If you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. And as you read you become increasingly aware of how many possibilities there are as a writer. Reading makes you want to explore new styles, try new things, and write something as great as (no, even better than!) that last incredible book you devoured in one sitting. The one that made you burn the toast/turn up late to pick up the kids/cancel that dinner with friends you’d been looking forward to for months.
To improve your writing, reading is essential. But so is practice. You have to write as often as possible to progress. That’s a fact. And although there are no specific ‘rights and wrongs’ when it comes to plot/style/character etc, you do have to make sure that your writing does was it’s meant to: it has to convince and entertain. In short, your writing needs to transport your reader to another world that is wholly believable, one where they want to stay long enough to finish the whole book/story/poem.
Writing classes and workshops are a huge help; to get the most out of the experience, make sure you respect the writer that is taking the course and that it is pitched at a level that suits where you are in your writing career. But sometimes, geographical, financial or other constraints can make it difficult to commit to a workshop. Thankfully, there are some excellent books available that will help you improve in all areas of your writing – from grammar and punctuation, to holding narrative tension and creating compelling characters, to coping with rejection and solitude (and the best thing is, it’s combining two of your favourite things!).
Here are seven of my top choices…
On Writing by Stephen King – part biography, part toolbox, this is one of the most readable, straight-talking and honest books on writing that you’ll ever read. The overall message is that practice, improving your skills, finding your own style and perseverance are the key to writing success. This may not seem like a revelation, but King’s wit, advice and fluid style really helps convey important messages without being overly didactic or patronising.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee – although this book focuses on, the principles can be applied to any form of creative writing. Informative, insightful and downright impressive in its scope, McKee’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants to add magic to his or her writing. In case you need a bit more convincing, McKee’s former students include over 60 Academy Award Winners, 250 Academy Award Nominees, 170 Emmy Award Winners, 500+ Emmy Award Nominees (and the list goes on…)!
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss – although punctuation is a dreaded topic for many, there’s no escaping it. Yes, copy-editors can help you in this area but as the world of publishing grows increasingly competitive, it’s more important than ever that your manuscript is as polished as possible when you submit it to agents and publishers. Thankfully, Truss debunks the subject while making it accessible and fun (yes really!).
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul – beautifully produced, this book offers all you need to see a picture book through from concept to completion. Through detailed examples of great children’s literature and step-by-step exercises designed to help you to improve your own writing, it is an invaluable addition to the bookshelf of any writer trying to break into the world of children’s picture books.
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White – Just like punctuation, grammar is an essential part of a writer’s toolbox and this book remains the best and the most concise. It covers everything you need to know in a slim, portable volume. Presenting the facts clearly and sensibly, this book considers elements of usage, composition and style – it’s a reliable all-rounder, so you won’t need another.
Creative Writing, A Practical Guide (3rdedition) by Julia Casterton – the reason I like this book is that it covers a wide range of topics across poetry and fiction, including narrative tension, developing characters, research techniques, performance and effective dialogue. The book also looks at a writer’s life; why people write, how they structure their day and cope with various aspects of being a writer. The structure is clear and the advice is sound; a great choice for those in the early stages of their writing journey.
Mortification: Writers’ Tales of Their Public Shame by Robin Robertson – although it’s not about writing per se, this book plays an important role in helping writers cope with an inevitable part of their writing life: failure/rejection. Read about some of the nightmare book tours that famous writers have had to endure and enjoy the sense of camaraderie as you chuckle along with their blush-inducing tales.
If you know of any other noteworthy books on writing that may help other writers improve their craft, please let us know in the comments – we’d all really appreciate it!
(Note, this article was originally written for writing.ie)
4 thoughts on “7 great books about writing”
The two main books that helped me:
1. Writing English, by Nancy Harrison. Probably kind of old fashioned now, but I read it when I was very young and got a good grounding of the rules.
2. The Right to Write by Julia Cameron. I argued in my head with Cameron for a long time because she seemed spacey, but what she does is to give you permission to write a first draft and free you up of all your preconceptions, expectations and anxiety. And if you don’t have a first draft, even a laughable one – and all my first drafts are laughable – you won’t have a second, third, fourth and God help me a fifth one!
Thanks Susan – I will look out for both books on your recommendation. Always good to add more to the list. I especially like the sound of the Julia Cameron one – we do need to give ourselves permission time and again, no matter how accomplished or contented.
The King’s English by Kingsley Amis. Its his take on grammar and usage, read alongside Fowler’s English Usage. Its idiosyncratic but Amis has a relationship with language that most of us can only hope to develop.