The 10 Best Books About Writing

Books Lists
The 10 Best Books About Writing

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:

the_artists_way_200.jpg10. 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

the_mother_tongue.jpg9. 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

zen_in_the_art_of_writing.jpg8. 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

on_writing_well.jpg7. 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

writing_tools.jpg6. 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

on_writing_200.jpg5. On Writing by Stephen King
However you feel about Stephen King, he’s managed to pen a staggering amount of work both popular and unpopular. It was only a matter of time until he tried to impart some sagely advice about how to “kill your darlings” and communicate telepathically; in 2000, he released the part-memoir, part-stylebook On Writing that both recounts his childhood attempts at writing and offers advice about the technical aspects of the trade—developing plot and characters and facing the blank page. It’s an interesting read even if you’re not looking to write your own 1000-page thriller.—Whitney Baker

the_war_of_art.jpg4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Author Donald Miller gave me a copy of this book a couple years ago, so I’ll just quote him about why he reads it every six months: “Pressfield leaves out all the mushy romantic talk about the writing life, talk I don’t find helpful. True, professional writers are not walking around looking at flowers waiting for inspiration, they are, rather, fighting the urge to distract themselves and sitting down at the computer to hammer out their days work. Pressfield instills in his readers a professional perspective. Being a writer, to Pressfield, is no more glamorous than being a plumber. A professional shows up every day and ‘fixes a toilet.’ I doubt any book has had a more positive influence on my writing life than this one.”—Josh Jackson

the_writing_life.jpg3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
My first published travel essay was written while I was reading Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that no doubt colored my own searching prose. When my story showed up in a literary journal right next to an essay by Dillard, I felt the pride of accomplishment until I read her short book about writing. The brutality of The Writing Life is only somewhat softened by the rhythm of each sentence and her parabolic tales from the natural world. But the message is clear: Do not fall in love with your words. Mercilessly attack your most perfect paragraphs if they don’t serve the whole of the idea. “This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.” It’s rewarding work. But it’s work.—Josh Jackson

on_moral_fiction.jpg2. On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
Gardner asserts that morality is an eternal and unchanging element in the universe, like a law of physics. Like gravity or centrifugal force or AutoTune. Like Tolstoy before him, Gardner’s getting at the notion that fiction should aim at higher targets than entertainment or titillation alone, that entertainment and titillation are simpler tools for going after Truth, whatever it is. Moral fiction can be comic—look at Euripides or Twain or Vonnegut or Shakespeare, for that matter—or high-minded and serious, like Faulkner and Morrison and Borges. But it goes after the Big Kahuna of Being, else it fails.—Charles McNair

bird_by_bird.jpg1. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott mixes enthralling bits of advice with glimpses of the ordinariness of the profession that make it one of the most generous and inspiring writing books you’ll find. For anybody looking to improve their craft, the mantra imparted from father to son in the titular slice-of-life about Lamott’s older brother trying desperately to write a report about birds is valuable. Start small, be tenacious, and take it bird by bird.—Whitney Baker

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