The 9 Best Books on Writing That’ll Help You Master Your Craft
You have several half-read books on writing stacked up on your nightstand, several more squirreled away in a desk drawer and a dozen more on book recommendations your Amazon wish list.
You scrutinize all the books that “customers also bought” looking for those one-of-a-kind books that will transform you into a great writer that clients and readers adore. You jump “inside the book” to read the table of contents and credits and page through the free preview.
Books have an uncanny power to teach us, to transport us, to move us light years beyond our ordinary lives. If we could only find the right books, the tried-and-true books written by trusted masters. So we keep looking.
And once in a while you find a writing book that speaks to your heart and gets to the core of what you’re struggling with right now. It changes you. It changes your writing. It changes your life.
The 3 Critical Disciplines You Need to Develop as a Writer
1. Brutal Honesty
First, you need to cultivate a brutal, raw honesty. You need to accept that not every power word, every emotional thought, every first draft, every adjective-loaded sentence that flows from your hot fingertips is precious.
I mentored many rookie reporters who had a cocky, almost swaggering pride at where their writing skills landed them out of college. A few weeks in a newsroom with a couple of crusty copyeditors exploded that attitude. Then, they were ready to listen.
Objectively, unemotionally and dispassionately analyzing your writing is one of the most valuable skills you can develop to further your writing opportunities. And as a side benefit, you’ll also be able to handle scathing criticism from ruthless editors.
2. Linguistic Appreciation
Good writing has a rhythm, that deliberate cadence the writer creates in your mind as you read. Marvel at the perfectly placed and exquisitely balanced use of illusion, surprise and metaphor, and crave to imitate it.
3. Insatiable Curiosity
Yes, writing is a solitary, emotional craft. And learning to improve our writing can feel like solitary confinement without guidance and reassurance. We can learn from teachers, from workshops, from books, but ultimately success is up to us, alone with our notepad or laptop.
10 Writing Books Every Writer Should Read
Yet, when confronted with the idea of listening to his audiobook (narrated by the author himself), I decided to buy it and see what this bestselling author has to say about the craft. I don’t really know why I bought it; it just caught my eye.
I wasn’t expecting to learn as much as I did from his book. If you’ve read some of my articles on this site, you will have surely seen I quote him every two articles. On Writing is that good.
Best Quotes from On Writing
Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.
Perfect For: Any type of writer—fiction or nonfiction—who’s struggling to find their muse, who wants to know what it feels like to be a writer, and who wants to master the writing skills to become better at their craft.
The Elements of Style
Originally written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 (yes, over one hundred years ago!), and edited in 1959 by E.B. White, this book is as useful today as it was back in the analog days of writing.
These rules continue to be pretty basic, but since they relate to the style of composition, they affect the way you write with more power than the previous grammar rules from the first section.
Coming from an era where writing wasn’t as simple as opening a laptop and writing anything you like knowing that you can erase what you write in one swoop, the authors emphasize the importance of clarity.
In the first section of the two mentioned, the authors talk about how to use parentheses, hyphens, and references—all highly technical concepts but still useful for anyone who wants to know the “standard” way of using those elements of writing.
In the second of the two, one of the largest of the book, the authors take a dictionary-like approach, talking about common homophones, homographs, and other commonly misused expressions. This section is meant to be used mostly as a reference point than as a tool for learning.
The final section, “An Approach to Style (with A List of Reminders)” minds itself on different writing style recommendations. I’ve found this section to be the most useful as it focuses on the actual elements of style.
Named by Time as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923, there’s hardly any better book to start working on your writing skills than with The Elements of Style. Do yourself — and your readers — a favor, and pick a copy.
Best Quotes from The Elements of Style
The use of language begins with imitation. […] Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead of admiring what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.
Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating. When writing with a computer, you must guard against wordiness. The click and flow of a word processor can be seductive, and you may find yourself adding a few unnecessary words or even a whole passage just to experience the pleasure of running your fingers over the keyboard and watching your words appear on the screen. It is always a good idea to reread your writing later and ruthlessly delete the excess.