What are the best books on writing you’ve ever read? There are so many books on writing that focus on the general craft, while others focus specifically on a genre type whether screenwriting, fiction, poetry, copywriting, or freelancing.
There are so many different styles of writing and while I’ve been as guilty as the next creative writer of looking down at commercial or freelance writing at one point, the truth is that for every type of writing a different set of skills are needed.
Great poets, fiction writers, ad writers, and web copy writers don’t have an order of “most cultural and talented” to “least.” The truth is, each style requires different skills that are equally unique and impressive. Stephen King talked about this snobbishness in his exceptional book (which yes, certainly makes this list) when he said:
“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” – Stephen King, On Writing
There are few ways to give yourself a better education as a writer than reading books specifically written about writing, for writers. So continue on to read this list. Share it with writer friends, post it on Facebook, share it with anyone you think can find some use out of this.
And as someone who studied to be a fiction writer his whole life and fell in love with poetry and making a living as a web copy writer – don’t underestimate other styles. You never know where your skills can take you with a little proper mentoring!
After decades of writing, devouring dozens (if not over 100) books on writing and improving as a writer in all genres, these are the 20 I think are absolute necessities for writers committed to getting better at their craft – no matter what genre that might be!
20 of the best writing books writers need to read
As a quick note before I start this list: each book will have a buy it button via Amazon underneath the picture so you can grab a copy of any that hit you – but this list is not in any particular order. The best writing books for copywriting are going to be different than the best books for poets or aspiring screenwriters. All of these genres take talent to do well, and all take different tools from the writer’s toolbox.
So depending who you are, some of these will be more valuable than others, but every single one has some amazing nuggets to all writers out there. Enjoy this list and please share with anyone you think might enjoy it!
Grammar, syntax, and style traditionally are not the most sexy part of writing, but they are crucial. This is true whether you want to write the next great American novel, make a living as a freelance writer, become a famous blogger, or even just release a fun series of stories on Kindle.
No matter how experienced you are as a writer, sometimes you need to back over basics. This isn’t about creating a brand new character or conquering a genre, but works as an important guide for writers at all levels.
What sets Elements of Style apart is the fact that this isn’t just another reminder or proper comma use or how to use proper syntax to avoid split infinitives.
While those types of topics are covered in depth, the book also talks about what makes writing clean and crisp versus convoluted – when more detail is better versus when a short and to the point sentence is the right tool to get it done. This is a reference guide that should be found on every writer’s desk.
Could there have been any doubt that Stephen King’s in-depth memoir on how he learned his craft would make the list? A combination of practical lessons, line by line examples, and life stories, the master of horror creates one of the finest writing how-to books that has ever been written.
This is one of the few non-fiction skills books I have read, and re-read, multiple times. No one doubts King’s ability to weave a story, something you get see first hand with his memoir sections of this book, but he truly shines as a teacher – imparting some of the best writing advice out there in a way that is easy to understand and then on full display through examples to follow.
If I could recommend only one book on writing, this would be the one. Whether you’re breaking into journalism, wanting to write better fiction, or even looking at specialized styles like copywriting or poetry, this is the closest to an all in one book as you can get for lessons that work for every type of writing out there.
If you want to write and haven’t read this one yet – grab a copy. It is absolutely a must read.
This is one of my all time favorite books when it comes to writing. Although I work with so many different types of writing, there’s no question that my heart has a special place for fiction. This is one of the best books on improving fiction writing that I have ever read.
If you’re not familiar with David Morrell, I guarantee you know his work. He is the father of the character Rambo, his first published book being the original First Blood (a prime example of the book being much better than the movie – even though I did enjoy the movie) and he was a professor at the famed University of Iowa program for 16 years while writing one international best selling novel after another.
In fact many consider him the father of modern action fiction. You can see the author’s strong teaching experience shine through chapter by chapter as lessons are taught, and this book is full of tips for fiction writers, in addition to exercises and advanced writing lessons to help fiction writers and budding fiction writers produce even better stories.
Originally published in 1992, The Artist’s Way is a remarkable book that is going to find a very strong and passionate audience. While not solely focused on writing, this is a book that should be read by anyone with interest in pursuing some creative or artistic endeavor.
While the sub-title “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” might scare some people off, it shouldn’t. There’s a heavy focus on the absolute necessity of planning, discipline, and persistence. That inspired fountain of creativity so many would-be artists are waiting for (and even those of us with thousands of pages under our belts can be guilty of this at times) exists – but it’s not just something on the surface. It’s like an oil well – you have to do the digging first, and you can’t let up.
There is something about the creative life whether you want to call it energy, spiritual, creative – some combination of all of these things that makes writing and the creative process really special. This book is a fantastic connection to that place, and to seeing discipline and hard consistent work as a blessing building towards success rather than hard work to be groaned at.
This might seem like a strange choice when discussing “the best books on writing for writers” but there are actually several good reasons to include this one on the list. Aside from the classic fiction (across multiple genres, no less) and poetry that Poe created, an in-depth study shows his absolute mastery of the English language in a way few (if any) writers have matched.
Even beyond this, Poe actually wrote extensively on the process of writing itself in his non-fiction work. Ever have a problem making your stories “flow?” Poe would call that missing out on the unity of effect. There is something powerful that takes place when you read about writing from one of the all time greats and then can immediately see theory put into practice in classic stories or poems.
There aren’t many writers you can point to as being one that every writer should study, and it’s even harder to find individuals who are still relevant in today’s writing world (let’s face it: Shakespeare is great but you’re not learning modern writing skills from his prose). Poe meets both, and his thoughts on writing well remain relevant to this day – not to mention the sheer entertainment value you will get from his creative work.
This writing book is certainly appropriately named, and Dorothea Brande’s work is one of the classics when it comes to learning the ins and outs of the craft of writing.
This is one of the more old school books on the list, as it was originally released all the way back in the 1930’s, yet much of the advice here is still relevant today. After all, there’s a reason this book still appears on so many published authors’ lists for being one every writer should read.
This book strongly disagrees with the old saying “Writers are born, not made,” and focuses on the work, discipline, and persistence needed to improve.
While it isn’t genre-specific, and therefore won’t have the same level of in-depth details that several more niche writing books will have, it nonetheless is one of those foundation level books for new writers and would-be writers that help the creative types keep their eye on the prize and reminds us all of the discipline it takes to master any craft – including the creative ones, like writing.
On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
Zinsser’s most well known work has sold over a million copies and has been helping non fiction writers improve their craft for decades. The strong emphasis on clear language devoid of flowery language or overly complex sentences set a standard that writers at all level can benefit from being reminded of.
Written in 1976, the emphasis on journalism and a healthy print market is obvious, but this doesn’t detract from information that remains relevant to this day.
The emphasis on clear and concise writing isn’t just set up with basic bullet points, but there are many examples of the most common mistakes given and clear examples of what the better option would be right there on the same page to make comparison learning easy. This is a great writing book for writers of creative non-fiction, journalists, and freelancer writers alike.
This book is a bit of an outlier compared to others, in large part because it is a work of fiction and not a “how to” manual of any kind. However, sometimes the best way to learn how to use language is to see it in action – and much in the same way modern writers can still learn from the mastery of the English language from the prose of Edgar Allan Poe, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is a prime example of an incredibly poetic use of language throughout multiple episodic short stories.
If you’re looking for a way to make your sentences pop a little more, to bring some missing flourish and flow, this is a great book to study.
Johnson’s use of language is poetic, and each story stands alone or it can be read as an episodic novel in this collection. In many ways this is a short fun read, showing how to weave words effectively without falling into the trap of being pretentious or using meaningless $50 words when the right string of $5 ones will do.
Personally this is also one of my favorite works, not just because of the story but because there are lines and even entire paragraphs that I can read over and over again.
What many people aren’t aware of is that Bradbury also wrote an incredibly insightful and powerful book on the creative process that goes into writing.
Zen in the Art of Writing is one of those classics that every writer and would-be writer should read, and it is a rarity among good writing books. While many writing books beat down the importance of process and revision to the point where all the magic and fun seems to be taken out of it, Bradbury goes in the other direction and celebrates the creative process, the magic that comes with writing.
While he absolutely embraces the need for hard work and discipline in developing story lines and pushing projects forward, he doesn’t lose the joy that comes from tackling a writing project and creating something new. This isn’t just a great book for any writer who has dreamed of creating that great American novel, but it’s also a wonderful book for writers who have burned out and need to get fired up about their craft once again.
As with many of the best books that frequently make the “best writing books for writers” list, Roy Peter Clark’s aptly titled Writing Tools is based out of years of experience in journalism. While traditional print journalism is struggling as a medium (to say the least), in many ways the lessons are even more valid now than ever before.
In a world where so much content is first draft without spellcheck blogging or many writers get so caught up in the newest trend they forget the basics, this non-fiction tome for writers offers a wide array of useful strategies.
This is a rather short work, as Clark takes his own advice and doesn’t fall for flowery language, doesn’t use 100 words when 10 will do, and doesn’t use $100 words when a series of easy to describe and easy to understand $1 words will do.
Writing Tools is a fantastic guide that works as an outstanding update to any writers who feel a little lost and know it is time to tighten up their prose once again.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
A great play on the classic warfare treatise The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art lives up to its name and the general theme. As romantic as the most creative parts of writing can be when the ideas are flowing and the words are just there, most of the time it’s a war against writer’s block.
This book not only deals with writing, but tackles the biggest myths many people believe about the creative process, leaves out chapters that many people consider romanticized, and focuses on the need to absolutely hammer through the many different excuses that your brain will throw up in an attempt to stop you.
If you struggle with procrastination, fight off writer’s block every session you sit down to work, or find your brain begging for reasons to get distracted from the task at hand, then this is the type of book that is going to be a powerful tool for you to help you bust through those roadblocks and reach your goals.
“Learn when to kill your babies” is advice that is heard in some form in MFA programs and writer’s workshops throughout the country, and it is some of the best (and hardest) advice that any creative writer can receive. No poet wants to cut their best line, no novelist wants to cut their best chapter, no screenwriter their best scene, but if it doesn’t fit, it needs to go for the better of the whole story.
The Writing Life understands the commitment it takes from artists who not only develop their talent to become excellent writers, but as the title suggests she talks about the commitment that has to become a lifestyle, the ridiculously hard work and consistent focus on improving that must be the center of a writer’s life.
It’s not for the faint of heart, yet Dillard’s writing on writing still manages to give these lessons while somehow keeping the elegance and ethereal feeling that has made her other works such smashing successes. This is one of those books you grab to learn the craft from a master.
So what can you learn from a book that was published all the way back in 1981? The answer: a surprising amount. Now finding this book is much more of a challenge since it hasn’t been re-printed, and undeniably some of the information is a bit antiquated since the publishing industry has changed immensely, but Koontz hits on a lot of points that are still fully relevant and often overlooked by fiction writers too caught up in technique of craft to actually write a good story people want to read. (NOTE: Koontz isn’t just a best selling horror novelist, he has made top best seller lists in multiple genres under multiple pen names prior even to publishing this work)
From writing incredible stories to getting back to basics, to looking at the actual business of publishing such as dealing with agents and editors and how to break into the fiction market as a novelist. This is someone who has done it for so many genres over so many decades, so he really and truly knows his stuff – it’s like getting mentored by one of the masters.
This was an incredible book when it was first released over a decade ago, and it actually is just as relevant today as it was then. This book isn’t so much for the fiction and creative writers, but it is all about the freelance side of writing and is still, in my opinion, the foremost book on that field.
If you’re trying to break through as a freelance writer, you need to buy this book above all the others. Jenna Glatzer goes over everything from finding under-served (but high paying) markets to giving several examples of good cold pitches, how to use resources others don’t to find great new niches (and publications), and most importantly: how to get paid what you’re worth.
This book on winning top writing assignments spends a lot of time on the most important skills in freelancing that get overlooked. How do you craft and incredible pitch? Who is always looking for more work? How do you create a portfolio that gets you top tier rates? You’ll find out all of this and more from this (still) amazing book on winning the best of the best in freelance writing assignments.
Every genre of writing is going to have at least one, for lack of a better word, “how-to” book that is the classic that all others are measured by in comparison.
When you’re looking at breaking into TV writing, Writing The Pilot by William Rabkin is that book. There are many different books on writing for television, and even many that focus only on one specific genre like dramas or sitcoms, but for anyone just starting out you need to read Rabkin’s book to learn the basis of how writing for TV is different than any other style – including play writing and screenwriting.
While there are many more books on TV writing that will follow, this one needs to be the foundation from which the rest of your self education on writing for TV comes from. Follow this book and who knows, maybe your pilot will be next!
Assuming you read the TV writing book that is one before this entry as the foundation of good books about writing for TV, this classic by Landau is the natural follow-up. There are few books that are recommended more often to those creative writers dreaming of their own prime time series than The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap.
This book has the clearest explanation of some of the most crucial components and considerations that need to be made when writing for TV including:
- Family dynamic in TV writing
- Creative process on TV writer teams
- Delineating the structures of over 50 TV shows
- Understanding detailed formatting
The piece by piece breakdown and analysis helps would be writers really get in on how they need to think differently to write within the boundaries of this genre and to master the stylistic tricks needed in order to shine.
Copywriting is one of the most profitable forms of writing out there. This isn’t mis-using the term to mean any type of web copy, but refers specifically to the process of writing sales letters and sales copy to specifically pitch a product.
Good copywriters can make hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars off of one letter, both in the form of down payments and a percentage of all sales made (the best copywriters get both).
Robert Bly’s tome on the art and science of copywriting is most famous for breaking through common myths about sales writing, and focusing on truly teaching the difference between features and benefits – a distinction that many argue is the difference between a mediocre sales letter and a truly great one.
Using a single No. 2 pencil as an example, Bly goes through descriptions, features, and benefits all on that one object to show exactly how this extremely specialized type of writing works and gives enough good information to even make a complete novice a moderately good copywriter by the end.
There are many books proclaiming to be great at teaching people how to write great sales copy, but writing fantastic copy and selling in person or via other mediums is completely different.
This book is one of the best because it goes over every single part of a good sales letter, discusses what makes them work versus the ones that fall short, and does so using clear and concise language that anyone can understand.
Too many “experts” work to prove their worth by making things more complicated than they really are or what they need to be. You don’t get any of that from Maria Veloso’s story on how she learned to write top notch copy from one of the best in the business – and took even the harshest criticism as another opportunity to learn even more about the craft.
Completely packed with great tips on learning to write for sales, this is one of the best books any freelance writer can own to become that much better at their craft and earn much more as a writer, as well.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Lamott’s stunning work doesn’t come across as what you would expect out of a great writing book. Lamott talks about writing through memories of her father giving advice to her brother, who was in desperate need of help to write a book report about birds.
The work then unfolds in a strange combination of solid writing advice, stories serving as metaphors or parables, and the memory of growing up. Lamott does something that very few writers manage to pull off: combines the magic of writing and the creative process, but also brings home the importance of taking the most flowery, poetic, and seemingly inspired prose and grinding it through edit after edit because that’s the only way to replace the fool’s gold of initial first draft writing with the refined gold that can only come from a manuscript conceived, worked on, and then edited and slaved over again and again until that true form comes out.
This writing book is a remarkable read, and goes to show what can happen in the creative pursuits when hard work, dedication to craft, and persistence are applied to a devoted student of the craft.
This is one of those books that is specifically aimed at freelance writers, and isn’t shy about making one point abundantly clear: many writers don’t make a good living.
In fact, many freelance writers fail to make even the lowest possible amount to scrape by as a full time writer. This book takes a look at the most common mistakes many writers make, dives into the need for cold calling new jobs and marketing your services, and delivers big time on looking at writing as an actual business.
This shift in attitude is critical to go from a writer as a hobbyist to a full time freelancer bringing in the big checks.
If you’re only interested in creative writing then this is a title you can skip, however for the freelance writer this is an absolute necessity to add to your “how to writing book” library.
There are many other great books on writing out there, and it’s fully possible I haven’t come close to hitting the full list. This was an article I wanted to do for a long time on the original Master Dayton blogspot blog, but never got around to it. Better late than never, right?
Am I missing one that was life changing for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
And to leave you with one great video, I have to go back to my natural love of fiction, of story telling, so here are some collected gems from best-selling author Stephen King about writing, editing, and more!