The best writing book

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

So many writing books exist that a writer could lull away many an hour reading about writing. Why, it’s the perfect way to avoid doing any actual writing! Today let’s help each other sort through the options by suggesting books you’ve read that “made all the difference” for you. The books may be focused on fiction or nonfiction, grammar, self-editing or any other aspect of the craft.

To kickstart the conversation, I’ve assembled a list of some classics that still speak eloquently to the writer and a few books that you might not have heard of.

  1. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Considered one of those foundational books that defines a writer’s job with helps that every writer should make into habits.
  2. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. When I taught writing at a seminary (yes, I did), this was my chosen textbook. It provides the basics from which a writer can build his or her own style.
  3. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle equips the writer to win the battles of the creative soul.The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles Here’s one quote: “Are you paralyzed with fear?  That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
  4. Robert Graves’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder enables the writer to envision for whom the current tome is being created. It’s out of print, sadly, but a worthy book to be on any writer’s shelf.
  5. Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One offers insights on what makes a sentence beautiful. He diagnoses sentences created by Shakespeare, Dickens, etc., and helps the reader to apply what Fish learned to inform the reader’s own writing. Fish does take Strunk and White to task for sometimes oversimplifying the art of writing. I’ve created a debate within my own brief list!

Now it’s your turn. What writing books (or other aids) would you recommend and why?


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42 Responses

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  1. Lori says:

    I have this grammar book from my first English class in college (over 25+ years) that has been quite useful. I always found that a dictionary and a thesarus were my best friends. Now I use in their place.

    The ones you recommended sound good. I will check them out.

  2. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’ll tell you what’s NOT helpful. The AP Stylebook I practically memorized when I was a reporter. Sigh. Stupid Chicago Manual of Style.

    I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Never mind the cursing.

  3. One of the things I took away from Stephen King’s On Writing (I found it at a thrift store for less than 2$ !!), was that he truly enjoyed telling a story. Being a storyteller is a unique privilege, and he is truly a character, but he worked, and he worked, and then he worked to take telling a story to the level of master storyteller.
    His words made me feel like the voice each of us is given cannot and should not be manufactured to resemble one that is already out in the world.
    And even when he felt like he had nothing good, his wife was his best source of encouragement.
    I don’t read his style of novel, but he is a man who knows how to build a following!

  4. Janet Grant says:

    Lori, a good grammar book is a big help. I also like Woe Is I, which makes grammar accessible. I use as well, but I confess that’s because it’s easy to use. My Webster’s provides much more info. I’ve found online thesauruses woefully (speaking of woe) inadequate compared to the physical books on my shelf.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    I may have said it before, but I love all of Susan May Warren’s books. I use the Book Buddy when preparing to write a new story. It helps me to think through many character and story elements. I cut my writing teeth on her From the Inside…Out. I also like James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. I could go on, but I’ll stop there. 🙂

  6. Amanda Dykes says:

    Wonderful suggestions, Janet! I love that quote on fear from Pressfield. I hadn’t read that one before; thank you!

    Jeff Gerke’s “Plot vs. Character” is a fantastic starting point for any writer approaching a novel but not sure where to begin. It really does a great job of helping writers see the connection between plot and character, helping character ARCs be closely tied to plot, helping the writer strike a balance between being plot-driven and character-driven.

    “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron is an incredible read for pacing, structure, etc.

    “The Emotion Thesaurus” is more of a reference, not a read-through, and it’s great for when I find myself using the same descriptors over and over again to “show, not tell.”

    I’m reading James Scott Bell’s “Plot and Structure” piecemeal right now and finding it a great reference. His “Revision and Self-Editing” is wonderful as well.

  7. I really loved Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” and I second Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” She makes me feel so normal…

  8. Oh, my. I have so many … The ones I turn to over and over again are my Writing the Breakout Novel workbook by Donald Maass, The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman & Puglisi, The 90 Day Novel by Alan Wat, and all of Jim Bell’s. I use Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens and The First Five Pages fairly often too. And Susie Warren’s From The Inside Out. 🙂 I’ve told myself that reading these books doesn’t get *my* stories written, so I’m currently on a how-to sabbatical.

    • Janet Grant says:

      These are all great writing books, Carrie. I do have some authors who were derailed by Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, but others found it helpful. Different strokes…

  9. One of my absolute favorites is Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.

  10. Lori Benton says:

    Lisa Cron’s WIRED FOR STORY has been mentioned. I second it.

    Donald Maass’s books, especially THE FIRE IN FICTION, particularly for the chapter called Tension All The Time, where he talks about micro-tension. Just pick it up and read that chapter, you’ll surely want to read the rest.

  11. Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland is great, as is Stein on Writing.
    In regards to the heart of a writer I’ve enjoyed Write His Answer by Marlene Bagnull and Unleash the Writer Within by Cecil Murphey.

  12. lisa says:

    Thanks for this list. I’m reading tons of writing books this summer. Making sure I’m solid before I query. I love many of the above On Writing and Bird by Bird.

    Also, Mary Pipher wrote a book called Writing to Change the World. I love her unique perspectives.

  13. Iola says:

    I enjoyed How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark. Very funny – great for those times you want to learn something, but don’t have the brain energy left to read something deep.

    I also recommend Riveting Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson – short, but highly recommended for beginners.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Iola, thanks for mentioning two additional books. How Not to Write a Novel sounds like the perfect other-side-of-the-coin sort of book that can breathe fresh air into a stale day.

  14. “Revision & Self-Editing” by James Scott Bell was nuts and bolts helpful. So was Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages.” Stephen King’s “On Writing” was inspirational, hold the language!

  15. David Todd says:

    One book I DON’T recommend is The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. His advice on writing poetry is okay, though no different than many others, but by the end of the book he degenerates into gratuitous profanity.

  16. Cindy Camp says:

    Love Annie Dillard’s A Writing LIfe.

  17. Darby Kern says:

    While I don’t admire all of his writing I’m finding Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit very enjoyable and insightful. He certainly demystifies lots of things and tells you about his personal pitfalls. It makes me think that I’m not so far off the path.

    James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure is one I have highlighted and dog-eared. It works better as a checklist.

  18. Andrea Cox says:

    A Novel Idea by various Christian fiction authors was really helpful in taking my writing to the next level. After I read that book, my next story did not have trouble with a slumpy, stalled-out middle.

    This past weekend I picked up a few more writing books, so we’ll see how those work out for me over the next few months.


    • Andrea, this was one of the first craft books I read. The suggestions were very helpful.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrea, A Novel Idea is near to my heart. I volunteered to agent it gratis for the group of established writers who wrote it since all the proceeds from the book go to Media Associates International, which helps to educate publishers and writers in third-world countries. (And it is a very good book.)

      • Andrea Cox says:

        Jenni, I agree. Very helpful tips inside this one!

        Janet, your comment made me smile. I had no idea you represented it, but I’m so glad to hear this tidbit of behind the scenes trivia. 🙂 That’s neat, as is the fact that the proceeds go to help other people learn the craft we all love so much.

  19. “The ABC Book” by Richard Scarry.

    It helped me learn how to use the ABC’s to tell a story.