I used to play golf but I wasn’t very good. I rented a DVD, though, that taught me a better way to swing, and after watching it a few times and spending an hour or so practicing, I knocked ten strokes off my game. I can’t believe how much time I wasted when a simple DVD saved me years of frustration. I’d say something similar is true in my writing career. If you read these books, your writing will improve to the point people who read your work will begin to comment on how well you write. Sometimes the difference between an okay writer and a great writer is simple. I’ve read quite a few books on writing and here is, in my opinion, the collection every writer should have in their library.
• The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:
This book is aimed at writers, but it’s also applicable to anybody who does creative work. Whether you are a musician, pastor, teacher or in any profession that requires you to “put something on the blank page,” this book needs to be in your library. I read The War of Art about twice each year, and I’ll probably keep reading it twice each year for years to come.
Pressfield leaves out all the mushy romantic talk about the writing life, talk I don’t find helpful. True, professional writers are not walking around looking at flowers waiting for inspiration, they are, rather, fighting the urge to distract themselves and sitting down at the computer to hammer out their day’s work. Pressfield instills in his readers a professional perspective. Being a writer, to Pressfield, is no more glamorous than being a plumber. A professional shows up every day and “fixes a toilet.” I doubt any book has had a more positive influence on my writing life than this one.
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser:
Zinsser may be the best practical writing coach out there. From reading this book years ago, and reading it several times since, I’ve learned to cut my writing in half (Million Miles was over 100k words in rough draft, and published at 54k). From Zinsser I also learned to write for myself, not for an audience. This is one of the greatest lessons a writer can learn. Zinsser teaches us to write what we think is funny, or what we think is touching, and trust there are more people out there like you. You’ll gain confidence from On Writing Well.
• Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:
Before becoming a literary superstar, Anne Lamott taught writing, and Bird by Bird is the best of her advice, broken up into chapters. The title of the book comes from a story she tells about her father, who was also a writer, instructing her when she was a child to write a massive paper about birds slowly, Bird by Bird. While Anne does offer practical advice in the book, what she really offers is emotional sanity. When you read Bird by Bird, you will realize you are not alone in the world of words. Whether she’s giving you permission to write shitty first drafts, or giving you the courage to write about a person in your life who has been rotten, you’ll feel greater confidence plodding through the shadows with Annie to keep you company. And besides all that, it’s probably the best written book of practical writing advice you will actually read.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder:
Snyder’s book is specifically for screenwriters, and yet I recommend the book for writers of any kind, and teachers and preachers as well. In fact, I recommend reading it a few times, taking copious notes, and by doing so understanding exactly how story works. You’ll find after reading Save the Cat you’ll never watch movies the same again, and honestly, you won’t want to. Every time you see a film you’ll understand why you did or didn’t like it, and Snyder’s wisdom will be further embedded into your creative process. Snyder’s book is about structure, and about form. Before a writer gets too creative, he or she should learn form, and this may be the best book on form available.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell:
Similar to Save the Cat, James Scott Bell explains, in very simple terms, how story works. An inciting incident, for instance, is a doorway through which a character cannot return. That mental image and so many more have stayed with me since I first read Bell’s book. If you’re a fan of Robert McKee, whose book Story is, perhaps, too long and comprehensive, you will enjoy Bell’s treatment of similar concepts. (though I highly recommend reading McKee’s book, if not for the advice on story, for the rich philosophical treatment of the subject that will have you thinking about your own life.) If you’re a novelist or an aspiring novelist, Plot and Structure is a must.
On Writing, by Stephen King:
King’s book is broken up into two sections, the first is a fascinating memoir on his writing life and career, and the second offers practical advice. I enjoyed both parts of his book, but especially the second half. King has sold over one-hundred million books in his life, and he’s done it by being a master storyteller. Unlike some of the books I’ve listed above, King is less formula driven and trusts more in his intuition. That said, though, his intuition is spot on. As he writes, he allows the story to be told to him, rather than trying to tell the story to you. He’s discovering as he goes. But this is territory for the true pro, the writer whose radar is so fine tuned that they waste no words. While the critics may boo some of King’s work, there is something to be said for a man who can reach so very many people, book after book. I’d say this was one of my favorite reads so far this year, and it’s already made my essential writing library.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury:
What is most wonderful about this book is that Ray Bradbury loves to write. And because he is having so much fun writing the book, he’ll make you want to write too and as well. Bradbury mixes memoir and advice in this short book and you’ll find after reading it you’ve got extra ink in your pen. Zen in the Art of Writing is an emotional punch in the arm, emphasizing the importance of zest, gusto and curiosity. If you’re not sure if there’s anything in your life worth writing about, Bradbury gives you a wake-up call.
There are many books on writing, but these are the ones I come back to time and again, and my suspicion is I’ll be reading them for years to come. Have I missed any books? Let me know.