My Favorite Books on WritingSeptember 25, 2017
If all you want to do is dream of being a writer, there are enough books about writing available to keep you pretty busy dreaming. Big bookstores and libraries have entire sections on the stuff. But honestly, the best books on writing generally boil down to this: Read a lot. Write a lot.
That’s it. That’s the secret formula to being a writer. The only way to truly learn your craft is to experience the masters doing what they do best, and that’s what reading does for you. And the only way to learn the discipline of writing — to discover what works for you and what doesn’t, how to get out of your own way and how to balance freedom and self-critique — is simply to write a lot.
I’ve personally seen writers who were pretty terrible turn decent and even very good in a couple of years just because they kept writing constantly. Becoming a good writer is kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit becoming real: “It doesn’t happen all at once … you become. It takes a long time.” If you spend that time banging out pages, there’s a pretty good chance those pages will start getting better. It’s about the work; it isn’t about joining a writing group or getting the perfect pen or even reading the right writing books.
But although it sounds like I’m arguing against reading about writing, I’m not. I’m arguing against substituting writing time with time spent reading about it. If you can read about writing for an hour and then log an hour on your novel draft, go for it. I can’t do that, though. I tend to use reading about writing as procrastination, and in that case I think it’s better to be chipping away at your 10,000 hours than avoiding them.
On the other hand, sometimes you need to feed your discipline with inspiration, and good books by great writers can be a way to reignite your passion. Here are my favorite books on writing — this isn’t a comprehensive list of the best writing books (I’m sure a quick Google search will get you plenty of that kind of list), but they’re the ones I return to over and over when I need mentoring or advice or a reminder of why I’m even trying.
No Plot No Problem is a short book, and it has a specific goal — to guide you through writing a draft of a novel in 30 days. (Learn more about that process at the National Novel Writing Month/Nanowrimo website.) It’s geared toward people who aren’t writers at all, so if you shaky about your grammar or you don’t have a clue about plot or you haven’t written anything longer than an email since college, this is a good book to start with. No Plot No Problem will make the most sense if you’re participating in Nanowrimo, but it’s pretty solid advice for any kind of writing, and it has some very practical advice for how to combat writer’s blog and procrastination (I’ve ripped off some of Chris Baty’s ideas on writer’s block here). I’ve read it over and over, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s also very short and easy to read in small chunks.
Stephen King just loves writing so freaking much, and that adoration comes through in On Writing. You can feel how much fun he has with his stories and how much of a gift he considers writing — and you also see how much pure work he puts in and how much he’s sacrificed. On Writing is structured more as a memoir than a collection of writing tips, but you can still glean some ideas about process if that’s that you’re looking for. I find it mostly inspirational and a nice reminder that I’m lucky that writing is a part of my life. This is the first Stephen King book I ever read (I don’t handle fear well), but it’s incredible whether or not you’re already a fan.
Manage Your Day-to-Day isn’t about writing, exactly — it’s about making a profession out of any creative pursuit, and it’s about finding time to actually create in the midst of a lot of external distraction and pressure to perform financially. Manage Your Day-to-Day is written by lots of different contributors in short sections (they’re a few pages apiece), so no matter your personality and habits, you’re likely to find something that works for you. The hacks I personally find most helpful are working for a couple of hours in the morning before checking email, and keeping lists of things that are bothering me so they don’t just sit on my mind while I’m trying to work. But there are tons of fantastic ideas in here. It’s also a good gift for friends who are designers, photographers, filmmakers, etc.
Daily Rituals is another title that outlines the practices of lots of different artists, but it’s a bit more inspirational and less how-to/practical than Manage Your Day-to-Day. Daily Rituals has very short chapters about the lives and artistic processes of dozens of different artists, some of them writers. Spoiler alert: The processes of many famous artists include alcohol, drugs and early death, so not every chapter has something to emulate. But there are some more disciplined artists in here, too, and either way, it’s a pretty fascinating read.
Zen in the Art of Writing is probably my favorite book about writing; it’s both practical and inspirational. Like Stephen King, Bradbury finds the writing process joyful and incredible. Like King, he also worked really hard at it, churning out stories almost constantly. Zen and the Art of Writing has very practical advice about how to write fiction — generating story ideas, creating characters, turning ideas into full-fledged plots, etc. For me, writing fiction is tougher to achieve through sheer discipline than writing non-fiction is, so his methods are really helpful. They also make brainstorming and writing more fun. And I guess that’s what I need from a writing book more than anything — a reminder that, even though writing is a discipline and a craft, it can also be incredibly fun, and I’m lucky to have it.
Carrie Rollwagen is a book reviewer for Southern Living and BookPage. She hopes you’ll read as many books as you can, and that you’ll get them all from your local bookshop or library. You can find Carrie on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter @crollwagen.