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The 10 Best Books About Writing

July 22, 2010  |  7:00am

Writing is hard. Not for everyone, mind you, but there are some people that land triple axels or swallow swords, and we don’t consider this the norm. Thankfully, these gifted writers have shared their secrets—often the same secret, that their best words weren’t a gift at all, but the fruits of frustrating, wearisome work. We treasure these following tomes, not because they necessarily reveal the tricks to making writing easier, but because they assure us that just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we should give up. If you write, we’re assuming you’re already armed with style guides like the enduring Strunk & White classic, The Elements of Style, along with your AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style. And that you have examples of great writing like Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker. We also skipped books that were specific to a certain genre, like Mary Oliver’s excellent Poetry Handbook. Instead, the following are 10 books about the craft of writing. We polled Paste writers, editors and interns to share their favorites and received scores of suggestions from Twitter and Facebook. We even asked Neil Gaiman about his “favorite book on writing and why?”

Gaiman’s response? “Stephen King’s On Writing. Because of the title.” Oh, writers.

Here are our 10 favorite books about writing:

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10. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
It’s a sad thing to consider that every year, countless people die having never written the novel of their dreams. The reason most of those books (some of which would have undoubtedly been great) don’t make it onto the page is because the would-be author waited for a moment of manic inspiration—a divine-lightbulb moment that would leave them scribbling into a leather-bound journal for hours at some quaint cafe or home library. For most of us, that moment never comes, and the only way to unleash creativity is through persistence and discipline. The Artist’s Way focuses on training the mind to work more creatively by engaging in free-writing every morning and taking time each week to explore a subject one finds fascinating. Never mind that it occasionally feels like a transcript from a spiritual segment on Oprah; if you’re willing to put in the work, this book wants to send you on your way.—Kevin Keller

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9. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
It’s key for a writer to understand his own language, and Bill Bryson offers the best insight on the origins and uses of English I’ve ever read. The author of Troublesome Words explains in biting prose the origins of swear words, why the British have so many different accents, and how English is quickly becoming the world’s lingua franca. When grammar and syntax become fascinating and funny, the writer has done his job.—Wendy Greenberg

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8. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
This list is full of writers moaning about the difficulties of writing (to which we relate). But Bradley refreshingly relishes the art of writing, and his joy is infectious. “Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind,” he admonishes the dour scribe. “They all knew the joy of creating in large or small forms, on unlimited or restricted canvasses. These are the children of the gods. They knew fun in their work. No matter if creation came hard here or there along the way, or what illnesses and tragedies touched their most private lives. ... If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.”—Josh Jackson

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7. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Zinsser writes simply and clearly about simplicity and clutter. Full of excellent examples of crisp non-fiction, On Writing Well is a straightforward guide to improving your writing, one that’s quick to point out common flaws and prescribe simple cures. It’s Writing 101, and its increased popularity would instantly make the Internet a better place.—Josh Jackson

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6. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark’s plainspoken masterpiece dispenses a lifetime’s worth of practical advice in one slim, readable volume. It’s essential for young aspiring journalists, but should really be made mandatory reading in every single American high school.—Nick Marino

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