Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There’s a lot of fantastic advice on writing out there but in real life authors don’t have the time to seek out every single piece of it. What’s more it’s difficult to find sources that don’t overlap, teaching the same lesson over and over again.
That’s why it’s our pleasure to present the ten best books on writing. But we haven’t stopped there: each book on this list is the best in its field, and every one does something slightly different.
We’ve listed the top ten books on writing that’ll make you a better writer from ten to one, with each more useful than the last.
10. The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
The first book on our list is a strange choice, but one that provides authors with a unique point of view. Joseph Campbell’s most famous book is a comparative study of some of the most famous stories in mythology.
How does this help you as an author? By identifying the key character traits, plot events and themes that make up the most important, most compelling stories of all time.
This isn’t a how-to guide, but its insights into what readers want from stories have inspired countless writers and landed it on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books written in English since 1923. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
9. Make Good Art – Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is a great writer and he presents his beliefs in a realistic but inspiring way. Where Campbell’s text asks what readers get from stories, Gaiman explores what exactly art is meant to do and how authors can get the most out of their own creativity.
While the book is stylishly presented and has the requisite extras that make Gaiman so popular with his fan base we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t point out that his original speech can be watched here, free of charge. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
8. It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences – June Casagrande
Famous literary sentences are interrogated for every last drop of grammar, syntax and style in order to show the reader what makes some sentences great and others fall apart.
There are a lot of general writing guides that touch on the subject of sentence structure, but Casagrande’s laser precision ensures hers is the definitive word on the subject. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
7. Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them – Francine Prose
Prose gives her reader the necessary tools to create a Frankenstein’s monster of writing styles, combining Dickens’ skillful simplicity with the subtle structuring of Brontë.
Prose’s direct lessons and observations are useful, but what’s even more valuable is how she trains the reader to examine novels analytically, and pick out the very best techniques and tricks for their own gain. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
6. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build your routine, find your focus & sharpen your creative mind – Jocelyn K. Glei
This collection is all about optimizing the available resources whether they be time, space, energy or even imagination.
With contributions from Dan Ariely, Scott Belsky, Scott McDowell, Cal Newport, Elizabeth G. Saunders, Linda Stone and more, this collection is full of the kind of authoritative advice that gets stories out of your mind and onto the page. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
5. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer – Roy Peter Clark
Clark’s ethos on advising writers is to provide ‘tools, not rules’. Vice president of the Poynter Institute (a highly esteemed school for journalists) Clark opens the professional writer’s toolbox to provide an accessible, point by point guide to the techniques of great writers.
He employs examples from both literature and journalism, stepping over the imaginary boundaries of medium to find the absolute best device for each piece, be it work email or long fiction.
It’s good for authors to step outside their comfort zone sometimes, and Clark makes it easy by explaining the merits of tricks and styles the reader might never have considered. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
4. The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr.
Defining the idea of ‘an oldy but a goody’, Strunk’s style guide treats prose as the machine that it is and shows the reader how best to work it. Strunk’s guide made the same Time magazine list as The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but with advice this good it can speak for itself:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
3. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II – James Frey
Frey’s book isn’t the most comprehensive on the list but it’s the most user-friendly. Fray is especially concerned with writing commercial fiction, concentrating on making the reader feel exactly what you want them to. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
While How to Write a Damn Good Novel I is a useful book for neophytes, the follow-up skips the pep talk in favor of providing concise analysis on what will work on your reader and why.
2. The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits- Linda N. Edelstein
Edelstein doesn’t just explain why some people act the way they do, she specifically tailors the information for use by authors. Her reference guide of over 400 personality traits allows you to build up a complex psychological profile for any character.
Edelstein’s exhaustive and easily cross-referenced guide is ideal for creating the kind of complex backstory that gives characters unique and authentic personalities. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King
What makes Stephen King’s writing guide so good? It’s certainly readable, even semi-autobiographical in its approach. The advice is good and plentiful, with practical examples given in abundance, and King covers a range of subjects beneficial to any writer.
But the secret to the book’s usefulness is that it works as a digest of all the best writing advice since year zero. From ‘kill your darlings’ to ‘just write’, King cherry picks and reflects on every piece of advice a professional author should live by.
While it certainly has merits all of its own, King’s book provides a compendium of all the best advice for authors written in an approachable, easily understood manner. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
Other people’s opinions
Of course writing is an art form defined by idiosyncrasy. The above books on writing aren’t intended to be the last word on how to write, just to offer insights and influences that will help you develop your own style.
Apart from the ones on grammar, those you should regard as gospel.
Even with resources this good there are always going to be a few subjects that slip through the cracks, but Standoutbooks has you covered. We go out of our way to address the topics other sources don’t, with articles such as When can you include accent and dialect in your dialogue? and Are you writing believable non-human characters?
Did you learn the craft from one source, or specific lessons in lots of different places? Either way I’d love to hear from you in the comments.