The best books on writing

This is a subjective list, but I feel strongly that the following books are more than enough if you want to improve your writing. Sure, there are others, but these have helped me immeasurably:

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White

This book is probably on most writers’ lists, and for good reason. It breaks down the basics of good writing and, even though it’s brief, it ignores nothing. While it doesn’t cover fiction writing, it does cover writing in general, and as such I think it is a must for everyone—would-be writer or not—to read. We all have to write something at some point, even if it’s just an email to apply for a job, and this book will help you do a better job.

Telling Writing, by Ken Macrorie

This book probably isn’t on most lists, but it should be. Within the teaching of college composition, the late Ken Macrorie was a well-known English professor. In other words, this a college textbook, but its advice and depth are so good that everyone who wants to improve their writing can benefit from it. On the sentence and word level, Telling Writing is more detailed than any of the above books but without being boring or pedantic. It is worth reading for its basic tenet alone, which is that good writing tells the truth. Now, that principle sounds too basic to be earth-shattering, but just read his book, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

On Writing, by Stephen King

Stephen King’s fiction credentials need no rehearsal here. Even if you don’t care that much for his penny dreadfuls, you can’t ignore his success. Personally, I am no longer drawn to his stories as I was when I was a teen, but I can still respect his command of the language and ability to tell a story without tripping over his own prose. If you want to write fiction, and even if you’re writing nonfiction, his practical tips on revising your prose are not to be ignored. He doesn’t really give away any detailed storytelling/structural techniques; rather, he discusses how he attracts his own muse (a guy who chomps a cigar). If only most fiction writers read this book and did what he asked, they might still write bad stories, but at least those bad stories would be much easier to read and comprehend.

Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected, by Jessica Page Morrell

Jessica Morrell is an established literary agent who specializes in fiction. It’s clear from reading her book that she loves fiction and desperately wants writers to submit better material to her. Her tips are very practical and she leaves no stone unturned. Her book is less about the sentence level than it is about plot, characterization, and pacing, but it’s got everything, as I recall. If you can’t follow her guidelines (at least in a general way) as you write your story, then I’m not sure you story is going to be compelling. If you’re a fiction writer, you can start with King’s book, but you definitely should read hers next because it goes deeper and will address the rest of what you’re doing wrong.

That’s it for now. Feel free to contact me in case I’ve missed some book on writing that you think should be on this list.