If you’re a working or aspiring writer, you already likely know about the classic best books on writing–King’s On Writing, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–but for a craft as varied and personal as writing, you’ll always benefit from learning from more voices, with more techniques.
That’s why this list is full of writers not only talking about the bare-bones craft of writing (and there’s plenty of fantastic advice there), but also how becoming a writer changed their lives and what role they believe writers play in an ever-changing world. From craft to writer’s lives, get ready to dig into 100 of the must-read, best books on writing for improving your own work.
1. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life by Sandra Cisneros
“Written with her trademark lyricism, in these signature pieces the acclaimed author of The House on Mango Street shares her transformative memories and reveals her artistic and intellectual influences. Poignant, honest, and deeply moving, A House of My Own is an exuberant celebration of a life lived to the fullest, from one of our most beloved writers.”
2. A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass
“Brilliantly synthesizes Hass’s formidable gifts as both a poet and a critic and reflects his profound education in the art of poetry. Starting with the exploration of a single line as the basic gesture of a poem, and moving into an examination of the essential expressive gestures that exist inside forms, Hass goes beyond approaching form as a set of traditional rules that precede composition, and instead offers penetrating insight into the true openness and instinctiveness of formal creation.”
3. A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
“After almost a half a century of scrupulous devotion to his art, Jorge Luis Borges personally compiled this anthology of his work—short stories, essays, poems, and brief mordant ‘sketches,’ which, in Borges’s hands, take on the dimensions of a genre unique in modern letters. In this anthology, the author has put together those pieces on which he would like his reputation to rest; they are not arranged chronologically, but with an eye to their ‘sympathies and differences.'”
4. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
“Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister—a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, and equal in genius, but whose legacy is radically different. In this classic essay, she takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give voice to those who are without. Her message is a simple one: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to have the freedom to create.”
5. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany
“Taking up specifics (When do flashbacks work, and when should you avoid them? How do you make characters both vivid and sympathetic?) and generalities (How are novels structured? How do writers establish serious literary reputations today?), Delany also examines the condition of the contemporary creative writer and how it differs from that of the writer in the years of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the high Modernists. Like a private writing tutorial, About Writing treats each topic with clarity and insight.”
6. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
“Based on the lessons in his award-winning class, Great Screenwriting, The Anatomy of Story draws on a broad range of philosophy and mythology, offering fresh techniques and insightful anecdotes alongside Truby’s own unique approach to building an effective, multifaceted narrative.”
7. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland
“Explores the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and the nature of the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way. The book’s co-authors, David Bayles and Ted Orland, are themselves both working artists, grappling daily with the problems of making art in the real world. Their insights and observations, drawn from personal experience, provide an incisive view into the world of art as it is experienced by artmakers themselves.”
8. The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat
“At once a personal account of her mother dying from cancer and a deeply considered reckoning with the ways that other writers have approached death in their own work.”
9. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
“Gardner’s lessons, exemplified with detailed excerpts from classic works of literature, sweep across a complete range of topics—from the nature of aesthetics to the shape of a refined sentence. Written with passion, precision, and a deep respect for the art of writing, Gardner’s book serves by turns as a critic, mentor, and friend. Anyone who has ever thought of taking the step from reader to writer should begin here.”
10. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
“Karr synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and ‘black belt sinner,’ providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre.”
11. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
“The seminal book on the subject of creativity. An international bestseller, millions of readers have found it to be an invaluable guide to living the artist’s life. Still as vital today—or perhaps even more so—than it was when it was first published twenty five years ago, it is a powerfully provocative and inspiring work.”
12. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
“With profound empathy and radiant generosity, Gilbert offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.”
13. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
“Lamott’s miscellany of guidance and reflection should appeal to writers struggling with demons large and slight. Among the pearls she offers is to start small, as their father once advised her 10-year-old brother, who was agonizing over a book report on birds: ‘Just take it bird by bird.’ Lamott’s suggestion on the craft of fiction is down-to-earth: worry about the characters, not the plot. “
14. Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood by Elif Shafak
“She intersperses her own experience with the lives of prominent authors such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, Ayn Rand, and Zelda Fitzgerald, Shafak looks for a solution to the inherent conflict between artistic creation and responsible parenting. With searing emotional honesty and an incisive examination of cultural mores within patriarchal societies, Shafak has rendered an important work about literature, motherhood, and spiritual well-being.”
15. Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich
“Erdrich takes us on an illuminating tour through the terrain her ancestors have inhabited for centuries: the lakes and islands of southern Ontario. Summoning to life the Ojibwe’s sacred spirits and songs, their language and sorrows, she considers the many ways in which her tribe—whose name derives from the word ozhibii’ige, ‘to write'”—have influenced her. Her journey links ancient stone paintings with a magical island where a bookish recluse built an extraordinary library, and she reveals how both have transformed her.”
16. Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right by Bill Bryson
“An essential guide to the wonderfully disordered thing that is the English language. With some one thousand entries that feature real-world examples of questionable usage from an international array of publications, and with a helpful glossary and guide to pronunciation, this precise, prescriptive, and–because it is written by Bill Bryson–often witty book belongs on the desk of every person who cares enough about the language not to maul or misuse or distort it.”
17. Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell
“A truly memorable antagonist is not a one-dimensional super villain bent on world domination for no particular reason. Realistic, credible bad guys create essential story complications, personalize conflict, add immediacy to a story line, and force the protagonist to evolve.”
18. Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo
“In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo, one of our leading Native American voices, details her journey to becoming a poet. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice.”
19. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
“Former editor Lynne Truss, gravely concerned about our current grammatical state, boldly defends proper punctuation. She proclaims, in her delightfully urbane, witty, and very English way, that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are.”
20. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
“You know the authors’ names. You recognize the title. You’ve probably used this book yourself. This is The Elements of Style, the classic style manual. This book’s unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers. Use the fourth edition of ‘the little book’ to make a big impact with writing.”
21. The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass
“Veteran literary agent and expert fiction instructor Donald Maass shows you how to use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers. Readers can simply read a novel…or they can experience it. The Emotional Craft of Fiction shows you how to make that happen.”
22. Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley
“A go-to guide to attracting and retaining customers through stellar online communication, because in our content-driven world, every one of us is, in fact, a writer. If you have a web site, you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing. And that means that we are all relying on our words to carry our marketing messages. We are all writers.”
23. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
“With exercises at the end of each chapter, this invaluable reference will allow novelists, journalists, poets and screenwriters alike to improve their technique as they learn to eliminate even the most subtle mistakes that are cause for rejection. The First Five Pages will help writers at every stage take their art to a higher — and more successful — level.”
24. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
“From blank page to first glowing (or gutting) review, Betsy Lerner is a knowing and sympathetic coach who helps writers discover how they can be more productive in the creative process and how they can better their odds of not only getting published, but getting published well.”
25. Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors by Jewell Parker Rhodes
“Free Within Ourselves is is meant to be a song of encouragement for African-American artists and visionaries. A step-by-step introduction to fictional technique, exploring story ideas, and charting one’s progress, as well as a resource guide for publishing fiction.”
26. Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins
“Want to bring characters to life on the page as vividly as fine actors do on the stage or screen? Getting Into Character will give you a whole new way of thinking about your writing. Drawing on the Method Acting theory that theater professionals have used for decades, this in-depth guide explains seven characterization techniques and adapts them for the novelist’s use.”
27. The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou
“In The Heart of a Woman, Maya Angelou leaves California with her son, Guy, to move to New York. There she enters the society and world of black artists and writers, reads her work at the Harlem Writers Guild, and begins to take part in the struggle of black Americans for their rightful place in the world.”
28. If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
“In this book, Ueland shares her philosophies on writing and life in general. She stresses the idea that ‘Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.’ Drawing heavily on the work and influence of William Blake, she suggests that writers should ‘Try to discover your true, honest, un-theoretical self.’ She sums up her book with 12 points to keep in mind while writing. Carl Sandburg called If You Want to Write the best book ever written on how to write.”
29. Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep by Ted Conover
“Conover distills decades of knowledge into an accessible resource aimed at writers of all levels. He covers how to “get into” a community, how to conduct oneself once inside, and how to shape and structure the stories that emerge. Conover is also forthright about the ethics and consequences of immersion reporting, preparing writers for the surprises that often surface when their piece becomes public.”
30. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
“On a post-college visit to Florence, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri fell in love with the Italian language. Twenty years later, seeking total immersion, she and her family relocated to Rome, where she began to read and write solely in her adopted tongue. A startling act of self-reflection, In Other Words is Lahiri’s meditation on the process of learning to express herself in another language—and the stunning journey of a writer seeking a new voice.”
31. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker
“Alice Walker speaks out as a black woman, writer, mother, and feminist, in thirty-six pieces ranging from the personal to the political. Here are essays about Walker’s own work and that of other writers, accounts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the antinuclear movement of the 1980s, and a vivid, courageous memoir of a scarring childhood injury.”
32. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences by June Casagrande
“Great writing isn’t born, it’s built—sentence by sentence. But too many writers—and writing guides—overlook this most important unit. The result? Manuscripts that will never be published and writing careers that will never begin. So roll up your sleeves and prepare to craft one bold, effective sentence after another. Your readers will thank you.”
33. The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience by Chuck Wendig
“The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? Where do I start? The best way to answer these questions is to ditch your uncertainty and transform yourself into a KICK-ASS writer.”
34. The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook by Brian Shawver
“Grand themes and complex plots are just the beginning of a great piece of fiction. Mastering the nuts and bolts of grammar and prose mechanics is also an essential part of becoming a literary artist. This indispensable guide, created just for writers of fiction, will show you how to take your writing to the next level by exploring the finer points of language.”
35. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne
“Finally, a truly creative―and hilarious―guide to creative writing, full of encouragement and sound advice. Provocative and reassuring, nurturing and wise, The Lie That Tells a Truth is essential to writers in general, fiction writers in particular, beginning writers, serious writers, and anyone facing a blank page.”
36. The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein
“Editor Cheryl B. Klein guides writers on an enjoyable and practical-minded voyage of their own, from developing a saleable premise for a novel to finding a dream agent. She delves deep into the major elements of fiction―intention, character, plot, and voice―while addressing important topics like diversity, world-building, and the differences between middle-grade and YA novels.”
37. Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
“Making a good script great is more than just a matter of putting a good idea on paper. It requires the working and reworking of that idea. This book takes you through the whole screenwriting process – from initial concept through final rewrite – providing specific methods that will help you craft tighter, stronger, and more saleable scripts.”
38. Memoirsby Pablo Neruda
“In his uniquely expressive prose, Neruda not only explains his views on poetry and describes the circumstances that inspired many of his poems, but he creates a revealing record of his life as a poet, a patriot, and one of the twentieth century’s true men of conscience.”
39. The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch
“Stephen Koch, former chair of Columbia University’s graduate creative writing program, presents a unique guide to the craft of fiction. Along with his own lucid observations and commonsense techniques, he weaves together wisdom, advice, and inspiring commentary from some of our greatest writers.”
40. Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara
“Packed with insights and advice both practical (‘writing workshops you pay for are the best–it’s too easy to quit when you’ve made no investment’) and irreverent (‘apply Part A [butt] to Part B [chair]’). Naked, Drunk, and Writing is a must-have if you are an aspiring columnist, essayist, or memoirist—or just a writer who needs a bit of help in getting your story told.”
41. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood
“In this wise and irresistibly quotable book, one of the most intelligent writers working in English addresses the riddle of her art: why people pursue it, how they view their calling, and what bargains they make with their audience, both real and imagined. To these fascinating issues Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood brings a candid appraisal of her own experience as well as a breadth of reading that encompasses everything from Dante to Elmore Leonard.”
42. On Writing by Eudora Welty
“Eudora Welty was one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary figures. For as long as students have been studying her fiction as literature, writers have been looking to her to answer the profound questions of what makes a story good, a novel successful, a writer an artist.”
43. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
“Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have.”
44. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
“Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental principles as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher.”
45. One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher
“Based on the Zen philosophy that we learn more from our failures than from our successes, One Continuous Mistake teaches a refreshing new method for writing as spiritual practice. Here she introduces a method of discipline that applies specific Zen practices to enhance and clarify creative work. She also discusses bodily postures that support writing, how to set up the appropriate writing regimen, and how to discover one’s own ‘learning personality.'”
46. Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland
“Writers often look upon outlines with fear and trembling. But when properly understood and correctly wielded, the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.”
47. The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4by The Paris Review
“For more than half a century, The Paris Review has conducted in-depth interviews with our leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. These revealing, revelatory self-portraits have come to be recognized as themselves classic works of literature, and an essential and definitive record of the writing life.”
48. The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
“Presents brief essays on the elements of poetry, technique, and suggested subjects for writing, each followed by distinctive writing exercises. The ups and downs of writing life―including self-doubt and writer’s block―are here, along with tips about getting published and writing in the electronic age.”
49. The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Ted Kooser
“Using examples from his own rich literary oeuvre and from the work of a number of successful contemporary poets, the author schools us in the critical relationship between poet and reader, which is fundamental to what Kooser believes is poetry’s ultimate purpose: to reach other people and touch their hearts.”
50. The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by New York Writers Workshop
“Have you always wanted to get an MFA, but couldn’t because of the cost, time commitment, or admission requirements? Well now you can fulfill that dream without having to devote tons of money or time. The Portable MFA gives you all of the essential information you would learn in the MFA program in one book.”
51. Paula: A Memoir by Isabel Allende
“Irony and marvelous flights of fantasy mix with the icy reality of Paula’s deathly illness as Allende sketches childhood scenes in Chile and Lebanon; her uncle Salvatore Allende’s reign and ruin as Chilean president; her struggles to shake off or find love; and her metamorphosis into a writer.”
52. Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
“In her fifteen years of teaching, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett has found that the biggest stumbling block for aspiring writers (especially women) is not fear of the blank page but frustration with the lack of time. What woman doesn’t have too much to do and too little time? Finding an hour free of work, children, or obligations can seem impossible.”
“Pixar Storytelling is about effective storytelling rules based on Pixar’s greatest films. The book consists of ten chapters, each of which explores an aspect of storytelling that Pixar excels at. Learn what Pixar’s core story ideas all have in common, how they create compelling, moving conflict and what makes their films’ resolutions so emotionally satisfying.”
54. Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell
Remove the fanfare and most writing advice boils down to read more, write more, and get better feedback.
Let's talk about that first one. If writing is output, reading is often the most important input. You'll understand what makes Hemingway's writing exceptional (or overrated) by reading his books, not from taking his advice. Study your idols, as that is a much more rewarding and reliable strategy.
That said, there are a number of useful books on writing that can supplement your education. Here are five that I have always kept close:
1. Revising Prose by Richard Lanham
A book I recommend for its memorable examples. My favorite comes from Warren Buffet, who has a deep rooted respect for clear communication within companies. His own shareholder letters are so well written that they are often considered the gold standard for the medium.
Former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt was so fond of Buffet's prose that he asked him to write an introduction for the SEC's official Plain English Handbook, which seeks to eliminate the jargon from disclosure documents.
Levitt tells a story of how he once asked Buffett to translate a passage from a mutual fund prospectus into English spoken by real people. The original text was as follows:
Maturity and duration management decisions are made in the context of an intermediate maturity orientation. The maturity structure of the portfolio is adjusted in anticipation of cyclical interest rate changes. Such adjustments are not made in an effort to capture short term, day-to-day movements in the market, but instead are implemented in anticipation of the longer term secular shifts in the levels of interest rates. (i.e. shifts transcending and/or inherent in the business cycle.
We will try to profit by correctly predicting future interest rates. When we have no strong opinion, we will generally hold intermediate term bonds.
Shorter, clearer, and can be more readily understood by a larger audience. A perfect example of revising prose.
2. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost
The book you've all seen in passing, but haven't read.
Why? Because it is the source of this famous excerpt on writing:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music.
Good writing moves you effortlessly through the words. Reading suddenly becomes as quick as thought.
Part of mastering flow, this "music" in writing, is understanding the interplay between short and long sentences. Short sentences must be accompanied by expanded thinking, otherwise they slow things down to a snail's pace.
And then this. And then this. And then this. It gets old fast.
When used well a short sentence can bring clarity, heighten suspense, or place a magnifying glass on a point of interest. With the added power of spacing it can feel like it rests all alone; that it's too critical to be with anything else.
Although this example is a quote, I've always been fond of "Today You, Tomorrow Me," a story from Reddit that uses a short, memorable line to perfectly capture the intended message. The abridged summary is that a man was stranded on the side of the road and then graciously helped by a caring Mexican family. When he tried to give them money, this was the response:
He sees the $20 in my hand and [is] just shaking his head no, like he won't take it. All I can think to say is "Por Favor, Por Favor, Por Favor" with my hands out. He just smiles, shakes his head and with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English:
"Today you... tomorrow me."
Rolled up his window, drove away, his daughter waving to me in the rear view. I sat in my car eating the best f*cking tamale of all time and I just cried. It has been a rough year and nothing has broke my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn't deal.
In the 5 months since I have changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and, once, went 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won't accept money. Every time I tell them the same thing when we are through:
"Today you... tomorrow me."
That line is moving and stays with you. Damn good communication, in short. You'll learn quite a few things about how to accomplish this in your own writing by reading this book.
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
As one reviewer put it, highlighting the best parts of this book is a fruitless endeavor as you'd be better off dipping the whole thing in yellow highlighter. No matter what style or medium, it is a book that every writer should read.
There are concerns that loom over every "new" writer that always seem foolish as time passes. Seeing a great writer's finished work is only seeing their highlight reel--their process is an enigma, and can create a sense that such talent came to them naturally, like dictation from God. Any final essay only reveals the smallest percentage of total effort: only those ideas which made the cut.
Anne Lamott's passage that owns up to the struggle of every first draft perfectly captures the importance of knowing that good writers become great through revision:
And often the right words do come, and you--well--"write" for a while; you put a lot of thoughts down on paper. But the bad news is that if you're at all like me, you'll probably read over what you've written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.
Ditch the belief that your first drafts should be good. Brainstorm horizontally, edit vertically.
Remember that blades and words becomes sharp by filing them down. Like carving a sculpture from marble, you need excess material to revise your way to "no words have been wasted."
4. On Writing by Stephen King
From fundamental truisms on the nature of the craft to down-to-earth advice on forming a consistent writing habit, this book is a classic--you all knew it would be here.
With no need to introduce it, I'm better off sharing some of my favorite passages. First, on approaching the blank page:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair-the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world.
Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
On the nature of recognizing mediocrity, so that you might avoid it yourself:
We need to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them.
What is the job of the writer? The next time you hear someone struggle to capture a moment, a feeling, an idea, you'll know:
We've all heard someone say, "Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) ... I just can't describe it!" If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.
Such a book wouldn't be complete without mention of the struggle. King's take? Ask yourself how far you would go for focus:
If you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.
To get results other writers can't, do things other writers won't.
5. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
As a Harvard psychologist with notable work in the world of linguistics, I was excited for this book. While wonderfully written, it suffers from being overly-descriptive and too long--a flaw the book suggests to avoid! Otherwise it is delightful.
Within you'll find some memorable passages on the common warning signs of prose gone bad, particularly relevant to smart people who are trying to transfer their knowledge:
The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.
That may sound obvious. But it's amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don't point to something in the world but are self-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are not a bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic.
And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and "somewhats" and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes.
When bloated writing is used to mask weak ideas, everyone loses.
Bonus: Closely kept favorite authors
Surround yourself with great work and it will inevitably rub off on you.
Visiting and revisiting the masters of the craft is the only way to accomplish this--books on writing can only go so far.
Levels of the Game is one such example for me. John McPhee may be one of the greatest living essayists. His work is complex, stylistically masterful, and will leave most writers with an existential crisis ("That's it, I give up!").
More seriously, studying the work of McPhee and other role models has changed my perspective, and it has certainly changed my writing--one can only hope for the better.
Find the authors that speak to you and let them serve as your companion on the quest to make every word matter.
Gregory Ciotti is the lead content strategist at Help Scout, the SaaS help desk for web businesses who insist on delivering outstanding customer support.
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