not the story you are telling, but rather the way that story unfolds for the reader. Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish will help you understand all you need to know about creating a plot that grabs your reader’s attention.
Plot & Structure is part of a five-installment series of books called Write Great Fiction . These books are constructed to help you become a better overall writer. In this book for writing fiction, you will learn how to brainstorm for better and more original plot points, explore the relationship between plot and story, and find ways to connect it all together.
- A Writer's Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld
If you were to ask a group of amateur writers what their biggest obstacle in finishing a project is, they would almost all say that their biggest obstacle is writer’s block. If you asked a group of professional writers what the biggest obstacle is, they would most likely say finding the will to persist with a project through completion.
With this book by Jordan Rosenfeld, you will learn about the persistence it takes for a writer to complete a creative writing project. Not only will you learn how to see a written project through to completion, but also how to deal with the worst enemy of any creative writer: rejection. When submitting your work to publishers, you will almost undoubtedly be rejected at some point or another. This book will help you learn how to weather rejection and become better at writing for it.
A good deal of the book also addresses maintaining a balance between writing and one’s personal life. That is evergreen advice that every writer should receive at some point.
How to apply these creative writing books
Each book contains vital information to help you become a better creative writer. They will also help you to deal with some of the commonly unforeseen pitfalls that writers deal with early on in their journey. The best way to apply everything you learn is to start writing.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that these books offer a one-size-fits-all solution to becoming better. Instead, you should glean from each book relevant to your writing path the information that will most benefit you and your writing craft.
If you are not into writing prose but would love to dive headfirst into poetry, there is not much that a book on plot and structure would have to offer you, at least not on the surface. Finding tips, methods, and advice that will help you is subjective.
Conclusion on the best books for creative writing
Remember that creative writing has no true rules, only helpful guidelines that have helped numerous other writers throughout the generations. That is because writing is art, and while there are many well-known and used techniques, there is no singular right way to be an artist.
No book can tell you what your path as a creative should be, only what paths have worked for others in the past.
However, if you listen to these books' advice, you might find that the process becomes a little easier for you to master in your own way.
12 Best Books on Writing Skills to Become a Better Writer
The 13 Best Books on Writing Fiction That Will Improve Your Skills
Best Books on Writing Novels to Become a Published Novelist
12 Best Screenwriting Books for Writing Great Screenplays Bonus: Free AI Writing Tools to help your writer's block. We have some pretty awesome writing tools; you can access even more with a free account .
Ai for sales teams: how it works, and how to get started, 11 sales automation tools (+ how to get started), ready to level-up.
Write 10x faster, engage your audience, & never struggle with the blank page again.
The Writing Cooperative
Mar 11, 2019
Top 10 Books to Improve Your Writing Skills
A collection of recommended books that includes some of my favorite classics as well as impressive new additions that will help to you write off all types — from bloggers to content producers to budding novelists to poets — hone their skills..
If you want to become a good writer then definitely you need to be a good reader as well, All good writers are good readers. In this article, we’re mainly focussing on books that would be helpful for bloggers, creative writers, and for content creators as well.
Books that help for Bloggers and Content Writers
If you want to get start your career with technical content writing or you want to host any personal blog then this list will definitely help to improve and move your skills to another level, those are —
- Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content — ANN HANDLEY
Millions of new blog posts and other pieces of content hit the internet every single day. If you have a web site or if you want to start a new blog if you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing. then this book might help in your journey. this book contains some of the useful tips that should know for your marketing and writing career. this book is a must-have guide that shows content producers what it takes to stand out in a space where competition is fierce. With an accessible style, she takes on everything from how to write to grammar and usage to best practices.
This isn’t just a how-to-write guide, it’ll also help you uncover what to write.
2. You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) — Jeff Goins
If you aspire to build your platform and become a professional writer, this book is a great place to start. Jeff Goins parlayed a love of writing into a successful career as an author, blogger, and speaker. If you have the drive to succeed as a writer, Goins provides the roadmap. You Are a Writer isn’t so much a book about the art of writing as it is about the business of getting your hard work noticed.
Books that help for Creative Writers
If you want to show up your creative skill with your writing skills, then you must read the following books to cope up your skills easily —
3. Stein On Writing — Sol Stein
If you’re ready to dig into the nuts and bolts of great writing and you want to truly improve at your craft, this book is a master class by a veteran editor, author, and teacher. There are plenty of books available in the market that share advice for dealing with writer angst, getting unstuck creatively, and living life as a wordsmith. Stein On Writing is not one of those books. this book will take you to a new experience to upgrade your skills.
4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — Anne Lamott
Sometimes As a writer, we take certain things too seriously. this allows readers a glimpse of human foibles, Anne Lamott takes some of the stings out of the things that cause writers grief, from perfectionism to insomnia. And she does it all with her celebrated wit and self-deprecating humor. It’s like having a crazy writer aunt to commiserate with. And you’ll learn a thing or two in the process.
5. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within — Natalie Goldberg
The author explains a simple approach to improve your writing skill — if you want to write truthfully and powerfully, you have to connect with yourself. Using Zen teachings, she encourages writers to follow their first thoughts and to trust their minds and bodies to lead them. Her voice is accessible and sometimes vulnerable, and her inspirational and wildly creative methods have been helping writers find their voices for over thirty years.
6. Zen in the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing , a collection of essays on the writing life, this book explains some qualities that every writer must have and as well as a spirit of adventure. In this exuberant book, the incomparable Ray Bradbury shares the wisdom, experience, and excitement of a lifetime of writing. this book explains practical tips on the art of writing from a master of the craft-everything from finding original ideas to developing your own voice and style.
Books that help for Fiction Writers
If you want to share your views in the form of fictitious stories then this list might help you —
7. The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience — Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig’s writing isn’t for the sensitive or easily offended — his no-holds-barred style is full of biting humor, social commentary, and profanity. But what his book delivers is a contemporary guide to becoming a better fiction writer that’s rendered in quick, easy-to-digest truth bombs.
8. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft — Stephen King
Any writer whose dream is of publishing a novel should add On Writing to their to-read (or to-reread) list. then definitely you should give a try for this book. this book explains enormously successful writer’s origin story, but it also teaches the craft of writing in a way that feels conversational and real, as though he’s a mentor sitting across the table from you, sipping coffee and giving you his best advice.
Books that help for All Writers
The above books are for specific people who want to write in a particular area or filed, i.e (Fictitious, Creative, Technical blogs). If you are a bibliophile and want to gain more knowledge about writing skills then these books will definitely give value to your time —
9. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century — Steven Pinker
Although Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a time-honored classic, its prescriptive approach to language isn’t for everyone. Enter Harvard professor Steven Pinker with a more contemporary take. His witty approach recognizes that language is fluid and that, while it’s good to know and follow the rules when it makes sense to, expressive writing often relies on bending them. Writing newbs may find this book challenging, but it’s full of insight for those who already have a grasp on grammar and style and want to improve.
10. Write Tight: Say Exactly What You Mean with Precision and Power — William Brohaugh
Writers are encouraged to make their writing lean and precise. Which is great advice, but how do you do it? Brohaugh, a former Writer’s Digest editor, offers all the necessary how-tos in this book. He teaches writers to eliminate redundancy, recognize and squash empty modifiers, and remove other dead weight that slows writing down. Although it’s sometimes criticized for being a bit pedantic, Brohaugh’s guide gave me some striking Aha! moments when I first read it about a decade ago, which is why I heartily recommend it.
These are the books that my uncle recommended for me to improve my writing skills. I have read some of the books which are really great, now I’m sharing my book list that might help for beginner writers. and I googled details about all the books that I’ve mentioned for the sake of providing correct information.
Hope this article helps you to find out some interesting books for improving your writing skills.
If you liked this article please click on the clap and leave me your valuable feedback.
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- Nov 19, 2020
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10 Best Books to Boost Your Writing and Creativity
Great writers have two things in common: They practice, always working to get better at it, and they read—a lot. Why not do both at the same time? These are some of the best books to read about writing. The advice, exercises and examples you’ll find will help you become better at your craft.
The books listed below cover different aspects of writing, from creativity and inspiration, to advice from the experts, to grammar and style :
Writing Down the Bones , by Natalie Goldberg
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative , by Austin Kleon
Big Magic , by Elizabeth Gilbert
On Writing , by Stephen King
Bird by Bird , by Anne Lammott
Stein on Writing , by Sol Stein
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition) , by William Zinsser
It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences. , by June Casagrande
Dreyer’s English , by Benjamin Dreyer
The Elements of Style , by Strunk and White
Creativity and inspiration
These are my top three picks for books that’ll encourage you to write and live more creatively . If you only have time to read one, I suggest Big Magic —it’s the most inspiring of the bunch. If you’re looking for something with more exercises and concrete tips, start with Writing Down the Bones or Steal Like an Artist . Looking for more books on creativity? Check out The Artist’s Way or anything else by Julia Cameron.
01. Writing Down the Bones , by Natalie Goldberg
Best for: Writers from all backgrounds, genres and levels.
Read it when: You’re feeling stuck with your writing career, need some inspiration, or just have good ol’ writer’s block.
Fondly called ‘ Bones ’ by other writers, this book is like taking your inner writer to therapy. Explore not just how you write, but why . Become mindful of your unique pain points as a writer, think about what being a writer means to you, and find the best way to move forward from where you are now—even if you’re feeling like you’ll never make it as a writer.
Goldberg herself had her share of rejection: Writing Down the Bones was turned down by seven big publishing houses, before being accepted by a new and small publisher called Shambhala. Now, there’s a 30th edition with a foreword by Julia Cameron.
The author sprinkles writing prompts and creativity exercises throughout the book—the goal is to help you explore and get connected to yourself. One exercise I had a lot of fun with was to take ten minutes and write about a meal you love. In no time, I was deep in nostalgia about my mom’s baked salmon and leafy-green salad. It can be tempting to skip the exercises, especially once you enter “reading mode”, but you’ll get a lot more out of the book by taking a few minutes to try them.
Goldberg’s main mission is to encourage you to simply write . Not to go out and find a writing class, not to force yourself to “just write” for 10 minutes a day—but to really sit down and put your whole self into it. If you’re watching the clock and writing because you heard somewhere that you need to write every single day, then your heart isn’t really in it. So go deep and speak your truth—with your writing and also in your life.
“That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life about writing.”
Buy Writing Down the Bones and read more reviews on goodreads .
02. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative , by Austin Kleon
Best for: Writers looking to jumpstart creative thinking.
Read it when: You’re short on time and feeling unsure of how to start your next project.
Kleon, a self-described “writer who draws”, authored multiple best-selling books about creativity. In this New York Times hit, he gives ten tips for getting in touch with your inner artist. It’s quick and fun to read (I read it in about an hour). Even if you’ve already read many books in the genre, this one still delivers.
The author starts out by calling out obstacles that get in the way of being creative—the pressure to be “original” and the all-too familiar imposter syndrome . Kleon wants you to get inspired by work you admire, because there isn’t anything out there that’s truly original. Everything is based on something that already exists. Even if you don’t feel ready, just start making things. “Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.”
What resonated with me the most in this book is the importance of movement and using your hands when being creative. For his first book, the author used a newspaper and a black marker to write a best-selling book of poetry. His writing process was hands-on, engaging most of his senses - touching the newspaper, the sound and smell of the marker, the sight of words being blacked out. Bringing this practice into my own life, I’ve finally taken my new Paint by Numbers kit out of its packaging.
“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.”
Buy Steal Like an Artist and read more reviews on goodreads .
03. Big Magic , by Elizabeth Gilbert
Best for: Anyone who wants to live a more creative life.
Read it when: Anytime, but it’s an especially great pick-me-up if you’ve just gotten a rejection letter.
In Big Magic , Gilbert gives her take on what creativity is, how to bring more of it into your life, and how fear of rejection stands in the way. It’s obvious how much Gilbert enjoys writing and putting her work out there—and that’s what makes it so fun to read. I just didn’t want this book to end.
My personal takeaway here is learning how to cope with my own feelings of failure as a writer. Hearing her stories of rejection and success is inspiring, and makes me want to rewire my own reactions to criticism I get at work.
“I decided to play the game of rejection letters as if it were a great cosmic tennis match: Somebody would send me a rejection, and I would knock it right back over the net, sending out another query that same afternoon.”
Speaking of cosmic tennis matches—if you’ve read other books by Gilbert, you may already be familiar with the way she plays with anthropomorphism. It’s one of my favorite things about her writing style. In Big Magic , she gives ideas (artistic, scientific, religious, etc.) their own persona, turning abstract concepts into concrete companions that can go a long way helping writers.
“Ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners…When an idea thinks it has found somebody—say, you—who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit...The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention. And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, 'Do you want to work with me?'”
Buy Big Magic and read more reviews on goodreads .
Advice from the experts
These are my top four picks for general writing tips from the pros. If you only have time to read one book in this category, I’d go for On Writing Well by William Zinsser because it touches on many different aspects of writing that’s relevant to most writers—or Stein on Writing , if you want to improve your storytelling skills.
04. On Writing , by Stephen King
Best for: (Mostly) fiction writers.
Read it when: You want quality advice from a writer, but also want to read a memoir.
Stephen King’s On Writing is a classic, and was highly recommended to me by other writers. He starts off by telling us about how he got to be a writer, his early struggles, and how he eventually found success.
Personally, I didn’t LOVE the memoir-ish first half of the book. I included it because so many others have enjoyed it, and, you know—classic and all that. If I wasn’t writing an article about writing books, I’m not sure I would have finished it—but I’m glad I did, because the good stuff really comes towards the end.
His advice focuses mostly on how to build a story and develop characters, as well as some more technical, grammar-related tips. I especially enjoyed his passion for grammar: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
Two lessons I’m taking with me into my writing life are to not show anyone my work until after my first draft (so that I have space to come up with my own feelings about it), and a formula for cutting words: Second draft = First draft - 10%. I already try to remove any unnecessary fluff from my writing when I revise, but I never thought about it in such a structured way. King suggests moving onto other projects before going in for a second draft—the time away helps distance you from the words, making it less “yours”—and that’s what makes it easier to cut.
No one said writing was easy—so it’s comforting to know that even best-selling authors struggle with it.
“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”
Buy On Writing and read more reviews on goodreads .
05. Bird by Bird , by Anne Lammott
Best for: Fiction writers, memoir writers.
Read it when: You feel stuck or frustrated with your writing, and want to know you’re not alone.
As with King’s On Writing , this one came highly recommended by both Google and other writers. And just like King’s book, it was hard for me to get into it—but the rest of the book made it worth it.
Reading this book was like sitting down with an accomplished writer and hearing the real deal about the writing process—the failures, the hopes, that letter from her editor that made her cry, and everything in between. It felt nice to know that even “real” writers don’t get it right the first time.
My favorite advice from Lammot is her wise words about getting feedback on your work from people you trust, before you show it to editors. She compares it to when you’re getting ready for a party: If there’s someone there to gently let you know that maybe that specific dress isn’t so flattering, you might be disappointed for a minute, but then you’re relieved that at least you’re still at home and have a chance to change before showing up in public.
This advice is very timely for me, because I’ve just been thinking about why it’s so easy for me to take criticism from specific colleagues, while the same feedback from others makes me question my decision to even be a writer.
Lammot’s encouraging words throughout the book are here to remind that you’re not alone in your struggle, that many writers struggle with self-doubt, and the importance of not giving up.
“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t - and in fact, you’re not supposed to - know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”
Buy Bird by Bird and read more reviews on goodreads .
06. Stein on Writing , by Sol Stein
Best for: All writers (fiction and nonfiction) who want to engage readers with a captivating narrative.
Read it when: You want to improve your storytelling.
The art of storytelling isn’t just for fiction—it’s what makes people interested enough to keep reading, whether you’re writing a novel or reporting on local politics . The key to engaging readers and providing them with an emotional experience is to show, not tell.
Using his experience as an editor and publisher, Stein provides a guide in sharpening your storytelling skills, from creating suspense, developing compelling characters, writing good dialogue, coming up with a title that intrigues readers—and offers a new approach to revising your first draft. He calls it “triage” and advocates for looking at major parts of your story (like characters, scenes, and actions) before doing a thorough revision. Even nonfiction writers can apply this to their work—the idea being that you should find and fix major issues in your work before you start going line by line.
By the time your project is done, you want each word to have a purpose. My professional writing life usually consists of trying to cut words wherever possible—I’m always looking for ways to make sentences shorter, tighter, simpler. But sometimes extra words are necessary to make your writing memorable and give your readers a clear visual. Here’s an example Stein gives:
“Vernon was a heavy smoker” vs. “ When a waitress heard Vernon’s voice she always guided him to the smoking section without asking.”
The second version gives you a tactile experience of what Vernon sounds like, and is more interesting to read. Even though it adds quite a few more words, it engages readers more and brings them into the story. Which is really the whole purpose of writing, isn’t it?
“You wouldn’t feed cardboard meals to guests. Don’t feed cardboard meals to your characters. Make your reader’s taste buds pop, even if he's from outer space.”
Buy Stein on Writing and read more reviews on goodreads .
07. On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition) , by William Zinsser
Best for: Everyone, especially nonfiction writers.
Read it when: You’re looking for a straightforward guide to improving your writing.
Zinsser is a writer, editor, and teacher - and he has great advice for anyone looking to sharpen their writing skills. You’ll learn how to start and end your writing piece, how to revise, and how to write clearly and concisely. Some parts of the book are geared towards nonfictions writers—like the chapters dedicated to specific types of writing (e.g., culture, sports, and travel), but a lot of his advice is helpful to all writers, like his philosophy of revisions:
“I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color...With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.”
Two tips from Zinsser that I’m already putting into practice: not visualizing the end result, and removing qualifiers from my writing. The first one resonates with me right now because I’m three years into working on a family memoir, and visualizing the final result has kept me paddling in the “research” and “interviewing” phase—now I put my focus back on the writing itself. As for the second one, I always scan my work now to check for qualifiers that make my words seem less confident, like: a bit , sort of , rather , quite , pretty much , etc. These phrases take away from the impact your words can have on the reader.
“Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”
Buy On Writing Well and read more reviews on goodreads .
Grammar and style
Your idea of fun probably isn’t to spend your weekends cozying up with tea and a stack of grammar books. Most grammar books are dry and not what I’d describe as light, fun reading. That’s why my goal was to find ones that are educational, but not boring. Only have time to read one book in this category? I’d go for It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences. —it’s entertaining, and the author makes grammar fun.
08. It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences. , by June Casagrande
Who is this book for: Anyone looking to write better sentences or brush up on their grammar.
Read it when: You want a quick guide to grammar that gets you back to basics.
A journalist and editor, Casagrande breaks down the basics of grammar in a way that’s easy to understand, and explains how to use it to improve each sentence you write. And with a touch of humor and wit, she makes it fun to read, too. For example, as writers we may instinctively know that these sentences are bad, but Casagrande digs into the grammar to explain why:
“Running down the street in high heels, my dog was too fast for me to catch.” (Dangling participle—sounds like your dog was wearing the heels!)
“She was awarded a national book award in fiction as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.” (Faulty parallelism—award and finalist don’t match.)
This book changed how I looked at grammar. Until now, I mostly got my words down and then made sure everything was grammatically correct. Now I think about how I use the principles of grammar as I work, rather than something to just check off my list.
“Yet, all great writing has one thing in common. It starts with a sentence. The sentence is a microcosm of any written work, and understanding it means understanding writing itself - how to structure ideas, how to emphasize what’s important, how to make practical use of grammar, how to cut the bull, and, above all, how to serve the almighty Reader.”
Buy It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences. and read more reviews on goodreads .
09. Dreyer’s English , by Benjamin Dreyer
Read it when: You want to indulge in some grammar-snobbery and read about common writing mistakes.
As a copyeditor, Dreyer has seen it all, and he’s sharing the most common writing mistakes even experienced writers have made. I started reading for the grammar and style advice, and I kept reading for the author’s wit and pop-culture references:
“At some point in your life, perhaps now, it may occur to you that the phrase ‘aren’t I’ is a grammatical trainwreck. You can, at that point, either spend the rest of your life saying ‘am I not?’ or ‘amn’t I?’ or embrace yet another of those oddball constructions that sneak into the English language and achieve widespread acceptance, all the while giggling to themselves at having gotten away with something.”
Insights like that made this book both informative and fun to read. A warning, though: At times his cleverness does get the better of him. His elitist tone can get a bit grating, and sometimes I had to reread sentences multiple times to understand what he was saying (which I felt was ironic for a book about improving your writing skills).
My favorite part of this book was his section on phrases with redundant words. I tend to overexplain and that probably means I use redundant phrases more often than I should. Here’s what he says about “fetch back”:
“To fetch something is not merely to go get it but to go get it and return with it to the starting place. Ask a dog.”
This book doesn’t have the same cult status as The Elements of Style (the next one in the list), but its humor made it a lot more enjoyable to read.
Buy Dreyer’s English and read more reviews on goodreads .
10. The Elements of Style , by Strunk and White
Read this book when: Anytime, but mostly just so you can say you’ve read it.
This book is a classic, and appears on almost any list of “books that writers should read”. Strunk published the first edition of this guide in 1918, and it’s been a must-have for writers ever since. More recent editions have been edited and updated by White, a student of Strunk.
In a straightforward, no-nonsense style, Strunk and White lay out the basics to grammar and good writing—everything from using hyphens properly to writing concise sentences. Just note that some rules outlined in the book might not apply to writing that’s more informal.
The parts of this book I enjoyed most was when a bit of humor peeked through:
“The hyphen can play tricks on the unwary, as it did in Chattanooga when two newspapers merged - the News and the Free Press . Someone introduced a hyphen into the merger, and the paper became The Chattanooga News-Free Press , which sounds as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news.”
Tip: If you’re planning to read this one, I recommend getting the version that’s illustrated by Maira Kalman—the beautiful paintings add a nice touch.
Buy The Elements of Style and read more reviews on goodreads .
After reading all of these great books (and a few others that didn’t make it to this list), I noticed one thing that came up over and over again: Learn the rules before you decide whether you want to follow them. Read as much as you can about the art of writing. Once you’ve got the basics down, once you know all the “writing rules”, that’s when you can have fun and start breaking them —with confidence.
What’s your favorite book on writing? Share your top picks in the comments below.
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From New York, now lives in Tel Aviv. Loves good food, good books, and her golden retriever.
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