Despite writing being an art with a multitude of approaches, most of the writers I’ve talked to or heard speak have a certain number of qualities in common. One of those qualities is that, at some point, most writers reach a point where they feel they’ve reached a plateau, and look for help in getting them on to the next level. Some people do this through academic programs. Some people turn to writing workshops. Still others turn to reading books on the subject and working up on their own. There’s no single right way to go; each method can work, but it’s the reading program I’m touching on today.
In a way, reading books on the subject may be the most natural approach; learning to write, after all, involves learning how to read, not just for surface comprehension but for thematic depth and subtext. Writing is one of the few arts where the viewer must work as hard (in some cases, maybe harder) as the artist in order to comprehend and appreciate the work, and what better way to communicate that from an experienced artist to a would-be artist than through the very medium itself?
Seems logical, which is why there’s almost as many books on how to write as there are authors selling books. Many of them are pretty good: in fact, I had a hard time winnowing down a list of worthy ones to discuss in this post. The following list is not meant to be exclusionary; there are many others. However, these are the books that I found to be most worthy of keeping, and as a result, these are the books I’d recommend most to writers looking to improve their own writing:
- The Elements of Style, Strunk and White: Of all the books I could discuss, this is the closest to being indispensable. It’s also the shortest, topping out at less than 100 pages of text. Still, it’s the gold standard, delineating the basic elements and rules of clear, concise writing. Do you have to follow every rule and guideline in the book? No, not at all, but if you choose not to, you should at least understand the rule you’re breaking and the reason for breaking it. If you don’t already have a copy, I urge you to get one and read it. Strunk and White are solid friends of every editor and writer worth their salt.
- On Writing Well, William Zinsser: This book is commonly used in college writing courses of all stripes, even though the focus of the book is on non-fiction. The reason for this is simple: Zinsser has a lot of good, practical advice on writing, and delivers it in a friendly, authoritative fashion. This book is of particular help if you’re going into journalism or personal essays, but every writer can get something out of it, and it’s never dull.
- How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card: Card has made himself a few less friends in recent months, thanks to his somewhat incendiary views on certain hot-button issues, but the fact remains that Card is a strong, well-respected writer within the field. For several years, Ender’s Game was one of two science-fiction novels on the U.S. Marine Corps suggested reading list (as of 2006, it was the only one), pretty good for a guy who never served in the military. Anyway, Card’s guide to writing in the SF/fantasy field is highly detailed and grounded in a pragmatic approach; his analysis of the opening paragraph of an Octavia E. Butler story should be taught in universities on how to build worlds and characters without using fat blocks of exposition. Even non-genre writers will learn much from Card’s slim volume (less than 150 pages altogether).
- On Writing, Stephen King: Although much of the book is memoir, everything in it comes back again to writing, an art with which King is still passionately working. Like the other books mentioned here, his advice is practical and specific—most writers would do well to follow his rule of thumb on second drafts—but perhaps even more valuable is his insight on living the life of a writer. Being a writer can be a hard row to hoe, and despite his incredible success, King does a masterful job of capturing what the life of a working writer looks like.
Again, this list isn’t meant to be the final word: a canonical list of useful books for writers would have included Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Robert Olmstead’s Elements of the Writing Craft, and about two dozen others. The four I mentioned are simply an excellent place to start. In the end, though, you as a writer will get out of a book whatever you bring to it. Good luck in finding your best help.