You should read about writing if you endeavor to be an author. Not sure where to start? Here are my five favorite books on writing. At least at the moment…
For writers interested in bettering their writing skills, reading stands as one of the best activities there is. And I’m not just talking about great literature from the classics to contemporary works. Most every author I know has his or her go-to favorite books on writing that have inspired them or pushed them to hone their craft.
For me, it began with Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Strunk wrote the first version for an English course at Cornell University, which White took as a student. The student would then become the master as White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, would later go on to edit two subsequent editions of Strunk’s original manual.
These days, Elements of Style has been surpassed in popularity by more modern writing manuals. Stephen King’s On Writing, for example, has more than 3,000 positive reviews on Amazon, which speaks for itself.
But for a craft as varied and personal as writing, it’s useful to listen to multiple voices and study varying techniques.
To get you started, here are five books on writing I believe every aspiring author should add to his or her reading list.
About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews
by Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany is the best-selling author of Dhalgren, The Mad Man, and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. A master of the science fiction genre, Delany’s best nonfiction book, About Writing, is a compilation of essays, letters, and interviews devoted to the craft of writing.
His essays focus on what he calls “the mechanics of fiction,” and address writing techniques like when to use flashbacks, how to create sympathetic characters, and the overall general structure of a novel. Delany is a writer’s writer, making this an excellent addition to any passionate author’s collection on craft.
If You Want to Write
by Brenda Ueland
Carl Sandburg himself said that If You Want To Write is the best book ever written about writing. That’s praise worth trusting.
It is one of only two books Ueland wrote in her life (the other being her memoir), but it holds up. Ueland organizes her book into 12 points that writers should follow, ranging from advice on being reckless, keeping a diary, and “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect it For Their Writing.”
Central to these points is the idea that every writer “is talented, original, and has something important to say.” Ueland insists that writers must “try to discover [their] true, honest, un-theoretical self.” Written with Ueland’s characteristic humor, If You Want to Write is a fine example of this advice.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
by Francine Prose
In Reading Like A Writer, Prose takes readers on a long, thoughtful journey through a collection of excerpts from masters of the trade, asserting that this is the way writers learn. “Long before there were creative-writing workshops and degrees,” she begins, “how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries.”
Prose guides readers through the tools and techniques of writers like Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, and Woolf. She borrows from some of today’s best writers, tapping one of my personal favorites, John le Carré, for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue.
This skillful examination of the best from the best results in a deeper appreciation of a book lover’s romance with words and stories.
Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Over the course of her career, Ursula K. Le Guin published more than 60 books in just about every imaginable category. Le Guin passed away earlier this year, but she left a special legacy to writers in her short and concise guide, Steering the Craft.
Le Guin addresses the most fundamental components of narrative, including the sound of language, sentence construction, and point of view. Each chapter is filled with examples and exercises that writers can engage in on their own or in a group. While we can no longer take a workshop with Le Guin, this book is the next best thing.
The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work
by Marie Arana
My last suggestion is not about craft or science. The Writing Life is truly a book about writers for writers. Marie Arana, editor of The Washington Post’s Book World, has gathered over 50 inspirational stories about writing from some of literature’s greatest creators.
In the book, authors share important stories and milestones from their professional careers: how they first discovered they could write; how they work; and how they deal with the frustrations, challenges, and delights of a writer’s life. It’s a thorough examination of this special blend of art and science that doesn’t shy away from the hard parts. Arana presents many writers’ concerns about the creative process and the place of literature in 21st-century America — a necessary reality check for anyone on the road to becoming a writer.
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