Four Books Every Writer Should Read

There are no rules to writing. There is no instruction manual that will magically make us better writers. We all know this. But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit in reading books about the craft of writing.

A few weeks back someone asked me what books I would recommend that other writers read, and today I’m going to answer that question. These are all books that have helped me tremendously as a writer, and I believe they might help you as well.

1. The Elements of Style

Okay, so yeah, you probably saw this one coming a mile away. It’s the granddaddy of all style books, and it still retains a place of well deserved honor at the top of the heap.

I remember the first time I found The Elements of Style in the college library. I took it to a table and just started to read. It pulled me in like very few books ever have.

And I can’t explain it exactly. The book is essentially a litany of grammar rules and advice about writing well, but somehow it weaves a web of magic all it’s own that is sure to entrap anyone with a love of words.

In recent years I’ve read some criticism of The Elements of Style based on the idea that the rules and guidelines presented there are too strict, too authoritarian. While some of that criticism may have merit, it misses the larger point. The theme of the book can be boiled down into two simple words: be clear.

And that is one writing rule we would all do well to follow.

2. Self Editing for Fiction Writers

This book ruined my life. It was the very first book I picked up after I started writing in earnest and it was crammed full of useful writing advice. The problem came when I started reading fiction books after I read Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

I found myself saying, “Woah, hey buddy, easy on the adverbs,” and “Just say, ‘said’ already! It’s not a dirty word!” Reading this book was my first experience with the idea that writing could change the way I read.

And while Self Editing for Fiction Writers may not quite have had the same magic for me as The Elements of Style would, its simple no-nonsense advice helped set me on the right direction when it came to writing readable prose.

3. On Writing

This little memoir/writing guide isn’t quite like other writing books. It’s true that there’s some writing advice in there, but it’s a very personal kind of advice.

This isn’t a book I would recommend following to the letter. For instance Stephen King eschews the concept of outlining pretty vehemently, but that doesn’t mean you should throw out the idea of outlining; you should do what works best for you.

But what this book does provide is a view of the world though King’s own eyes, a compelling story about his own journey as a writer. In a sense On Writing is a love letter to writing itself. And for that fact alone it is well worth your time.

4. Noble’s Book of Writing Blunders (And How to Avoid Them)

This is a book I picked up sometime last year, and I absolutely loved it. There’s nothing really sensational I can say about the content of the book. Much of the advice was stuff I’d already read in other places before.

But it was so much fun to read. If you’re a beginning writer looking for a good foundation of writing principles, I highly recommend checking this book out. The author does a great job of reminding the reader that he is giving guidelines, not rules, and in some cases he even points out when doing the opposite of what he had recommended might make for a better choice.

Also, if you do not enjoy reading this book you can feed it to your dog. My dog ate this book, and he gave it five stars on the taste scale.

***

So those are my top four recommendations of books writers should read. It is by no means exhaustive; there were several books I wanted to include, but didn’t for the sake of space and time.

Do you all have any suggestions for me? I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment and let me know what your favourite writing book is, and why.

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8 responses to “Four Books Every Writer Should Read

  1. Great list, Albert. I would also highly recommend George Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language.’ It’s a quick read. Here’s the link. http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit All the best.

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  3. I’m not surprised you mentioned ‘On Writing’ as one of the books. That was actually one of the writers I was thinking of when I talked about scheduling time. I have yet to finish the book (I’ve been reading it for about 4 years now) Yeah, I know…., but every time I read more, I pick up a bit more. Granted, I do have issues with his, too many adverbs thing… But I love adverbs. 🙂

    I’ll have to check out the other three you mentioned when I get a chance sometime.

  4. I’m personally not that fond of On Writing’s On Writing part… I enjoyed the autobiography a lot more! But I guess that’s me.

    Anyway, I already have The Elements of Style, but put the other two on my to read list… Thanks for the recommendations!

    I really liked Bird by Bird, which gave some useful insights into the publishing world, in a very nice way.

    I do have a book I would recommend everyone NOT to read – “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury – truly a waste of time in my very frank opinion. It’s just one bomb of self-important rambling about how he published this and that story in one week and wrote a couple short stories a week. Not what I would call constructive advice or useful insights.

    Anyway, great blog again, Al!

    • Yeah, like I said, King’s advice is super personal. It’s mostly about what works for him, which is fine, but maybe not what works for everybody.
      I do like what he says about loving the words though. That’s really was writing is all about for me.

  5. I threw away my copy of The Elements of Style a year or so ago. Nobody seems to notice that it’s become increasingly outdated in many ways. I do like Stephen King’s On Writing, but it mainly just gave me a bit more confidence about my own writing. I haven’t read many books about writing. I learn mostly by analyzing my writing and by reading articles and blog posts. Personally, I found that the majority of books have a few good points that are useful and the rest is filler.

    • I guess for me, the part of the book that dealt with style and clarity was the real eye opener. Most of the rules you can find in any old grammar book, but the advice on writing clearly is priceless.
      Also, my version has pictures, so that’s nice.

  6. Barbara Baig’s How to be a Writer helps with the writing practice. Another one I’m reading is Writing Fiction for Dummies. Most of the time though I borrow from other authors and see what works for them. I add my personal touch while editing.

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