Every writer can improve his or her craft. Whether you’re an aspiring novelist, a seasoned journalist, an established author, or just want help honing your next college essay (and you’ve already read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style so many times the binding is falling apart), the following list of books is worth adding to your writing toolkit:
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction - William Zinsser
This perennial classic is a helpful guide for anyone—including fiction writers—who wants to cut the clutter from their writing. Zinsser emphasizes that learning what not to include is essential to good writing. After reading his clean, instructive prose, you may forever sense that he’s watching over your shoulder as you write, asking if you really need that extra sentence or paragraph—and you will be a better writer for it.
Bird by Bird - Anne Lamott
Part-memoir, part manual, Lamott sums up the writing life and the writer’s typical stumbling blocks. She recounts how, when her brother was ten years old and struggling to write a report on birds due the next day, her father told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Her sound advice and honesty blend together to create an intimate look into the art of starting small and completing a book little by little.
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer - Roy Peter Clark
This slim, practical book is a quick-read, but an essential one. With a lifetime of experience, Peter Clark has assembled a wealth of knowledge into one crisp, valuable work. “Writing is a craft you can learn,” Peter Clark says. “You need tools, not rules.” His tools vary from the technical—punctuation, tense, using active verbs—to the more exercise oriented, including reading one’s work aloud, listening to song lyrics, and constructing writing process diagrams with colored markers. He emphasizes that these tools are there to help you, not restrict you. And you can throw them away when they aren’t useful anymore.
Zen in the Art of Writing - Ray Bradbury
While many books on writing are quick to point out the difficulties of the craft, Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing emphasizes the joy of being a writer. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he reminds us of the simple marvels of creating. Less a how-to manual than a celebration of the genius inside all of us, Bradbury’s book forces you to start an open dialogue with yourself, and to ask the important question: How well do you know your own life? The success of your writing process may hinge on the answer.
On Writing - Stephen King
An enjoyable and entirely practical read, King’s On Writing includes tips on confronting the blank page, “how to kill your darlings,” childhood anecdotes, plot and character development, and professional tricks of the trade. Whether or not you enjoy his work, it’s difficult not to take advice from such an established author, especially when his advice is so good.
And, for those of us of who don’t have the patience to read an entire book on writing, I find Kurt Vonnegut’s “8 Basics of Creative Writing” (from the preface of his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box) to be almost all I need to get inspired:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. Lest you think you need to follow every one of these rules (or any of those detailed in the volumes above) it’s worth noting that Vonnegut ends his list with perhaps the best insight of all:
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.