The Well, Writing

The Best Books on Writing

Are there any books regarding creative writing or the writing process that you personally recommend, and if so, why?

— Galen

To be honest, I don’t read a ton of books on craft. I go back and forth between thinking they’re a waste of time that I could be using to write and thinking that I already know most of what’s going to be in there. I have run across a few books that I’ve enjoyed and/or found helpful, so I’ll share those, plus a list of books I’d recommend in addition to process books.

First, of course, is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. While it doesn’t have anything to do with creativity, it’s a must-have for any writer. You can’t call yourself a writer if you don’t care about grammar and style. You just can’t. In a similar vein, I also enjoyed Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which is a more humorous, anecdotal approach to punctuation. Though, to be fair, for most of my punctuation and grammar questions, I just go to Grammar Girl.

How to Not Write Bad is a good piece by piece analysis of writing technique that’s worth checking out, and The Writer’s Journey is infinitely helpful if you’re going to write any kind of fiction. If you only get one book from this list, get that one.

While I’ve never read either of these in their entirety, I’ve heard enough good things to recommend Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’ve enjoyed the pieces I’ve read, and they’ve both been on my list forever to actually finish. Anne Lamott is just a wonderful, funny writer with lots of great insights into both writing and life.

As far as the writing life and process goes, Daily Rituals was a fun read, giving a few pages each to famous artists’ daily lives. It basically does away with the ethereal ideal of “the writer” and shows you that all the greats were just people. Weird, crazy talented people, but people nonetheless.

It’s not a book, but I’ve been told by multiple people to listen to the podcast Writing Excuses. It’s a couple famous writers talking about the craft, and from what I’ve listened to, it seems like a lot of fun.

Honestly, though, the best advice I can give you is to read books by people you want to write like. Then read books by people who are famous for being good writers. Then read a couple other random books in the genre you’re writing. Then read more books by good writers. Read “best of” collections. Find a Norton Anthology at a thrift store or library. Then try your hand at imitating those styles. Figure out what exactly it is about their writing that makes it work. Read literary analyses of books you adore. Immerse yourself in the world of books and good writing.

Here’s a (randomly ordered and by no means comprehensive) list of well-written books (covering a lot of genres) to get you started:

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson
Mort by Terry Pratchett
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A Girl I Knew” by J.D. Salinger
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Blues in Stereo” by Langston Hughes
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

If you still need more in the way of craft books, look for books with writing exercises, rather than just straight advice. While you can often find good tips on writing, advice books are going to be largely useless to you unless they’ve got an action component, are answering a specific question you have, or are just books about the creative mindset. Of course there are exceptions, but there’s no substitute for getting actual feedback on your writing from someone who knows what they’re talking about. It takes a very self-aware writer to glean good information from just reading books on craft. And, from my experience, creatives are some of the least self-aware people in existence.

At the expense of sounding like a hypocrite (since I have a blog dedicated to writing advice), I’ll leave you with one last thought: Don’t ever ever ever take writing advice from tumblr or Pinterest. Some of it is decent, but unless you’ve honed the ability to tell good writing advice from bad, your best bet is to just stay away entirely.

What are your favorite writing books, sites or podcasts? Let me know in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “The Best Books on Writing”

  1. So many good ones! Elements of Style, Grammar Girl, The Writer’s Journey, On Writing, and Writing Excuses. All the yes!!

    Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is on my list, and now so is How to Not Write Bad!

    Thank you for this! You do amazing work.

  2. I’m admittedly more into the worldbuilding side of things. With that in mind, some books I found useful are:

    – “13 Steps to Evil: How to Create Superbad Villains” (Sasha Black)
    – The [X] Thesaurus series (Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi)
    – Any of Mark Rosenfelder’s conlanging books or Construction Kit books

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