My office in Canada
It’s a pretty common notion that all great writers are great readers. Like any craft, skill, or hobby, writing is something that needs to be continuously nurtured and practiced, and while the best way to become a better writer is to write (as much as possible, and as often as possible), there are a ton of great books on how to become a better writer out there to help you along the way. As I finished my master’s in Creative Non-Fiction a couple of years ago, I had to read a lot of those kinds of book, and I really did find many of them helpful, inspirational, and enjoyable. I continue to read books about writing, because I always think I can be better (so much better).
I’m definitely one for studying, and that includes studying writing in order to become a better blogger and freelancer. I never understand when I read an interview with a blogger who claims to not read any other blogs, because a) Don’t be such a snob… do you not believe in your industry? Like, you truly believe you’re the greatest blogger alive? Gag me with a spoon and b) How do you expect to be better if you shut yourself off from learning from others? The reason each of us fell in love with writing is because we fell in love with reading first. They go hand in hand.
While there aren’t that many great books about blogging – yet – I do think you can learn a lot about blogging through studying more traditional writing. After all, at the end of the day, whether you’re writing a 3,000 word narrative or a quick guide to Paris, you’re still trying to sell the reader on something, and you’re still trying to get them to keep reading. I never could have written this or this or this if I hadn’t studied writing and spent years of my life reading the work of others (or if I hadn’t had a bunch of travel romances to glean all of my material from, but hey, don’t judge).
Here then, are what I recommend as the best books to become a better writer.
Please note – some of these links are affiliate links, meaning if you click through and end up buying one on Amazon I will make a small commission, at no extra cost to you!
1. Stephen King’s On Writing
I fully admit that I have only read three of Stephen King’s FIFTY-SIX BOOKS. For real, he’s written fifty-six books. Despite my lack of knowledge of his writing, I know that he can tell a fantastic story (see: Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery, Cujo, Christine, The Body (which most know as Stand By Me) and so on). That’s why I fully trust his advice in his non-fiction book, On Writing. Subtitled A Memoir of the Craft, the first half of the book is dedicated to his life story and the second half has a lot more writing tips. Right off the bat in the second section, King got me, and he got me good, because he lamented using “big” or “long” words to make yourself sound like a better writer when “small” or “short” words will do. This is such a pet peeve of mine in other people’s writing that I knew I’d love this book for ever. In his words:
“Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ’emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’ and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.”
C’mon. I’m in love. Please buy this book immediately. I promise you’ll love it.
2. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
This is the book that gets placed on just about every list like this, and for good reason. Known as one of the most famous books about writing out there, it’s funny, useful, and SO great when you just need to relate to someone when you’re dealing with yet another bout of writer’s block. Anne Lamott does a great job of teaching you while also being very relatable. Oh, and what does “bird by bird” mean? You’ll just have to read the book and find out.
3. Telling True Stories (Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call)
“Writing well is difficult, even excruciating, and demands courage, patience, humility, erudition, savvy, stubbornness, wisdom, and aesthetic sense – all summoned up at your lonely desk.” The same could be said about weeding through YouTube comments, amirite?! Anyway, that’s how Telling True Stories begins… on an incredibly negative, scary, discouraging note. HOWEVER, the rest of the book is filled with advice from 51 established writers in narrative non-fiction, which I absolutely love; having a book filled with short, easy-to-digest chapters/sections by different authors is always a favourite of mine, because I can hone in on one or two chapters or just skip a few all together if I don’t like the writing style.
This book delves into research, reporting, and ethics alongside writing advice, which is great for bloggers and writers who want to represent what they’re writing about with absolute truth and honesty. Definitely recommended.
4. Robert S. Boynton’s The New New Journalism
The main reason I enjoyed this book is because of its format: it is comprised of 19 interviews with renown reporters, all highly skilled in their craft. I always love reading books of interviews because each person will bring something new to the table and yet it’s always fun to see which points all people agree on. While this book is focused more on journalism (um, it’s in the title) I still picked out tons of useful information and advice about nonfiction writing in general. I love Jon Krakauer, so it was especially fun to read about him.
My main gripe, however? Of the nineteen reporters interviewed, only three are women. Thanks for perpetuating the stereotype that all great journalism is written by men, ROBERT.
5. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic
I have no problem admitting that I didn’t like Eat Pray Love, not at all. In fact, I was so annoyed when I finished the book that I remember audibly groaning (I was in a Japanese laundromat at the time and I considered leaving it there; looking at my bookshelves, it’s not in there, so I may have done just that). What I do like about Eat Pray Love is that it gave more space for other travel memoirs to come to light, and to put a spotlight on this genre of writing, especially by women.
Still, when my mum gave me Big Magic for Christmas last year, I was on the fence about reading it. I worried that once again I’d be annoyed. As this book is almost solely about her creative processes, however, I found myself really enjoying it after all, and feeling extremely inspired after each section. This is not necessarily a book to turn to if you’re looking for concrete writing tips, but rather if you need a kick up the butt and a reawakening of creative energy.
I think of Big Magic a lot when I think about the book I wrote a few years ago but never published, because there’s a part in Gilbert’s book that talks about how, if you don’t pounce on an idea and release it into the world, it may pass you by and move on to somebody else. I have been sitting on my own book for a while because something happened that really knocked the wind out of its (or perhaps out of my) sails (if you ever meet me in person, I’ll share the scoop). Time to revisit Big Magic and get inspired again, I think, because I have nobody to blame but myself for not working on it!
6. David Quantick’s How to Be a Writer
The subtitle of this book is Conversations With Writers About Writing, so again, you know this book has a structure I’m going to love and recommend. This is a great book to pick up here and there to read an interview or two, as I always find it incredibly fascinating to read advice from respected authors such as Jon Ronson, Emma Donoghue, and Caitlin Moran. Even finding out people’s writing habits (do you write at night? do you have set writing hours? do you drink coffee while you write?) is just so utterly interesting to me. This book takes you through a writer’s day, filled with fun and useful anecdotes (and even a bit of literary gossip).
7. Tell Me True (Edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May)
Tell Me True is a collection of fourteen essays from renown memoirists from around the world. Memoir has long been a genre that comes under scrutiny, and it’s only fairly recently that memoirists that weren’t already famous could possibly hope to have their work placed on the bookshelves alongside biographies. Indeed, writing about one’s own life is incredibly difficult at times, because you’re meant to not only stay true to the facts but keep the narrative flowing, and sometimes NOTHING VERY EXCITING HAPPENS FOR A WHILE, you know what I mean? I’d definitely recommend Tell Me True for those interested in becoming better life writers, which I believe is a necessary skill as a blogger (unless you just have one of those blogs pumped full of SEO posts, which… um, have fun, I guess?).
8. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones
I loooooooove this book. In fact, if you only check out two books from this entire list, I’d recommend this and King’s On Writing. Writing Down the Bones is funny, it’s entertaining, it’s smart, and it’s unforgettable. More than twenty years after it was first published, this book that brings together Zen meditation and writing practice – yes, really – is still one of the most inspiring books I’ve read about writing as a skill. Full of wise advice and helpful tidbits, Goldberg has a conversational style that makes a book about advice actually really fun to read.
Writing Down the Bones is beautifully honest, as well, reminding us that, “[One] just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful. Writing is so simple, basic, and austere. There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive. Our monkey minds would much rather discuss our resistances with a friend at a lovely restaurant or go to a therapist to work out our writing blocks. We like to complicate simple tasks. There is a Zen saying: ‘Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.’ Write when you write.”
God, I really do love this book.
9. Don George’s Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing
This one is more specifically for those of us focused on travel. I’ll admit that I have never sat down and read this book all in one go, but rather keep it nearby when I’m reading and pick it up when I need some inspiration. I’m a big fan of Don George’s work – I’ve met him a few times *namedrop* and he is lovely – and I love that this book is a mix of interviews, examples, and advice. My copy is heavily dogeared and highlighted, as it’s full of fantastic tips for budding travel writers.
10. Nell Stevens’ Bleaker House
Bleaker House is a book that stands out on this list, because it’s a memoir. While technically not a book that’s straight-up advice about writing, I felt that it so accurately portrayed what it’s like to try to write a book – filled with asides, jumps in time, and even some fiction that all blend seamlessly – that I wanted to include it on this list. It was definitely one of the best books I read all year, and I instantly fell in love with Stevens’ ability to defy a whole host of writing genres. Not only that, she skilfully writes about the barren Falkland Islands that she chooses to inhabit while attempting to write her first book, so much so that I looked into flights. I could only hope that my first book is half as good as this one. Seriously, read Bleaker House.
11. Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Full disclosure: I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my wish list! Someone just recommended this book to me and I’m hoping it proves to be both entertaining and informative. It’s all about creative non-fiction, this fast-growing genre, and as evidenced in this post, I’ll spend hours reading books about creative non-fiction to avoid actually writing my own creative non-fiction, so this sounds like a win!
Bonus books for fun – for the real literary nerds out there:
Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer (I have read this book three times because it just gets better and better… think sordid tales about opium addictions, syphilis, and a whole lot of secret lovers. Plus, every time I read that Balzac drank up to fifty cups of coffee a day I just fall in love with him a little bit more. This book is SUCH A GOOD READ)
The Prodigal Tongue by Mark Abley (a book for those who love the English language and how it is transforming daily. Tons of fun travel examples in here, too!)
So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid (I first read this book in my undergrad degree and I loved it; it’s a short, fun take on reading and publishing in this era where we can have anything, at any time)
Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill (Athill is one of the most famous London editors ever, and this book is all about her life and the fascinating writers she has encountered… though perhaps none are as interesting as Athill herself)
The Journalist and The Murderer by Janet Malcolm (one of the most controversial books about journalism, this is a must-read for those who’d like to tackle a more researched and journalistic approach to writing)
Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson (another incredibly fun book about writers’ habits, including all of the quirky techniques that some of our favourite authors have used to create their greatest works. For example, did you know that Victor Hugo put himself on house arrest in order to finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame? He wore only a large grey shawl until he finished… *looks down at current clothing, realises I haven’t left the house in 24 hours*… maybe not that unique…….. )
So there you have it: my recommendations for the best books to become a better writer. I’m going to continue to search for these books, as I feel like I’ll never stop learning.
Which books about writing would you recommend?