Top 15 Books On Writing


Writing is something that has stumbled through to be truly appreciated. If you start by picking up a dozen books about how to write, most of it won’t mean much to you; all those terms and techniques have to be bungled before they can be understood, much less mastered. And spending a few hours reading about writing first, then doing the actual writing, will mess you up worse than loan shark you’re past-due on a payment to. Your writing will be so self-conscious you can’t possibly do it well. So write first, and write fast, and write frequentlly. Then, when you’re ready to take a break from writing, put your feet up and read from a few favorite books on the subject.

Here, in no particular order, are 15 books that I found to be extremely helpful (and yes, I’ve personally read every book on this list, some more than once):

So go forth, young man, young woman, and read about writing. Just remember that the writing comes first. None of these books will mean a damn thing if you’re not actually writing.


18 comments to Top 15 Books On Writing

  • mudepoz

    Great bibliography, thanks!
    Rereads end.
    *Old lady hobbles away to look for a fifth*

  • Ed,
    That’s a great list. I have only read five of them, own a few more, but I’ll jot the others down too. Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy was the book that got me writing again.

    One of the non-fiction books I own that I’ve been looking forward to is Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches – how to write bad guys of fiction by Jessica Morrell. I’m not sure how useful it will be, but it just sounds great.

    I wasn’t sure which to read next, Story by McKee or How to Write Magical Words, only because I read many of the Magical words essays here on the website.

    Anyways, have a great weekend.

  • mudepoz–“…look for fifth”? Of gin? Vodka? 😉 Those only worked for Hemingway; the rest of us write better when we’re sober…

    Dave–Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches. If nothing else, you gotta love the title. Let us know if it’s any good. As for the MW book, you may have read many of the individual essays before, but I’ll point out that they’re organized in the book in away that groups like with like to maximize their impact and effectiveness. The material is, I think, more potent that way.

  • Thanks fro the suggestions Edmund. Bradbury’s book is cool. I especially like his suggestion to read a poem every day: you’ve got to keep the Muses happy. but you forgot a very important Stein. Not a beer Stein, but Gertrude Stein’s book, “How to Write”.
    Here are a few more that I like:
    “On Writing” by Samuel R. Delany is probably my personal favorite.
    I also liked Damon Knight’s writing guidebook, distilled from teaching Clarion, “Creating Short Fiction”.
    I also especially enjoyed Rudy Rucker’s “A Writers Toolkit” available as a pdf from his website here:
    Not so much a book, these are his notes he uses when teaching workshops, like the Clarion he did a few years back.

  • Thanks for the added titles, and especially the link, Justin. Much appreciated.

  • mudepoz

    If the youngsters go forth, I’m left with fifth. Beethoven. And why is bitch derogatory? Honestly. *Looks down at my bitch soon to get lucky* I see more books to read.

  • Ed – first time poster, but I’ve been reading since Stellarcon (I was at the HTWMW Launch Party, and we talked a little about OSC’s Character & Viewpoint at the time… I’m also going to be going to the short session for “Uncle Orson’s” next month, thanks to your advice)… Now about the books:

    A couple that I have read and found helpful for me to get back into the swing of writing:
    The Art of War for Writers – James Scott Bell
    No Play? No Problem! – Chris Baty (The companion book for NaNoWriMo – encouraging writing fast!)
    101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists – Andrew McAleer
    John Scalzi’s – Your Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to the Coffee Shop (or something like that)
    Kate Wilhelm – Storyteller

    As an undergraduate, Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction was one of the course textbooks, and was useful to me as I was just starting to get my feet into studying the craft.

    These are in addition to both Card books you mentioned, and a slew of others that I have read over the years.

    Thanks for the post.

  • I blogged my own list today, which I had on hand in part because of a question on the MW Betas.

    I figure it would be better to lay it out elsewhere than clutter the comments. Besides, there are some crossovers between your list and what I’ve read or have picked up to read.


  • Welcome, Jeff. Glad to have you visit. I’ll look for you on day one next month, I’ll be there for just the day. Thanks for you additions to the list, too.

    Dave–I’ll check it out right now.

  • Razziecat

    That’s a great list. I have a few of those (including the MW book! Love it) and others are on my wish list. Donald Maass also wrote a great book called “The Fire in Fiction.” Tremendously inspiring.

    I also like Nancy Kress’s book “Beginnings, Middles & Ends.”

    One of my favorites is “How Not to Write a Novel,” by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. It’s funny, insightful, and bursts a few bubbles. Kind of had me going, “uh oh” a few times while reading it!:)

  • Razzie — “How Not To Write a Novel” — I like that. I have Nancy Kress’s book, but didn’t include it on my list because I haven’t finished reading it yet.

  • A most dangerous topic, with as many responses as there are writers. I admire you for even tackling this one, Ed.

    There are so many great books on the craft, but as you say, unless you’re writing, they don’t mean squat. Some books are great introductory texts, but never need re-reads; others are “re-read until your pages grow wings.” Amongst the latter, I have two: Robert McKee’s STORY — which seems to be about screenwriting, but its tenets are actually too valuable to stay on the silver screen. And Jordan Rosenfeld’s MAKE A SCENE, which is about writing novels (not screenplays). Of course, I subscribe nearly wholeheartedly to Stein on Writing — not the entire text, but the part on “triage revisions.”

    All good stuff.

  • Bill Hause

    Hey Ed, This is a great list. Thanks. I have six of them from some of our conversations. I am in the midst of reading Maass, Self Editing and 38 mistakes. I also have Make a Scene and liked it. With my birthday coming, I will pick up some more from this list.

    Thanks Justin for the link…

    Ed, I also have a strange question. I received as a gift, a lecture set on Building great sentences. The speaker spends a great deal of time talking about cumulative sentences. I figure these things have a time and a place in writing but was wondering what you thought of them in general as an editor for stories… too slow, too passive…
    Thanks , Bill

  • It’s a subjective topic, McKenna, much like the rest of this business (though I like the triage stuff, too).

    Bill — There is a place for slow and passive sentences. There is a place for all kinds of sentences in all kinds of literature. It’s the writer’s job to know which situation calls for which type of sentence. It’s mine to slap them around when the get it wrong. I can live with that.

  • That’s a great list, Edmund. I have at least five of those titles.

    I actually had the chance to get “Writing the Breakout Novel” autographed. I loved that along with his signature, Maass wrote, “[up arrow] tension!” Which is one of the biggest themes of that book.

  • Just chiming in again with a quick correction:
    The Samuel R. Delany book is titled “About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters & Five Interviews”. I must have gotten his book confused with Stephen King’s “On Writing” which is also good, but not as good.

  • I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s On Writing because it’s short, opinionated and dotted with great autobiography. David Morrell has some great stuff in his Successful Novelist too.

  • Very good list. I have seven of those, six of which are on my own list from an old blog post (not linked because it’s all covered in Ed’s list or in the comments). I will cheat and mention my favorite reference book: Flip Dictionary (Kipfer). It’s like a thesaurus on crack, great for finding the just-right word.