Books on writing

Any good books on writing? From Aristotle to S. King, you must have read some, eh? Why and who do you like?

Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bonest” and, less specific to writing, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I like them because they treat “The rules” as a fabrication; and very much encourage you to discover what your voice is naturally, rather than trying to “change” you.

Great, thanks. I think Sam Smiley´s Playwriting is quite helpful - with all kinds of storytelling. And (blush) The Complete Idiot´s Guide to Writing Poetry. It got some exercises that get me going when at a complete halt.

The best I’ve read recently is Jack Hart’s A Writer’s Coach. It’s a mechanics and style book for professional nonfiction writers, not beginners. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a beginner. :slight_smile:

Oh, I forgot - The Sound of One Hand Clapping (a book on writing for performance).

I should just list my entire library. I think I own just about every book on writing ever published.

The ones I am finding currently most useful:

Elizabeth George, Write Away
Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel
Robert McKee, Story
Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft
Stephen King, On Writing (I am not a Stephen King fan, but this is one of the best little books on the topic I have ever read)
Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, What If

Specialty books:

Monica Wood, Description
Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting
Orson Scott Card, Characters and Viewpoint

General Classics:

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Natalie Goldberg, Writing down the Bones (I have gone through three copies of this book; I keep giving it away and having to buy new ones)
Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small (a delightful collection of an old standy genre that has fallen out of favor, the Familiar Essay)
Scott Russell Sander, Writing from the Center
and my much loved copy of
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

You would think that with all this assistance, I would have a book of my own on the shelves. :unamused:

If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland
Writing down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
If you can talk you can write, Joel Saltzman
Writing without Teachers, Peter Elbow
Word Work, Bruce Holland Rogers
The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, Dale Carnegie
A Writer’s Time, Kenneth Atchity
Writing Fast, Jeff Bollow
Anybody Can Write, Roberta Jean Bryant

Seconding Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Not only is his advice imminently practical, it comes from an undeniably authoritative place. Regardless of what you think of his writing (I like a lot of it), the man works harder than you. Period. He spends his days writing, and it shows.

Bonus: The essay at the end dealing with his accident is probably the best writing King has done since the 70s.

Tip: Read “On Writing”, then read his son’s novel “Heart Shaped Box” (his son goes by Joe Hill). It’s a great study of King’s advice put to use. Obviously, the guy’s taken his father’s thoughts to heart – and, in this light, a work that seems like a son aping his father’s style becomes more an extension of a school of thought.

William Saffire (NY Times language columnist and former Nixon speechwriter – don’t hold it against him) compiled a book called “Great Advice For Writers” which I love dearly. It’s simply a catalogue of quotes from published writers, organized by category. A great and funny read, and real insight into the idea that all writers follow a set of rules – and all sets of rules are different.

Seconding also Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want To Write” – less for the advice therein, and more for the goofy charm of the writer.

Screenwriters: Put down Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” and pick up David Mamet’s “On Directing” – which, in my mind, has a lot more to do with writing than directing. He makes you want to write, and further, he makes you want to cross stuff out.

Edit: I posted this list, and my copy of Strunk & White’s “Elements Of Style” leaped off my desk and smacked me in the face for forgetting to include it. I wish people would let go of the idea that this is somehow an American English grammar text, and appreciate it for a very witty little book on writing clear and simple sentences.

You probably mean “Good Advice” by William Saffire

Agree with Sean and Mollys Mum about King.

I would add four others (which I also mentioned in another thread):

  • Story by Robert McKee (please don’t groan :confused: )
  • How Novels Work by John Mullan
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (can you tell what I use Scrivener for? :slight_smile: )

Of these, I think Swain’s is the most useful.

In the other thread I said that IME these are all you need. I said this partly because there’s a huge amount of rubbish peddled as guidance on how to write, and it’s easy for the unaware to lighten their bank balances and weigh down their shelves with it. (And partly because of course, if you want to write, the best way to learn is not to read books on writing, but to inform yourself of examples of great writing on the page and on the screen.)

But at a pinch, I’d add two others: Strunk and White (as you say, Sean, not just for Americans), and, for UK writers, From Pitch to Publication, by the former London agent Carole Blake.

Thanks for the Bollow suggestion, Bob. One of my first mentors had “Write Faster” prominently displayed in 40 point above his, my and others’ desks. But I’m always in the market for advice on how to speed up further. :slight_smile:

E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.

Actually, I mean Good Advice On Writing: Writers Past And Present On Writing Well. (A Portland link! Because this is Scrivener after all.) Safire’s “Good Advice” is a different book.

The book above is out of print, but widely available.

@Hugh: Every time I think about McKee’s “Story”, I think about “Adaptation” – which is probably a curse and a blessing for the author.

Sean: he says he gave his blessing to the casting of Brian Cox (whose impersonation I think was flawless, right down to the plastic cup).

I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” An excellent guide for improving one’s writing.


At one stage in my life, on numerous days in summer, I could look out of the window of the place where I was then living, and see the great man sitting on a bench in the sun. Needless to say, being young and stupid, I didn’t make much of it (though I did wish him “Good morning” a few times).

I own Strunk and White, but I’m afraid I agree with the guys at Language Log regarding a lot of the advice.

eg. … 01803.html … 00994.html … 01908.html … 00469.html … 01904.html

Taken liberally, Elements of Style gives you something else to look at when editing, which might push you to reconsider some choices (always a good thing). So long as you consider the “rules” to be opinions (I won’t even use the word guideline).


A particular favourite of mine which hasn’t been mentioned yet is ‘Between The Lines’ by Jessica Page Morrell - a detailed book about what the author calls ‘the subtle elements of fiction writing’ - a very useful companion when you want to do a forensic job on why your MS doesn’t seem to have enough je ne sais quoi.

Robert McKee’s Story was the first book on the craft I read so maybe I have a disproportionate affection for it - I did feel, though, like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer: I ‘got it’ all of a sudden, and realised why I’d never been able to come up with a decent plot before. It inspired me to start writing fiction again after a huge gap (OK, so I liked the idea a life of penury… :unamused: ).

Three books with good practical exercises for developing your craft: ‘Your Writing Coach’ by Jurgen Wolff, ‘The Creative Writing Coursebook’ by the team behind the East Anglia Creative Writing MA, and ‘Novel in a Year’ by Louise Doughty (for any novelists out there who haven’t read it and are spluttering indignantly, she makes it clear in the intro that three years is probably more realistic :wink: )

Finally, one that people seem to either love or hate is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield - a book which starts with the question: why do creative artists put so much energy into doing everything other than the thing they claim they love to do? Some readers are irritated by his regularly invoking God as a muse - for the record, I’m a Buddhist and it didn’t bother me: he’s just using a handy label for that mystic intuition that produces your greatest material. Or maybe he knows something we don’t…

Pressfield would doubtless not be surprised by how much time I spend reading about writing rather than doing it!

For people who can read Italian, the major newspaper “La Repubblica” is publishing an extensive writing course on paper and DVD. I’m still doubtful if having to buy it, since it is managed by a writer that I really don’t like (Alessandro Baricco), and includes some odd efforts to mix high and low literature without any apparent order - just with the need of being as inclusive as possible, as appealing as possible to most buyers.

Revealing is the inclusion of a series of DVDs. Probably, ideal purchasers are interested to write, but not very willing to read…

The general idea per-se, however, seems fine to me.


I totally agree. Take this book with a shaker of salt and a copy of the Chicago Manual.

One book that I read recently which I found quite useful was Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Brief, and to the point (it’s really just a top ten list stretched into an essay published as an illustrated book). I found it useful to make a list of Leonard’s Ten Rules and keep it handy. Like every hard and fast rule about writing, I believe all of these can be broken, but the gist of the book is to take out the telling and leave in the showing. Good advice for any writer. Cheers.

[size=85]Sorry for the necro, I just got here. Also, thanks to all for the many recommendations. Right now I’m working my way through Plot by Ansen Dibell, and applying its lessons to my current project.[/size]

Many of these books mentioned here are great choices. I personally have also read a number of the books from the “Write Great Fiction” series.

However, there is one thing I believe should be mentioned in this context also. There is such a thing as reading too much of these instructional books. After a while I found that they began to impede my writing. Apart from the fact that you can spend a lifetime reading all these books and doing all the exercises within, I also became so conscious of what I was doing that I could no longer let the creative writing pour out of me. I over-analyzed everything, my structure, my plot, my wording, my characters, my dialogues, etc. and found that in the end I barely created any writing and what came out of it was mediocre at best. It took me a while to get over this, and it took reading a few regular novels, just to get into a healthy mindset of writing without over-thinking.

Anyone else have this experience?