Dear writer, you were born with the ability to write spellbinding stories and hypnotic prose. But, as with any skill, you can become a better writer. Heck, so can I! No one ever masters writing, because you can always tweak and tighten your story or writing process.
There are two ways to improve your writing skills: Through trial and error or by following the advice of experienced writers. You'll do a bit of both, but it's always easier to avoid mistakes than it is to learn from them.
Here are 9 books written by writers and for writers to help you improve your writing skills. I dare you to come away from these books without getting better.
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
If there's one thing I know about Stephen King is that he hates adverbs. Whenever I'm tempted to insert an “ly” word into my prose, I feel like Stephen King is judging me.
That’s just one of the lessons I learned from On Writing, Stephen King’s memoir/masterclass. While no one truly “masters” writing, King has gotten pretty close. In this memoir, he shares his experience as a young and struggling writer. King also includes writing lessons that he’s learned along the way in a simple and casual manner. It reads like an older friend who’s sharing matter-of-fact advice.
On Writing is a glimpse into King’s writing practice. (He writes at least 2,000 words every day which, in three months, equates to a full-length manuscript. Aha! The secret to his prolificacy!)
2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Novelist and nonfiction writer Anne Lamott wrote one of the best writing guides of all time. The title Bird by Bird comes from the idea of creating a writing habit a little at a time, or bird by bird (you’ll understand the story in context upon reading the book). Lamott’s advice is to be fully yourself at this moment and to stop waiting for perfection to come.
To be successful as a writer, you must develop your own voice. Lamott gives instructions on how to do that: be vulnerable and be observant. Write what happens to you and be honest with the reader about your feelings. Your point of view is your voice.
Lamott also reminds us that the first draft is crap. We get better by continuing to write, even when it’s uncomfortable and unclear.
This guide is filled with optimism and encouragement and deserves a spot on your nightstand.
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3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
I majored in creative writing at my fine arts school, and on my first day there, my teacher threw a copy of this book on my desk and told me to eat it.
I didn’t take the advice literally (although The Elements of Style is a small book under 100 pages). I also didn’t take the advice to heart until years later when I realized that my creative writing would benefit from proper grammatical structure. You’ll find everything you need to write better within the pages of this 100-year-old book. It tells you what to look for (redundancy, passive voice, etc.) and how to eliminate those things from your writing.
Strunk & White (as it’s affectionately called) is a reference book, pure and simple. It’s great to read through once and to refer back to before you begin a round of editing.
4. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor, cognitive psychologist, linguist—and book author! He offers practical advice on how to write now, not 100 years ago. Does that mean that Strunk & White is ineffective? No. There’s room for both on your bookshelf. However, while Strunk & White offers timeless advice, The Sense of Style recognizes the evolving nature of language and how the digital age has impacted the way that we communicate ideas.
Here’s what Pinker says about why he decided to pen his own writing manual:
“My discomfort with the classic style manuals has convinced me that we need a writing guide for the twenty-first century. It's not that I have the desire, to say nothing of the ability, to supplant The Elements of Style. Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not. Strunk was born in 1869, and today's writers cannot base their craft exclusively on the advice of a man who developed his sense of style before the invention of the telephone (let alone the Internet), before the advent of modern linguistics and cognitive science, before the wave of informalization that swept the world in the second half of the twentieth century…”
Pinker challenges you to embrace what is instead of forcing your reader to conform to what was. He explores the scientific side of writing and offers a fascinating take on how to improve your own writing.
5. Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Writer. Poet. Book editor. Literary agent. Betsy Lerner has done it all and knows her way around the literary world. In Forest for the Trees, Lerner offers advice on how to navigate the world of publishing, from book conception to publication.
If you’re looking for motivation, you’ll find it here.
One key takeaway from Forest for the Trees is that your perseverance will determine your success. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but don’t let that stop you from pushing through.
This book is great for writers at every stage of their careers. It reminds you of what to focus on.
6. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer
Are you a visual learner and a sci-fi or fantasy writer? Check out Wonderbook. As its name suggests, Wonderbook is filled with creative illustrations that appeal to the visual thinker. In its pages, you’ll find advice on how to write fiction, including warm-up exercises to get into the creative zone. From plotting to world-building to characterization, Wonderbook shares everything that a new writer needs to know to create an immersive fantasy novel. Wonderbook also includes essays by and interviews of celebrated authors, such as George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman.
7. Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative by Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig is NSFW (not suitable for work). Let’s get that out of the way now. His writing is honest, brutal, funny, unflinching, and not for the faint of heart. If you clutch your pearls at four-letter words, avoid this book. But if you're ready to get powerful advice that never fails, you need to add Damn Fine Story to your Amazon cart right now.
Wendig is one of my favorites. He can deliver perennial literary truths through humor. It’s his straightforward, no B.S. style that really resonates with me.
Early on, Wendig says, “This is not a book of writing advice. It's not here to help make you a better writer. Rather, it's here to help you become a better storyteller.”
This is an important distinction for Wendig because he views writing as a delivery system and storytelling as the intersection between art and skill. It may be easy to write but it's hard to tell a fascinating story. You’ll find out how to do that through Damn Fine Story.
8. Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
Lisa Cron has written a step-by-step guide on how to create the inner core of your story. Instead of choosing between the sometimes false dichotomy of plotting and pantsing, Cron suggests that you explore characterization. By understanding your characters and their choices, you’re able to create a story that feels honest and character-driven.
While all writers can benefit from Story Genius, I do think certain writers will come away with more than others. For those who write in plot-centric genres, such as thrillers, fantasies, mysteries, and romances, Cron’s advice to focus on character may not be as useful, but it’s still worth the read.
9. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
Nonfiction writers, rejoice. We haven't forgotten you. While many of the books on this list can improve your writing, On Writing Well was penned with the nonfiction writer in mind.
Zinsser implores the nonfiction writer to craft smart pieces that don't underestimate the reader. Even though it’s nonfiction, it can still be riveting and unforgettable.
On Writing Well is divided into four sections:
- Principles (the need for simplicity, how to pick the right words, and tips for understanding the audience).
- Methods (how to craft engaging prose).
- Forms (how to think of nonfiction as literature and tips for interviewing one’s subjects, as well as specialized advice for different sub-genres of nonfiction, such as sports, travel, and humor).
- Attitudes (tips on how to find one’s voice).
My favorite advice from Zinsser: “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.”
Over to You
Do you have any favorite writing books or advice? Share it in the comments below.
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