Look up the best books on writing and you’ll find thousands – all with similar sounding names and blurbs on the back. With limited time and limited budget, how do you know where to start?
I definitely haven’t read all of them. No-one has. It’s impossible! But I do have quite the collection on my bookshelves and I’ve also borrowed my fair share from the library too (followers of my Twitter feed will know how much I struggle with space to keep all my books and all the weird places I end up stashing them!) so I’ve got a good range to reference.
Even so, all writers write in different ways. We all have our own methods, and we don’t all write the same thing. I could easily write multiple blogs listing the best books on writing fiction, on writing poetry, on screenwriting, on content writing, and more. But there are some books out there that are so darned helpful that they could be adapted for any style of writing, and they’re firmly in my arsenal whether I’m writing novels, short stories, poetry, scripts, or copy. These are the best books in creative writing, no matter your genre or style…
So, the Oscars for best books on writing go to…
Writers & Artists Yearbook (any recent year)
Best Book on Creative Writing
This was a hefty tome I’d seen and heard about lots of times before but I was convinced that I didn’t need. Why buy a massive book when the world’s your oyster with the internet at your fingertips?
It’s a bit more complicated than that. Navigating publishing’s chopping waters can be tricky when you’re just one woman in a canoe. The publishing world is a great sea of publishers, editors, agents, beta readers, writers, and everything in between. This book is an anchor to help you screw your head on straight before you set off for land. Without it I wouldn’t have found my agent.
It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t really have to buy the book every year. Yes, the lists in the book won’t be 100% up to date but you can follow writers’ news threads and The Bookseller to hear about the newest agencies and publishing houses. The book also contains essays, guides, and help concerning all sorts of creative issues, so it’s a writers’ guide, as well as a directory.
‘On Writing’, by Stephen King
Best Book on Writing to Inspire You
Half rags to riches, half practical writing advice, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is always mentioned in lists of the best books on creative writing, and for good reason.
‘On Writing’ reads in the style it suggests you write in. It’s clear, easy-to-follow, but visionary. The first half is King’s own journey to writing (including lots of rejections), and the second part is his advice on writing. And it’s really practical stuff – an example I always remember is how to describe a cage on a table. King describes it and then points out all the gaps in the description that you filled in yourself as the reader. It’s excellent advice to not over-describe, and to trust the reader to make part of the journey themselves. It’s a reminder that this is part of the joy of reading, and that it’s an active engagement between author and reader.
I read this book over 7 years ago, and it’s still stuck in my head (and I’ve read a lot of writing guides).
‘Zen and the Art of Writing’, by Ray Bradbury
Best Book on Writing to Motivate You
This one took me by surprise. I hadn’t heard of Ray Bradbury (I know, I’d possibly been living under a rock), but this book had been recommended to me by a fellow writer. It’s really a collection of informal (and really passionate) essays on writing with a lot of Bradbury’s real life experience thrown in.
Despite the fact Bradbury wrote most of these so long ago, I had no idea until he started recounting how he wrote his first works on a library typewriter, hired for a dime a day (or something similar). His passion and tone of voice is absolutely timeless, and he certainly managed to fire me up to create create create.
I read ‘Zen and the Art of Writing’ mainly on my commutes to and from my content strategy day job a few years ago, and it made me feel like I could be, should be, would be a true writer as soon as I started typing.
Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms
Best Book on Writing for Creative Prompts
This one might seem out of place in my list, but hear me out. I LOVE this book.
Again, you might think a book of synonyms is quaint and out of date. No sirree! Yes, you can Google synonyms for anything, but that’s if you already know what you’re looking for. I use this book partly for synonyms and antonyms but also for inspiration. This might just be me, but nothing inspires me more than language itself, and flicking through these pages gets me thinking about all sorts of worldly issues and themes that I wouldn’t have known to think about.
There’s also an amazing central section consisting of commonly confused words and a wordfinder (be still my beating heart), featuring thematic lists of all sorts of devices that your story might feature – from chemical elements and clothing to phobias and flowers. SWOON. So whether you’re a poet, novelist, or content writer – this book is the perfect desktop creative prompter.
‘Take Off Your Pants’, by Libby Hawker
Best Book on Writing Structure
Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? Until a few years ago I had no idea what this meant (I now know I’m more of Pantser), and it was mostly the title of this book that intrigued me. And no, it has nothing to do with my trousers.
Initially Hawker’s book was self-published, and has since been published again in newer editions due to its popularity with writers around the world. The basic premise is that if you’re a Pantser (as in ‘you fly by the seat of your pants’) then you might well end up with something beautiful but it’ll take you far longer than if you outline your plot first. This is more important if you really want to be a commercial writer and produce books quickly and efficiently.
The main strength of this book is how it breaks down a typical story’s parts into simple pieces you can plan in advance. I have some major reservations about sticking to the ‘typical story structure’ but seeing it broken down at least gives you the core elements that you need to think about before writing. I personally WANT stories to subvert typical endings and to be confronted with experimental form or language, but regardless – this book does help you to structure your thoughts, quickly and easily. It’s so easy to read too, and you can use it like a workbook as you plan out your next story.
And there you have it – the best books on creative writing. These books are worthy winners, but there are some others that’re definitely worth looking at too. Notable mentions must also go to Bird by Bird, Reading Like a Writer, Writers Journey – Mythic Structure for Writers, and Guerrilla’s Guide to Film and Screenwriting – the first book I ever bought on writing at the tender age of 15.
If you’re looking for free resources to start you off, take a look at my post which lists the best free online resources for writers.