All good writers know the best way to improve your writing is to write. And the second best way?
Study the craft.
Reading books can take you further — and faster — on your journey toward becoming a better writer. For a few dollars and a few hours of your time, you can absorb the strategies and “secret sauce” of the master storytellers.
I’ve read dozens of books on writing, and I’m always searching for titles that I haven’t read yet, or new ones that touch on a topic I’m diving deep on at the moment. While I’m not a novelist, I also enjoy reading books about writing fiction because I believe there’s much that nonfiction writers can learn from the craft of fiction.
Here’s a handful of writing-craft books from my shelf (and the Kindle app on my iPhone) that I believe can help you become a better writer:
1. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
William Zinsser was a journalist, author, and writing instructor at Yale. His book On Writing Well is a classic among writers and has sold nearly 1.5 million copies in the 40 years since it was published. It’s one of the first books I recommend to anyone seeking to improve their writing. Zinsser packs several practical lessons into his book, including this gem:
All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative — good old-fashioned storytelling — is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug.
2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
About a dozen years ago, mega-best-selling author Stephen King wrote a book about the craft of writing that became an instant bestseller: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. After telling the story of how he became the writer he is today, King devotes the second half of the book to sharing his writing strategies, like his suggestion that you should write for your “Ideal Reader”:
I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha…. Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader.
3. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips
Ernest Hemingway never codified his insights on writing into a book, but he did share his thinking on the topic in commissioned articles; letters to his agents, publishers, and friends; and through his novels. Ernest Hemingway on Writing is a collection of his insights on the craft of writing, and includes several practical and inspiring tips.
You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not to just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it.
4. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
The prolific science-fiction author Ray Bradbury collected the lessons he had learned about the craft during his long and successful career in Zen in the Art of Writing. Bradbury’s advice?
If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.
5. Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Verlyn Klinkenborg is an author and creative writing instructor at Yale. In the preface to Several Short Sentences About Writing, he argues that “most of the received wisdom about how writing works is not only wrong but harmful”, and then devotes the rest of the book to smashing assumptions and correcting misconceptions about the craft.
Many people assume there’s a correlation between sentence length and the sophistication or complexity of an idea or thought — even intelligence generally. There isn’t…. You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences.
6. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
All writers struggle with writer’s block in one form or another, but Steven Pressfield named the enemy and outlined a strategy for conquering it in The War of Art, the perennially best-selling guide for writers and other creative professionals. In the first part of the book he introduces what he calls “Resistance” — the force within us that conspires to prevent us from fulfilling our creative pursuits — and then spends the next two sections sharing his solutions for overcoming it.
Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.
7. Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is and What You Can Do About It, by Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield recently returned to writing about writing with a brand-new book, Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t. It’s a no-nonsense guide to writing stories that people will want to read. While the bulk of the book addresses how to write fiction, Pressfield shows how the same principles of writing good stories can apply to writing nonfiction.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your sh*t, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs — the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored?
8. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity is the classic book by author and creativity coach Julia Cameron in which she introduces what she calls “Morning pages.” Morning pages is a powerful stream of consciousness writing exercise that is not intended to yield publishable material, but which can help you get your pen moving and your thoughts flowing — even if you never intend to share them with the rest of the world. Morning pages is a powerful weapon in the battle against Pressfield’s “Resistance.”
The morning pages will teach you to stop judging and just let yourself write. So what if you’re tired, crabby, distracted, stressed? Your artist is a child and it needs to be fed. Morning pages feed your artist child. So write your morning pages.
What books have you read that improved your writing? Share your suggestions in the comments!
Listen in on conversations with great writers on my podcast, Write With Impact, which you can subscribe to on iTunes. Sign-up for my newsletter to keep up with my latest podcast episodes and articles. A version of this article also appeared on Inc.com, where I write about professional development, marketing, and writing.