My Favorite Books on Writing

25 May

Writers should read.

That’s one of the mantras I preach to aspiring writers.

Writers should breathe in and gulp down books of all kinds. Novels, poetry, nonfiction, graphic novels, how-to guides, memoirs…anything and everything should find as spot on our bookshelves.

Among the types of books writers should read is a subset that you might not often think about, but which is incredibly beneficial to wordsmiths.

Writers should read books on writing.

Because, we can ALWAYS learn more about the craft.

Here, then, are some of my favorite books on writing. There are so many more out there (just go look on Amazon; the book choices are truly endless), but these are some that have meant the most to me over the years.

What are your favorites?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

This one of the best (and perhaps my favorite) books on writing you’ll ever find (and I don’t even read King’s fiction; I’m a scaredy cat, after all). It gives tons of practical advice for the aspiring writer, but is told through the lens of King’s fascinating start, career and perspective.

Entertainment Weekly gave it this review: “Long live the King. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.”

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

The classic handbook that covers everything from style and grammar and usage, Strunk and White’s book is one of the “bibles” every writer should have on his or her shelf.

The book’s new editions over the years have added new tips and guides, changing with the times and prescribing new advice for writers.

Time listed the book in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential books in American publishing, and poet Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss

  A more modern take on grammar and punctuation, this guide will have you laughing at the absurdities of the English language and make you want to be a much better practitioner in your writing.

Ever heard of the joke that tells the difference between “Let’s eat Grandma!” and “Let’s eat, Grandma!”? That’s exactly what you’re getting here…a fun guide to something that most people won’t consider “fun.”

Grammar is a necessary evil in a writer’s life; you might as well be good at it.

(As a side note, there is a wonderful picture book for children based on the book. It’s a great way to introduce grammar to the young ones.)

How to Write Bestselling Fiction, by Dean Koontz

Horror writer Koontz has sold more than 30 million copies of his own books, so I guess he should know something.

In this wonderfully-accessible and interesting guide, Koontz takes a practical, detailed approach to the art, craft, and business of novel writing. You’ll learn how to structure a story for greatest reader appeal, how to provide depth of characterization without slowing the pace, and how to recognize and use the sort of theme that is timely and appealing. Plus you’ll receive thorough instruction on other writing techniques as they apply to today’s novel, including background, viewpoint, scene setting, transitions, and dialogue. He also gives great insight into the business of writing (working with agents, publishers and so forth).

Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein

The subtitle says it all: “A master editor of some of the most successful writers of our century shares his craft techniques and strategies.”

Chapters include advice on everything from characterization to plotting to point of view to flashbacks to tension to literary values.

The book covers fiction and nonfiction, and discusses both the literary and practical aspects of writing and gettgn published.

It’s a world of information in one big book, and it’s excellent.

Writing down the Bones, by Natalie Goldsmith

This was one of the first books I read after I got my  degree in journalism and decided I wanted to live a life of writing, and it breathed into me a world of possibility and excitement. It’s Zen-like approach helped me realize that writing was more than just writing (and getting published); it’s almost a spiritual pursuit.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it includes exercises to get in touch with the writer inside of you.

Goldberg’s writing is humorous, human and poignant, and is filled with stories and advice that made me believe that “I could do this”…that “I can be a writer.”

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Lamott is one of my favorite writers; her essays speak with truth and authenticity, and her thoughts on faith are daring and on-the-mark.

Bird by Bird is her classic collection of writing about writing. Novelist Jerry Jenkins nails it on the head, I think, with this assessment: “It has you howling with laughter one minute and weeping the next as she recounts, with brutal honesty, the joys and travails of the writing life, single parenting, overcoming addiction, and coming to faith.”

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller

Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, which just happens to be one of my favorite books (if you haven’t read it…go, get it, NOW). and this memoir tells of the struggles he had after scoring success with it and other books–and finding his voice again. Subtitled, “What I learned by editing my life” (I sure do love that!), it recounts his views on storytelling and uses fascinating experiences and characters to tell his tale.

It also has some awesome quotes on writing, such as:

“Good stories don’t happen by accident, I learned. They are planned.”

“…people don’t live without a story, without a role to play.”

“The ambitions we have will become the stories we live.”

“We have to force ourselves to create these scenes. We have to get up off the couch and turn the television off, we have to blow up the inner-tubes and head to the river.

“A good storyteller doesn’t just tell a better story, though. He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too.”

“…one person’s story has the power to affect a million others.”

“Fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.”

Need more books to read to add to your list? (Because, let’s face it, I left a lot of other people’s favorites out. One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty? The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard? The Writer’s Way, by Julia Cameron? Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury?) I Googled “books on writing,” and here’s the big, long list I got back:


Happy reading…

and writing!!




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