It will come as no surprise that many of the staffers here at Writer’s Relief are writers or people who have creative talents. This week, we asked our staff members to recommend their favorite books about writing—technique, craft, lifestyle, and publishing. (Note: It’s intentional that we’re publishing our list just in time for holiday shopping; pick up one of these great books for you or a writer you know!)
Check out our list of favorite books about writing and publishing, and then add your own!
List Of Great Books About Writing
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner is an informative, and often humorous, instructional treatise on writing fiction from the perspective of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The methods therein inspire writers to improve their craft.
Jill Dearman’s Bang the Keys is a favorite. If you struggle to find focus and motivation, if you are easily distracted or find your writing goals are often derailed, this book about the writing life will get you back on track. (Full Disclosure: Jill Dearman published a wonderful interview with Writer’s Relief President Ronnie Smith on her Barnes & Noble blog).
Bird by Bird is Anne Lamott’s classic book on the mysteries of the writing process and how life and creativity are not inseparable. Both gentle and challenging, Lamott’s meditation is much-loved by writers. While it’s not full of hard-hitting, practical business advice, its offerings are many.
Donald Maass’ The Career Novelist is fantastic for anyone who is thinking of making a go of the seemingly impossible: making a career as a book author. This book offers practical tips on how to associate with others in the publishing industry for longevity, as well as how to go from midlist to best seller.
Claims for Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, is a compilation of opinions on poetry that can help you hone your criticism. (We also love Donald Hall’s book Life Work, about the odd intersection of work and play in the writing life.)
A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman: This is a nonfiction book that puts a spin on the different uses of punctuation in creative writing. This book will change the way you look at colons and em dashes.
De/composition: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong by W.D. Snodgrass. This book is a gem: Imagine if your favorite poems were in the hands of a not-so-great writer. By rewriting beautiful poems with mediocrity (acceptable, but not amazing), Snodgrass shows us the difference between poems that are truly great and poems that are just okay.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White. A quintessential grammar reference guide, this book provides thorough explanations and examples of every rule in the English language.
The End of the Poem is a collection of Paul Muldoon’s Oxford lectures. In it, he tackles various poems; this book helped me read poetry more thoughtfully—or at least from another angle.
The English Language: A User’s Guide, by Jack Lynch, is an excellent reference book that’s set up like a dictionary. It provides short, concise definitions of most of the trickier tools/tropes in English, and follows up with helpful examples. If you like the Grammar Girl website, you’ll like this book.
A Glossary of Literary Terms, by M.H. Abrams, is another must. It’s great for clearing up confusing jargon.
Law in Plain English for Writers, by Leonard D. DuBoff and Bert P. Krages, II, is an important book that talks about the various laws that govern copyright, contracts, censorship, defamation, and libel. A very readable book, this can be read cover-to-cover or just flipped through when legal questions arise.
The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron. This is a great handbook for writing in any style. This book provides information on grammar, style, research, and referencing for any writing project.
Method and Madness: The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante. Each chapter covers a different piece of story writing (basics, characters, plot, and so on, plus chapters on revising and publishing) with exercises and short stories at the end that illustrate the ideas of each chapter.
Stephen King’s On Writing is interesting, illuminating, and highly subjective. In it, King describes his process and his recommendations for writers of all levels who are hoping to make a career for themselves.
In his essay The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe explains his theory of how to write an effective short story/poem. A lot of this can be applied today. He breaks down his process of writing “The Raven” and makes his famous statements about the shortness of a story being its most important aspect and the death of a beautiful woman being the most poetic subject in the world.
A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. Oliver brings the same loveliness of her poetry to her prose, and uses commonsense, concrete examples, and a not-ever-pushy guidance to show the reader how and why they should be doing more (and varied) reading and writing to improve their craft.
The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. In addition to providing information about how to improve your poetry, the writing exercises given at the ends of the chapters will push you to write some interesting work that might never have come to mind without having read the book.
Revising Prose, by Richard A. Lanham, walks you through a full-scale demolition of the “official style” that we’re all taught in school. He not only tells you why you should reform yourself, he shows you exactly how to do it in a very visual, understandable, and even humorous way. If you’ve ever been told that your writing could be “tightened up,” this book is for you.
Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 is basically the best screenwriting course in the country put into book form. It follows the entire process of writing an original screenplay from start to finish, all while offering interesting, funny anecdotes from Hunter’s own experiences as a professional screenwriter, UCLA professor, and mentor to some of the most successful writers in the industry.
Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is widely considered a screenwriting bible. It not only gives the reader clear step-by-step instructions on how to write a fully fleshed-out screenplay, but also offers practical advice on everything from how to pitch your script to protecting your creative property.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Immensely practical, straightforward, and clear, this book is fantastic for writers who want to learn how to better see and revise their own stories and books. A wonderful book about writing!
Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B. Tobias, is a thoughtful analysis of plot archetypes that’s very helpful for writers who are in the plotting stages or for writers who are simply interested in the elements that make particular types of plots work. Tobias has studied a LOT of the various types of plot lines, and he approaches them with both broad strokes and sensitivity.
They Say/I Say, by Gerald Graff, is an introduction to rhetoric. This short, pocket-size book breaks down academic writing into several basic steps, almost turning essays into math equations. It makes academic writing manageable by helping the reader develop an organized action plan that works every time.
Donald Maass’ Writing The Breakout Novel (with its accompanying workbook) is an absolute must-read book for writers who hope to make a career of writing novels. Though the book is geared toward writers in the commercial genres that tend to offer writers a livable income, it’s worth a read for literary authors too. Maass is challenging, engaging, witty, and insightful.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is an amazing book to get anyone motivated to write, with concrete prompts and ideas. Her approach mirrors a physical exercise routine, especially in terms of a spiritual exercise.
Writing Movies: The Practical Guide to Creating Stellar Screenplays, released through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, offers examples of successful aspects of movies you wouldn’t expect to be so highly regarded and breaks down what makes them so compelling: scene creation, characters, dialogue, subplots, and more.
Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary Writers by Robert A. Harris. It’s an awesome book; think of it as encyclopedia of rhetorical devices and figurative language in workbook format. It is comprehensive, very clear, and a fantastic reference.
One of the most insightful books I have read (in addition to several on your list) is STORY by Robert McKee. While ostensibly written to encourage and improve screenwriting skills, it’s first and foremost about telling stories which as a fiction writer I aspire to do.
Ahhhh! You HAD to publish this post! Now I’ve got five of these books I desperately want to read but I’ve got a copy editor and a 13-year-old dying to see chapter 5 of the fiction novel I’m writing!