Somebody asked me to recommend a book list recently so I did some searching and found a dozen or so lists of “best books for writers.” But few of them are very good. The majority just deal with the inspiration and motivation, to get you to actually start writing. The current pop culture ideology is that if you write, then you are a writer.
(I think that’s horseshit).
Maybe it’s because I’ve been a book editor for years, or because I grade student essays, and am always trying to improve my writing to impress my ivy-league educated grad school professors.
There’s a lot of reasons we write. But writing doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer; what makes you a good writer is lots of practice and a clear goal so that you can recognize what’s wrong with your writing and make it better.
You want to be a writer? You’re already committed to spending all your time writing and don’t need self-help quackery to motivate you to actually getting off your ass and doing some work?
Then you’re ready to improve your writing, because believe me, while you may have fun writing your first few novels or non-fiction books, you won’t have any fun when nobody will read them because they suck. Being a successful writer is about telling great stories in an interesting way. You need the right stories, in popular, bestselling genres (if you want to make a full-time living) and they need to be told well.
You need to learn how to write well, and luckily it’s a skill you can develop – but you need to allow yourself to write badly at first, push through the rough draft, go back and edit, and always be learning how to recognize your own weaknesses.
With that in mind, here are some books I appreciate.
*Note: most of these are about structure. Because your writing style or quality doesn’t actually matter that much; it just has to be good enough to contain your excellent story – readers keep reading to find out what happens next, so each scene needs tension and suspense (what could happen/what will happen) and engaging turning points that tighten the conflict.
All of these books helped me out a little, but if you want a much quicker way to learn this stuff, check out my 24chapter novel outline.
Top 5 writing guides
This one was huge for me, as I got much deeper into the mirror stage and the inside conflict/reflection vs. external conflict, or what I call the A story and B story.
I’ve always been an outliner, but this fun book made me appreciate some new themes and gave me encouragement to being open to new writing processes and tools.
I don’t consider myself a fast writer, but when I get in the zone, I can do a few thousand words an hour, and *have* done over 10K a day. A 7K day for me feels pretty great, but I also know that 2K a day consistently is just as good.
Chris Fox is one of the most casually insightful voices in the publishing community. None of this is ground-breaking: unless like most writers, you still feel uncomfortable with the idea of writing to market or writing popular/commercial genres to please readers on purpose. If that’s you… you need this book.
Most people will recommend Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, but that’s a terrible idea. I have a HUGE article comparing these two books (how to be a hack and write books that sell) but basically, War of Art is feel-good but unrealistic BS, while this one is actual practical writing advice that completely contradicts the other.
This is fiction, but it’s great. I wote a big review of it here.
My Book (it’s a lot)
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.
Hi Derek, why there aren’t Stephen King’s “On writing” and “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield here?
Steven King’s totally should be.
Steve Pressfield’s is great for getting you to do the work and finish the book; but also really terrible for teaching you to listen to your inner muse and that you’re a hack if you consider whether or not anybody wants to read what you’re writing. So I have a love/hate relationship with The War of Art, and could only recommend it with severe conditions.
I forgot to add Write Publish Repeat – it has some useful idea that I have experienced myself like building the world, writing beats, never messing with the characters, etc. I wonder though about Fiction Unboxed again by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant – have you read it? Is it any good?