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The Best Books on Writing - The Classics

Updated on September 7, 2013

The books on writing are my favorite and are classics

Scratch a writer and you'll find a best book on writing lurking somewhere under their skin. Writers, by their very nature, are readers. Readers, by their nature, tend to devour books on topics that pique their interest or feed their passions.William Zinsser's On Writing Well was on its way to becoming a classic when I began to gather the best books on writing. Today it's Stephen King's On Writing that inspires so many. Over the years my collection of books on writing well, on how to write, and on writers on writing grew to where it now fills nearly half of the 18 bookcases studding my walls.

Do I have a best book on writing? Well, let's just say I have several for various reasons. Here are a few books that I consider to be classic books on writing worthy to occupy any writer's bookshelf.

The Lively Art of Writing


I found this gem in a used bookstore years ago when it was out of print. It didn't take long for me to begin singing its praises. As most new writers, I had trouble switching from passive voice to active. If my critique group would have been writing with quill pens, my manuscripts would have looked like pincushions. Luckily the book is back in print and available to all.

While the book is written more for the student who has to write a paper or thesis, there are three or four chapters that are more than worth the price of the book. The chapter containing her detailed explanation of passive voice is gold. I had never read a better explanation. Best, she actually provides examples of when passive voice works. That is rare.

The Elements of Style

(4th Edition)

For more than fifty years, Strunk and White has been lauded as the writer's bible. So it was when I began and so it is today. If a budding writer simply digests the Strunk and White rules for good writing, he or she will be well on their way to learning how to write clearly and concisely.

My first writing instructor insisted we purchase this book and memorize it. Her editing always referenced the rules with notations straight from the Strunk and White rule in question. The rules remain as valid today as when they were first published. Yes, writers break rules all the time, but the good writers learn "the rules" so they understand how to break them successfully.

Strunk and White, is it still relevant today?

Why do you use Strunk and White? Do you recommend it?

Do you hate commas? - Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Talk about an instant sensation, this book achieved more press and higher sales than anyone could have imagined. The perfect book for a grammar-starved people.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
An instant classic, this is a must-have for every writer and a necessity for anyone comma-phobic.

Writing With Power:

Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process

This is another book that hails back to my first writing instructor and first class. She insisted we add this to our book list and hailed Elbow as one of the fantastic writing teachers of his era. First published in 1981, this is a new edition.

New writers learning how to start writing and mature writers searching for inspiration will find Elbow's approach appealing. His advice on freewriting is well worth the time and money spent on this book. Freewriting has remained one of the best tools in my writer's toolbox and it's well worth exploring this technique for all its worth.

Writing for Story:

Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction


Jon Franklin. What can I say about this writer and his book. Franklin is a Pulitzer-prize winning writer who makes nonfiction dance. Franklin incorporated fictional techniques into his nonfiction at a time when few made that effort. It served him well.

While the book's audience is clearly nonfiction writers, it would be a shame if fiction writers turned away without glancing through the pages. He is a master of fiction techniques. If you're a fiction writer who is having trouble with flashback sequences, you really need to read this book. Franklin gives the only thorough explanation of the dynamics of a flashback: how it works, why it works, when and where it fails. For that reason alone, this book belongs on every writer's bookshelf.

The Chicago Manual of Style:

The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers

(14th Edition)

Serious about writing and getting published? The Chicago Manual of Style is an excellent reference to have on hand. Most fiction houses use this as their house style book. I like the Chicago Manual of Style and, unless another style book is preferred by the publisher I'm writing for, this is the style guide I use.

You wouldn't think there'd be a lot of difference in style and grammar books, but there is. News organizations have their style bible, book publishers have theirs. College papers demand another one. Each has slight variations. The reason for these style books is mainly to achieve overall consistency within all the writing put out by that publishing venue. So if you plan to self-publish, choosing a style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style can help you produce consistent, clear writing. And they're great to have on hand to answer that niggling comma question that plagues every writer.

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition:

The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Did you think I'd forgotten William Zinsser and Stephen King? Of course not. Stephen King has pretty much dominated contemporary bestseller fiction for years. Whether you like his stories or not, there's a lot to learn. William Zinsser's writing reflects the inner teacher. His mission? To help others learn to "simplify your language and thereby find your humanity." Let's take a look at William Zinsser's book first.

Simplicity reigns supreme here, too. A proponent of the read-your-work-aloud school and if you haven't tried it, do. Zinsser deals with a wide swatch of writing and helps the writer stitch everything together in a readable, concise manner. Maybe you've dedicated your life to fiction. You can still learn a lot from William Zinsser. The book is worth pulling off the shelf.

On Writing:

10th Anniversary Edition:

A Memoir of the Craft

It's an autobiography. No, it's a book on how to write. Not exactly, it's Stephen King's highly praised book on writing that tops the gotta-have lists of most writers. If you want to get into the heart and mind of a writer, then this memoir is for you. Stephen King lets you peer into the workings of his mind as he discusses his writing life, his craft, and his books. Where does he get his ideas? Read this book to find out.

Everything has been written before.

More Resources on Writing and Writers


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