Best Books to Improve Writing Skills
Becoming a Better Writer
If you are trying to improve your writing skills and become the best writer you can be there are a few books that can help you on your quest. Good writers aren’t born; they’re made. While it’s true that some people have a greater aptitude for writing than others, most people who are willing to work hard can become a writer. If you put in the time and effort you will see the rewards.
I can tell you this because I walked that path myself. Until only a few years ago I never gave any thought to writing, or the possibility that I could make any money at it. For whatever reason (maybe it was something I ate) I decided one day I wanted to write a novel. I had an idea for the plot in my mind, but otherwise I had no idea whatsoever where to start. Even though I considered myself reasonably intelligent, I simply did not have the knowledge to properly organize a manuscript.
Furthermore, I was very confused about grammar, style and some of the other rules of the game. So, I decided to do what I always did when I needed to learn something new: I found some good books on the subject.
In this article you’ll find three of the books that helped me tremendously when trying to sort it all out as a beginning writer. Today, whether I'm writing fiction or articles for websites, I still rely on the information in those books to guide me along.
I’ve also included a bonus book at the end, a title that I’ve found very inspirational. I believe if you soak up the knowledge in these books you’ll have built a solid foundation for your writing career and be well on your way.
1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
For any writer, of any style or genre, this is the #1 book you need to have in your possession. Read it from cover to cover, and reference it until it’s dog-eared and ready to fall apart at the binding. You’ll probably even end up memorizing certain parts of it, and years down the road when you’re trying to edit something you’ve written you’ll find your mind drifting back to the advice in this book.
The original edition was written in 1918 by William Strunk, a university professor who intended it as a reference for his students. After his death, one of his students named E.B. White revised and built upon Strunk’s manuscript to create the book we have today.
The Elements of Style covers rules of usage, composition and style. You know how everybody says that before you can break the rules you have to know what they are? Well, those rules are all in here.
You may end up disagreeing with some of the points as you grow as a writer, but there is no substitute for the lessons presented here. Consider it like writing boot camp.
For me, The Elements of Style was a tremendous help when it came to understanding the mechanics of writing, and answering all those little questions that pop up when it comes to the rules of the craft. In my opinion this is a book all new writers should have in their possession.
2. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
The zero tolerance approach to punctuation! If you struggle with punctuation and grammar, this book will set you straight, and make you laugh along the way. Ms. Truss’s seemingly absolute disdain for the grammatically impaired is what led to the creation of this now-legendary book. Ms. Truss covers commas, apostrophes and all other manner of punctuation, and also delves into the type of grammatical confusion poor punctuation can cause.
Her title is the perfect example, as she illustrates with a joke. To paraphrase: A panda walks into a restaurant and orders a sandwich. When he’s done eating he pulls out a pistol and shoots the waiter, then gets up and walks out. As the panda is leaving, one of the staff says, “Hey, buddy, what do you think you’re doing?” The panda replies, “I’m a panda. Look it up.” The waiter pulls out a badly punctuated wildlife manual and reads: Panda: Large black-and-white bear-like mammal. native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
Ms. Truss gets her point across throughout the book using humorous and sometimes startling anecdotes. You’ll enjoy the read and learn a whole lot, but one word of caution: The book is written with a British tilt (even the American release), so for American readers be sure to understand that there a few slight variances in punctuation usage.
Struggle with grammar? This book will get on you on the right track, and its a whole lot less boring than those English classes you remember from school.
3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
On Writing is an interesting book. Whether you like Stephen King’s work or not (and I don’t particularly) you’ll find countless nuggets of priceless information in here, coming at you from a bunch of different angles. The information is especially useful for fiction writers, but writers of any discipline will benefit from King’s advice.
The first section describes King’s ascent as a novelist, from his struggles as a young writer trying to get short stories published to make ends meet, up to his first big break and afterward. This part is inspirational if nothing else, even though it really seems like those days of fiction writers pounding out short stories until they hit it big with a novel are long gone.
In the next section, King offers advice on the art of writing. In many cases it’s important to weigh what he says against your own strengths and weaknesses. And it’s always important to understand that you are a writer who is still trying to find your way, and he is, you know, Stephen King. He has learned what works best for him over decades, and the same advice may or may not work for you. Still, it’s interesting to peek into the mind of one of the literary giants of our time and see what makes him tick.
On Writing helped me to get a wider view of what kind of writer I wanted to be, and to understand that there is more than one way to make a living with words.
Bonus: The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino
This is not a book about writing, but more like a book about life. It’s a short little manuscript with some big lessons about discipline, belief in yourself, positive thinking and goal setting.
The Greatest Salesman in the World tells the story of a poor young man living at the time of Christ who wishes to marry a girl he thinks is unattainable. The only way to be worthy of her, he thinks, is to become rich and successful, the greatest salesman in the world. He turns to his boss, a wealthy man, for advice, and eventually receives lessons in the form of 10 scrolls.
According to the book, the protagonist (and you) is supposed to read each scroll for thirty days and practice the lessons. That means it ought to take you ten months minimum to get through the book.
In reality, it’s smart to read through the whole book at least once before practicing the daily reading thing. But the lessons in the scrolls are very powerful, aimed at eliminating the bad habits that hold you back, and enforcing the good habits that will help you succeed.
There are religious overtones that may appeal to Christians, and the story itself is somewhat entertaining. But the plot almost isn't the point. As a writer, or no matter what you do, the information here will help achieve your goals.
If you have hopes and aspirations but need a little push to get you going you'll want to spend some time with this inspiring book.
Will You Ever be a Perfect Writer?
If you read all of the above books from cover to cover will you be a great writer? Maybe, or maybe not. But none of us are ever perfect, and we will always make mistakes. Especially if you write online or self-publish, you have no editor to help you. You are working without a net, and you are bound to falter here and there.
I can tell you that reading the books in this article helped me to establish what I think are the three most important attributes of a writer, which will eventually lead to success. They are:
- Be Prolific: Make writing a priority. Aim to write every day, or almost every day. Find ways to manage your time so you can get work done, and produce more finished material. Wake up early and write for an hour before work or school, or stay up late and write for an hour before bed. Write on your smartphone during your lunch period. If this is what you really want to do, find a way.
- Be obsessive: Grammatical errors, misplaced punctuation and typos are not okay. Ever. Do I still make these mistakes? Of course! There are probably some in this very article! But I know I can never be okay with them, and whenever I find them they need to be fixed. Relentlessly hunt down your weaknesses (mine does tend to be proofreading) and do your best to make up for them.
- Always be willing to learn: Whether you write online or write novels, never assume you have it all figured out. Actively seek out new information that can make you a better writer. Improve your time management skills or your business knowledge. This is time well invested.
I figure if I can keep working on those three things I’ll continue to improve as writer. Hopefully these idea will help you too, and you’ll find the books listed above as indispensable as I have.
Thanks for reading, and good luck!