10 Great Books for Writers
Looking for something to boost your own writing career or the perfect gift for your writer friends? Not surprisingly, a huge number of books on writing have been produced, some by famous and successful authors, some by much lesser known, but not necessarily less valuable, writers. The following are a selection of writing books designed to inspire, amuse and inform all writers, from the half-heartedly aspiring to the highly experienced.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. And E. B. White
This book is a life saver (or at least a career saver) for all of us who want to be writers but neglected to pay attention in high school English class. This book is not just about improving your grammar and writing style, although if that’s your aim it’s an excellent place to start. It’s about writing strong, concise and meaningful prose. It’s about making every word count, and that’s equally important whether you write short web articles or epic novels.
Some of the advice I love, but don’t always follow, includes:
“Write with nouns and verbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
“Do not overwrite. Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
And my personal favourite:
“Do not explain too much. It is seldom advisable to tell all.”
The Elements of Style was originally produced to by Professor Strunk to be used by his students at Cornell University during the early part of the 20th century. The fact that it still makes perfect sense for modern aspiring writers is an indication of just how timeless good advice can be.
On Writing by Stephen King
Whether you’re a fan of the horror genre or a personal fan of King’s work is irrelevant. This is a book that should be on every writer’s bookshelf. This is part memoir/autobiography and part invaluable writing guide. Writer’s autobiographies are often fascinating not because they have led amazing lives (though some certainly have) but because good writers have a way of showing you the early experiences that fired their ambition and shaped their careers.
One thing that King and many other great writers dwell on is the importance of language. When interviewing writers, journalists often ask about plot, characters, ideas, setting, research. We rarely hear a question on how to actually put the words together. Often we assume that’s the easy bit, until we try to produce really great writing ourselves. Often we may think we have produced really great writing and it’s only when we look back on it, often after years of trying to perfect our craft, that we realize just how lame our early attempts were. If you’re a writer who feels your writing has improved significantly over the years, it probably has less to do with plot or character than it has to do with finally working out how to use language effectively.
If you're interested in this book you might like my recent post Ten Things Stephen King Taught Me About Writing.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way is subtitled ‘A Spiritual Path to Creativity’ but don’t be scared away if you don’t consider yourself ‘spiritual’ or even ‘creative’. There are important lessons to be learnt from this book for frustrated artists everywhere (it works well for writers but is aimed at anyone who wants to be more creative).
While this book is about creativity it’s also pretty practical. A weekly set of tasks in each chapter focuses on firing up that creative side. The author advises, for example, that you try writing a letter from yourself at eighty to your present day self.
“What would you tell yourself?” asks Ms Cameron. “What interests would you urge yourself to pursue? What dreams would you encourage?”
If this doesn’t inspire you to adjust your priorities and focus in on your creative goals, congratulations - you must already be on the right track.
Another task urges you to write down (without thinking too much) twenty things you enjoy doing. Then go through the list and put a date next to each thing indicating when you last did it. (Warning – if you’re like most us with a schedule full of work and family commitments some of the answers will shock even you). Not only does this re-focus you on what you really want to be doing with your time, but as a bonus you should find twenty themes for new pieces of writing.
There are some great quotes running down the side of each page. They can be applied to art, writing, creativity, and life itself. I like:
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
by Eddie Cantor
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
Many writing addicts share a common secondary and interdependent addiction – reading. A lot of writers would go so far as to say you can’t possibly write fluently unless you read constantly. Unless you’re a celebrity (in which case you can get published without ever reading any book, including your own) it pays to read if you want to be a published writer.
Most of us find that the more we write the more attention we pay to other writer’s work. When we read a particularly strong, striking or hilariously funny paragraph we go back, re-read and deconstruct the hell out of it to see how it was done and what we can learn from it. This book addresses the question of what and how to read, or more specifically how to absorb, apply and benefit from what you read. If you follow the advice in this book every piece of writing you read in future should make you a slightly better writer (including the badly written ones – there’s nothing as useful as learning what not to do). If you love books and want to write them, or indeed if you love magazine articles, poems or blogs and want to write them, you need this book.
Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal: How to Have a Great Life as a Freelance Writer by John Clausen
As the title suggests this is a somewhat irreverent look at the life of a freelance writer, but no less valuable (perhaps more so) just because the author doesn’t take his profession overly seriously.
“Well paying writing jobs are everywhere,” says John Clausen and while our own experiences may not always back that up, this book is full of advice that will at least maximise your chances of producing saleable writing and finding markets for it.
More than a how-to-write book, this covers everything “from getting organised to getting an attitude, finding and keeping an ‘anchor client’, earning an honest buck, spending it smartly and overcoming unexpected challenges.”
Most writers come across “unexpected challenges” in their attempts to get published, although I’ve never heard anyone use such a polite phrase to refer to them.
Writing for the Web by Crawford Kilian
Sometimes I read things on the web that might have worked well in print but just aren’t structured quite right for the average fast surfing, time starved, attention span challenged internet user. I also read copy that is too much a product of the internet generation, that has been published, presumably for general public consumption, but that reads like a text message to a close friend complete with incomprehensible grammar, obscure abbreviations and private jokes.
This book gives some good advice, not only on where and how to publish your work but how to actually write appropriately for the web, covering issues such as breaking “print-based writing habits that don’t work with hypertext” and editing your material so it works for the international audience that are now so accessible through the internet, but can often alienated by a writing style that just doesn’t translate.
The Joy of Writing by Pierre Berton
This book not only addresses the mechanics of writing we all need to know (researching, writing, rewriting) but is full of personal anecdotes, copies of typewritten manuscripts, and examples of some of the criticisms this best selling author has received over the years. He also includes examples of his early attempts at journalism and excerpts of various letters written to him by would-be authors (often making it painfully plain exactly why they have not been published yet!).
Berton also lists his own personal thirty rules for up-and-coming writers, including much obvious but valuable advice such as “Start small.” “Read some good stuff before you begin.” “Don’t write down to your readers.” and “Suck up to your editor.”
Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
A great book for both beginners who don’t know where to start, (or go, or finish) and more experienced writers who may have completed a few good stories but have got stuck and just really need to review the basics.
This book looks at techniques for creating “an opening that works”, a middle that ”won’t get you unstuck” and a “climax that does”. Excellent for short story writers, useful for writers of narrative non-fiction, and essential for anyone launching into their first full-length novel. Kress also goes over some important points such as style and structure rules, how to introduce and develop characters, and how to revise your work effectively. There are some really useful practical writing exercises at the end of each chapter.
Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights by Jon Winokur
This is not Jon Winokur's only book on writer's and writing, but it is, in my opinion, his best. Although it doesn't set out to be a how-to book, a comprehensive reading will certainly give you tips on how to (and how not to) write, get published, find an agent and many other vital aspects of being a writer.
This is a wonderful, funny and inspiring collection of quotes and anecdotes from an eclectic group of writers, including everyone from P J O'Rourke to Raymond Chandler.
The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz
An excellent coffee table book for any writer, or anyone interested in writers and how they create their art. This book is full of stylish back and white photos of writers at their “desks”. As Richard Ford suggests “my desk is more of a concept than a thing” but these portraits of writers at work are wonderfully intimate and somehow almost universally inspiring.
Each photograph is accompanied by a paragraph about the writer’s work, routines, rituals and writing history. A fascinating glance into the lives of the people I believe should be the true “celebrities”. The people who, over the years, have proved they actually have the talent to inspire and communicate and the determination to do so in the face of countless rejections, low advances, and ruthless reviews.
Read more book reviews for writers at my book blog, A Well-Read Woman or check out my online book store. It's full of books for writers, and it's powered by Amazon so you can shop from it using your regular Amazon account.
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