9 of the Best Books on Writing You’ll Want to Read ASAP

9 of the Best Books on Writing You’ll Want to Read ASAP

Most writers will tell you that the number-one thing you can do to improve your writing prowess is to read. A lot.

Read anything and everything you can find, and you’ll become a better writer, according to conventional wisdom.

While you’re packing your brain with knowledge, why not include a few writing-focused books on your reading list? The titles below can add a lot to any writer’s library — from helping you hone your craft to finding inspiration and determining where to pitch your ideas.

1. On Writing by Stephen King

Part memoir, part guidebook, Stephen King’s On Writing will appeal even to those who avoid King’s renowned horror-packed tales. In this book, King discusses how he came to be the writer we know today.

He also includes a toolkit packed with tips for beginners and a reading list with a few of his own favorites. Written in his signature style, this witty read will keep you entertained — and soaking up some great ideas.

2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is known as one of the masters, and her book Bird by Bird is an essential part of any writer’s toolbox. In this work, she shares herself and her craft with readers, including anecdotes that tie the pieces together into all-around great writing.

The title Bird by Bird refers to instructions provided to a Lamott’s brother, who was not sure how to start writing a school report about birds. The task seemed insurmountable. Her father’s advice was simply to take it “one bird at a time.”

That wisdom works far beyond academic reports.

3. The Writing Life  by Annie Dillard

The author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek shares her words of wisdom in this handy book where she discusses the difficulties of writing. She writes about how hard it is to write and how sometimes it is necessary to destroy and paragraphs, phrases, and words to re-form them as something even better.

She doesn’t pull punches about how difficult writing can be, which is valuable for any writer to hear: Even the most well-regarded pros struggle sometimes. Her book shares this wisdom in enjoyable prose.

4. Writer’s Market edited by Robert Lee Brewer

Long hailed as essential to any writer’s bookshelf, Writer’s Market helps aspiring writers become published ones.

This weighty tome includes articles about writing as well as interviews with authors, editors, and publishers, but the meat of this book is the listings. It contains hundreds of pages of suggested markets for nonfiction writers as well as those looking to sell short stories, including details for how to pitch your work.

Writer’s Market is updated annually and contains incredibly valuable tips — such as what percentage of a magazine’s stories are written by freelancers — that are a huge aid for any writer looking to break into a new market.

books on writing

5. On Writing Well by William Zinsser

This classic book targets nonfiction writers and includes writing tips as well as the fundamentals of craft. Zinsser discusses many forms of writing, from interviewing and telling stories about people to writing about travel. He even delves into business writing, art criticism, and sharing pieces about family via the art of personal memoir.

Whatever kind of writing you’re into, Zinsser will have at least a few tips for you.

6. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

For years, writing teachers have assigned The Elements of Style to their students. Brushing up on the basics from time to time is critical for continually developing your skills, and this book contains simple truths that every writer needs to know.

From information on grammar and style to tips for sorting out the writing clutter, this classic is an essential add-on to any writer’s bookshelf.

7. How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz

While many books on this list are aimed at nonfiction writers, this one is especially for those who dream up their own stories to tell. If anyone is qualified to tell people how to write bestselling fiction, it’s prolific author Dean Koontz, who’s sold more 450 million copies of his books — 14 of which have topped the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.

This book was written in 1981 and is out of print, but has valuable insight for writers who manage to snag a copy (check the library!).

8. The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work edited by Marie Arana

This book contains columns from a decade of The Washington Post’s “Writing Life” column, with contributors as diverse as Jimmy Carter, Joyce Carol Oates, and Carl Sagan. Essays are paired along with biographical information about each author, helping readers learn more about these skilled contributors and their ideas on writing.

9. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

From time to time, every writer suffers from burnout or writer’s block. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way focuses on the craft of writing and training yourself to be even more creative. She offers valuable techniques like starting each morning with a free-writing exercise, and exploring one subject per week that you find fascinating.

Her tips to reinvigorate the creative juices are a huge help to any kind of writer.

Looking for even more books to read about writing? Check out these recommendations from readers of The Write Life.

What books about writing would you add to this list?

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27 comments

  • I agree with putting Stephen King’s book on top. The best. But Elements of Style is outdated and prissy, too limiting, given today’s fluctuating stylistic rules. Some books don’t even use quotation marks anymore (See A Little Life). Major linguistic authorities, such as The New York Times, frequently begin sentences with a conjunction (and, but, etc.).
    The important linguistic rules are to be found in the principles of linguistics, and neither linguistics nor grammar are taught these days, leading to students who are unable to identify the subject and verb of a sentence, suggesting that they are relying solely on their ear to construct sentences, and when they come up with an awkward one, they don’t know how to fix it.

    • Donna Barker says:

      Ann Anderson Evans – that was my thought exactly! EVERY list has The Elements of Style as a ‘must read” and I wondered, “When can we drop that outdated book from these lists?”

    • Wendy says:

      They say before you can break the rules, you first have to learn them. Yes, there are valid reasons to have sentences starting with a conjunction. And sentence fragments.

      Should grade school teachers stop telling kids to write in whole sentences?

      It’s like riding a bicycle: training wheels keep you upright, but advanced riders may lean over almost to the horizontal. Do you take the training wheels away from the beginner because staying upright isn’t a “rule” for riding bicycles? Or do you accept that they’re good for teaching “upright riding” and know that there’s an advanced form that some people employ that doesn’t use it?

      Struck and White is basic grammar in an excellent example of minimalist writing. Stop judging it through the filter of “freestyle grammar.”

  • Liz Adamshick says:

    Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. For courage and liberation in the writing process…

  • Karen says:

    I’m reading, Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orlando. I struggle with starting. Great at organizing, studying all for the sake of writing/art, but that’s where the roadblock hits. Trying to figure out what keeps me from pursuing; what fears are holding me back from making my passions a reality. ~Sigh
    Thanks for this list! A valuable resource. After this book, I have your numbers one and two already purchased and ready to read next!

  • Sally Crossley says:

    At the top of the list should be John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction followed by On Becoming a Novelist. Also Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice and Frederick Busch’s A Dangerous Profession. Anne Lamott is great, I agree, but I’m less enthused about Stephen King and Natalie Goldberg (although I do sometimes use her when teaching creative writing to HS students).

  • Rachel Nichols says:

    I am not sure it belongs at the top, but I’m reading WordWork by Bruce Holland Rogers. It contains a lot of practical advice for writers that other sources usually don’t even touch on. Why it might be good to quit your day job sometimes, writing with a short attention span, overcoming writer’s block even if it doesn’t exist, and getting along with a non-writing spouse.

  • Pat Bowden says:

    A marvellous book a for fiction writers is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. I borrowed it from my local library twice before deciding to buy my own copy.

  • Leanne Sowul says:

    I’ve read most of these, but never heard of the Dean Koontz book- I’m definitely going to be looking for that in my local library. I also like A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld- it has great advice for how to create a writing career that lasts for the long haul.

  • Sesselja says:

    I’m not a King fan, but his ‘On Writing’ is one of the few writing books I have read several times.

    The collection of The Paris Review Interviews is also a great read when you want to be inspired by the great writers gone before you.

  • Sue Duris says:

    You put my two favorite books as bookends – Stephen King and Julia Cameron. Bravo. My only suggestion is to consider Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes as a Part II of this post.

  • I have read almost all of the books listed except Dean Koontz, i have quoted,William Zinsser in one of my own book, “A working Business Plan : How to write a working Business plan”. William is a kind of a writer every upcoming writer, will wish to be associated with or to be a role model to them, while pursuing a writing career. I can add my own on your list, you may like if you get a digital copy, “How to write Well” on amazon, Bublish, and as audio on ACX.com. I love to read Dean Koontz for the first time, but i don’t know if i can get a copy of any of his writings on my local library, or maybe i will go to online stores. Thank a lot Kristen for this information and be blessed.

  • Chris Morton says:

    I highly recommend Zinsser to all of the aspiring B2B/B2C content authors I mentor while editing.

    For someone who is looking for more, there is a lot for me to quote in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style ~ The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. In it he debunks a lot of Strunk & White.

  • Pam Terrell says:

    I recently read, “Your Book Starts Here”, by Mary Carroll Moore and found it extremely helpful!
    http://www.marycarrollmoore.com/ybsh.html

  • I would also recommend “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury. This book I go back to time and again and am more inspired each time. I even use lots of the ideas for teaching my fourth grade class.

    I also always love rereading Stephen King’s “On Writing.”

  • Ann L. Coker says:

    I agree with the cover of the 2nd edition of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White: “It’s as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility” (The New York Times). I keep it alongside The AP Stylebook for reference. To your list I would add Writing for the Soul by Jerry Jenkins; The Rock that is Higher – Story as Truth by Madeleine L’Engle; Shimmering Images, a little guide for writing memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton; and the book I’m currently reading and finding practical: A Step in the Write Direction by Donna Clark Goodrich. I also appreciate the Bonus Section – Writer’s Helps (by good authors) in The Christian Writer’s Market Guide.

  • Shannon says:

    Don’t know how you could have left this classic off the list
    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44905.Writing_Down_the_Bones

  • Tanya Bird says:

    I agree with Stephen King’s book at number one. Like others here, I am not a King fan, but I felt incredibly motivated after finishing his book. It also helped me develop a much-needed thicker skin when it comes to dealing with rejection.

    To that list I would add Kate Grenville’s ‘The Writing Book’. The exercises forced me to write in ways I would not have experimented with otherwise.

  • Felicia says:

    I read that Dean Koontz did not want to re-release “How to Write Bestselling Fiction” because he felt it was outdated. Seems he may do an updated version!

    I think we should encourage him to do it!

  • When I was just starting to write and stood gazing at the shelves of books on writing at Barnes & Noble, a man said to me that I should own three books: William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” (for writing tips), Lisa Collier-Cool’s “How to Write Irresistible Query Letters” (in case I wanted to get published), and William Safire’s “Good Advice on Writing” (to know that many writers have opinions, but they seldom have a consensus). My library’s catalog had this to say about Safire: There is no wittier, more amiable or more astute word maven than Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire. For many people, the first item on the agenda for Sunday morning is to sit down and read Safire’s “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine….Each of his books on language is a classic, to be read, re-read and fought over. Safire is the beloved, slightly crotchety guru of contemporary vocabulary, speech, language, usage and writing….Fans, critics and fellow language mavens eagerly await his books on language.

    • Eva Marcel says:

      Thank you to all of you and Merry Holidays,
      I love linguistics and grammar, so I read the Elements of Style and carried it with me, regardless of my “free prose” and “un-grammatical poetry”. I found it useful only on occasion. I bought the Writer’s Market for several Years, but never finished writing “The Novel”. A flash story and an anthology of poems have been accepted for submission, but I am not clear about the Publisher.
      The last book I read was Longman’s “Guide to Fiction Writing for Beginners”. Then I purchased a Creative Game, Jamie Cat Callan’s “The Writer’s Toolbox”, we are going back a few years. It might be a good tool for those who might be going through a “block” of creative ideas, but not for everybody.
      I am tempted to buy Zinsser’s “On writing Well” and Sifire’s “Good Advice”, having found these two books recommended consistently across the 7 websites I visited tonight. However, this is the first one on which I post, as I am not a published writer but a beginner.
      In my boxes I have folders of an unfinished novel and a memoir, articles ranging from travel notes to history to cooking, some research papers, poems… and not enough time to type it all. In the incredibly fascinating task of translating what I have written (English is my 4th language), I found that English is my favorite language for writing poetry. It is also the language I use in prose, though at time “stuck” in dialogue; hence, I have spent too much time on one page and realized that I might have a little O.C.D.
      Obviously, I am all over the places and tend to write at length, not familiar with how to blog or how to use the tools on the web.
      A recommendation to those who might have similar technical impairments is to sign up for Tweeter. It has been a great learning tool in helping me to summarize a thought in about 30 words, albeit challenging.
      This brings me to perhaps an unrelated thread, as it pertains to e-readers and publishing in that format. Is there any “how to” interactive computer program made for writers who are not familiare with the digital media and who are out of touch with the current criteria? It applies to both articles and book submissions in digital form.
      Would you be interested if in my research I find some resources? In my personal situation, it would have to be a program that begins with “do”, “re”, “me”?
      I am not interested in learning the name of the notes as I am in knowing the composition of the chords. It is my hope to combine all the elements and dramatic symbols to finally complete my piece. Perhaps it will gently move the heart of others like a beautiful moonlight sonata or energize a mind in a toccata and fuga. The anguish is in having the instruments and the lyrics, but not being able to complete or properly structure my compositions. My eyes are already to dry from half a century of weeping and I have no legacy other than a real drama in two acts, in which history is the chorus. Any advice?
      Soon moving again to Europe, so links to American Magazines and Publishers situated in Europe (United Europe) are also welcome.
      Thank you Ann for providing this forum

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