Regardless how many books I’ve written (nearly 200) and sold (over 70 million), I fear if I’m not learning, I’m stagnating.
My late mother was a convincing example of one who never believed she had arrived. Mom was not only a piano teacher well into her eighties, but she was also a piano student.
So it’s the memory of my mother that spurs me also to keep reading everything there is to read—especially about writing.
The books below (in alpha order by author) represent a fraction of those available. You could read one per day for the rest of your life and not exhaust the resources. But, in my opinion, these are the best books on writing available.
Some require wearing your big kid pants due to language, which I have noted.
11 Writing Books Every Aspiring Author Should Read
- Marie Arana. The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think and Work
This book came from ten years of Ms. Arana’s Washington Post Book World column. More than fifty fiction and nonfiction authors share how they discovered they were writers and how they work. I was fascinated by what pleases and annoys them. Arana also profiles each writer.
- James Scott Bell (friend and colleague). Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish
Anything but a dry textbook, this breezy guide is from a former trial lawyer who keeps you entertained while covering basics like how plot impacts structure, the difference between popular and literary fiction, and how to serve as your own book doctor.
- Brandilyn Collins (friend and colleague). Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors
Calling on her theater training, Collins teaches bringing characters to life the way actors do on stage. She draws on the Method Acting approach to explain and adapt characterization techniques for novelists.
- Annie Dillard. The Writing Life
Dillard’s hauntingly ethereal prose soars even when she’s writing about writing. That’s rare. I resonate with her honesty about how grueling the craft can be. This is one of the best books on writing available.
- Stephen King (acquaintance). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft [language]
At the risk of hyperbole, there’s so much to recommend here that I hardly know where to begin. Besides all the practical advice, you get King’s own rags-to-riches story in his inimitable voice. You learn a ton while being wildly entertained.
- Dean Koontz. How to Write Bestselling Fiction [mild language]
I’m not overstating it that this book changed my life. It informed the way I wrote the Left Behind series, which has sold more than 60 million copies and still sells six figures every year, nearly a decade since the last title was released. I use this as a textbook when I teach writing.
- Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life [language]
Lamott has you howling with laughter one minute and weeping the next as she recounts, with brutal honesty, the joys and travails of the writing life, single parenting, overcoming addiction, and coming to faith.
An agent challenges you to do more than just spin a yarn, but to also think “big concept,” tackle major themes, and write life-changing books.
- Sol Stein (acquaintance). Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies
Novelist, editor, publisher (Stein & Day), and writing teacher, Stein is one of the deans of the American literary scene. His career spans decades, and he shares insider stories of famous novelists and their work, as well as everything he learned along the way. I sat under his teaching years ago and still follow his advice.
- William Zinsser. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Zinsser’s background should not be missed. He was a graceful classicist as a writer, and this million-seller has been lauded for its warmth and clarity. Zinsser offers sound tips on the fundamentals of writing any kind of nonfiction you can think of.
Now, don’t read any of those books for writers, until…
…you’ve read the bible of writing books:
- William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style
Failing to start your reading on writing with anything other than this undisputed classic would be akin to reading the top ten Christian classics while ignoring the Bible. This short paperback is recommended by every writing teacher I know. I’ve read it at least once a year for more than 40 years. Its simple truths cover everything from style and grammar and usage. Make them second nature.
If you’ve read none of the other books on this list, start with Stephen King’s On Writing. A short course in mistakes to avoid, it’ll remind you why you wanted to be an author. Then, especially if you want to be a novelist, read Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction.
You could learn more in just those two books than in an entire college writing course.
BONUS: If you’re ready to graduate to my ultimate reading list for writers, which includes 7 novels and 7 nonfiction titles from which you can pick up skills, you can download it for free by clicking the image below:
What’s your favorite writing book? Share it with all of us in the comments section…