9 Books That Will Make You a Better Writer Just By Reading Them
Writing is hard. It’s practically designed to pull up every possible insecurity and neurotic tendency from deep inside you every time you compose a sentence. Being a writer is basically like being Jane from "The Yellow Wallpaper," in which a formerly sane and well-adjusted lady goes completely bonkers when confined to a room with nothing but her journal, her thoughts, and some truly fugly wallpaper. The only difference? For writers, the room you're confined to is your mind, the eerie wallpaper is the manuscript pages that haunt you, and instead of creeping smoothly along the wall, you’re creeping through the Internets, just to avoid that anxiety-ridden WIP.
Yes, writing is designed to scare the ever-loving hell out of everyone. Nobody likes it. Quite literally, nobody. As the ever-wise Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, I like having written.” As writing legend E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” As famed sports columnist Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” As regular person Maria Ribas said, “Writing is effing horrible.”
See? Nobody likes it.
So why do we push ourselves to the brink of insanity, poverty, and social mockery for it? As William H. Gass said, “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”
Sound like your kind of magic? Then drag yourself away from that long smooch around the wall — you shut-in, you — and come enter the minds of other writers. These books about the craft of writing will give you insight into the creative lives of other writers — because believe it or not, even the pros are sometimes driven to stark-raving lunacy by their work. You'll also get back-stage access into the mechanics of constructing powerful prose, a psych analysis of what type of whacky writer you are, and a master class on building an author platform. All without having to leave the house! YES.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Haven’t read a single writing craft book since undergrad? Start here. This classic does it all — the encouraging, the hard truths, the practical advice, the perspective, and the unavoidable reality that there is nothing easy or glamorous about being a writer. This is where you should start asking yourself the question: do you want to be published, or do you want to write? Do you want to be a writer because it sounds glitzy and exciting, or do you want to be a writer because you couldn't stop writing if you tried? (And extra credit if you also check out Small Victories, her newest book that dishes advice on writing and life.)
Most Memorable Advice: “The very first thing I tell my students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much to say and figure out.”
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Think a craft book can’t be a thrilling read? Pick up this memoir from the master of horror and get ready to get weird — in a good way, of course. On Writing is part master class on the mechanics of writing and part memoir of life as a writer. It's the perfect mix of practical advice and thank-god-it's-not-just-me anecdotes. King even offers a fascinating look into his near-fatal car accident in 1999 and how his writing was a huge impetus for his recovery. The moral? Writing is hard, but it can also save your life.
Most Memorable Advice: “...stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
If you only read one book on this list, read this one. Yes, even if you’re a fiction writer. This book is a classic guide for a reason, and you’ll soon find yourself clutching your tattered, underlined copy during your darkest moments of prose fatigue. It's a much needed antidote to the meaningless corporate-speak that clogs our poor brains, and it's also the perfect starting point for learning how to write simple, muscular prose.
Most Memorable Advice: “But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.”
Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
Got the simplicity thing down with Zinsser? Pick up Sin and Syntax next, and learn the right way to dress your sentences back up. Think of Constance Hale as William Zinsser’s rebellious sister, who is raring to show you just how fun it is to break the rules. As the back cover says, “...today’s writers need more spunk than Strunk...” and this is especially true in the world of online writing. This book is the kick in the pants you need to create snappy, voice-driven writing that doesn’t bore readers straight to their browser’s back button.
Most Memorable Advice: “True prose stylists carry on an impassioned, lifelong love affair with words, banishing bad words like so many banal suitors, burnishing the good ones till they shimmer. Be infatuated, be seduced, be obsessed.”
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
Ever wish you had an inside look into the world of publishing? Pick up this book, written by former executive editor at Doubleday and current literary agent, Betsy Lerner. This book is part therapy for the writer soul and part no-nonsense guide to the business side of getting published. You'll learn to categorize yourself as a writer archetype: are you an ambivalent writer, who has a new idea every day but can’t see them through? Are you the wicked child, the self-promoter, or the neurotic? Lerner also offers first-hand insight into what editors and agents want — and how to ballast yourself from inevitable rejection — so that it feels like you have your very own publishing pro talking you off the ledge. The most important thing Lerner wants to impart? Agents and editors are just as afflicted by the ups and downs of the business, and so they understand that success is as much about emotional fortitude as it is about strong writing.
Most Memorable Advice: “There is no stage of the writing process that doesn’t challenge every aspect of a writer’s personality. How well writers deal with those challenges can be critical to their survival.”
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
If the thought of sitting down to write fills you with anxiety and dread and the need to vomit a little, maybe you need some Zen in your life. Natalie Goldberg began doing sitting meditation in 1974 and studied Zen formally for many years, until one day her Zen master asked why she didn’t make writing, rather than meditation, her Zen practice. As she writes in the introduction, “This book ... is about using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane.” Writing as a source of sanity and calm, rather than stress and fear? Yes, please!
Most Memorable Advice: “When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner’s mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.”
Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected by Jessica Page Morrell
Jessica Page Morrell reads between the lines of rejection letters to tell you why editors and agents are really passing on your manuscript. In a sassy, get-your-ish-together way, she points out all the gaffes and goofs that are sinking your writing straight to the depths of the slush pile. This guide is perfect for troubleshooting a troublesome manuscript and figuring out exactly how to fix it — with hundreds of examples of cringe-worthy writing, you’ll also refine your ear for hearing the bad and revising down to the good.
Most Memorable Advice: “Dear Wanna Be a Published Writer: This isn’t a book about false promises or cheery rah-rahs. This book never claims that anyone can write a best seller or become a billionaire just by typing away, or even that writing is the greatest joy because, after all, we cannot forget about dancing, chocolate, and sex. Rather, it’s written by a Demon of Harsh Reality meant as a hefty dose of reality along with encouragement to keep trying, to keep learning. Because writing is a craft, and it can be learned. And as for any craft, we need to recognize our weaknesses before we can succeed, and often the period of mastery is preceded by some truly awful attempts.”
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Do you ever lie awake at night, wondering why you didn’t spend even 30 minutes on your WIP that day? What’s holding you back? Well, YOU are. This book helps you face down the naysayer within, the internal resistance that pulls you away from your most important work, so that you can develop creative discipline and actually finish that darn manuscript. Reach for this book both when you're facedown at your desk, paralyzed by the fear of typing a single letter, and when you're mindlessly Twitter-scrolling in a quest for "inspiration." Pull it together, champ, and get writing!
Most Memorable Advice: “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”
Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt
The former CEO and Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers gets honest about modern-day publishing: you need a platform. A strong author platform is essential for nonfiction, but fiction writers, you all aren't off the hook, either! Platform is becoming increasingly important for all types of books, and my guess is that platform will only matter more and more as the industry changes. So get ahead of the curve now and embrace your authorpreneurship with Hyatt's expert, step-by-step platform-building plan.
Most Memorable Advice: “I received an e-mail message a few days ago from an aspiring author trying to make a name for herself amidst her literally millions of competitors. The book-publishing world is one of the noisiest. ... She wrote, ‘Two respected agents have told me they loved my book and proposal and are willing to represent it, but not until I have social media followers numbering in the thousands. I find this bewildering: Doesn’t a good book stand on its own anymore? Are writers now doomed to spend the bulk of our workdays trawling for blog subscribers?’ The answer to the first question is no. A good product does not stand on its own anymore. It is foundational, but it is not enough. The answer to the second question is yes. You will need to be proactive about creating the who part of the equation.”
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