The Absolute Best Books on Writing (according to 10 “top” lists)

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books on writing

The list of favorite books on writing can be very different from one author to another. So where do you start? I’ve scoured 10 “top” lists to see which titles spanned the gamut. Here’s what I found.

What are your favorite books on writing? Do you have a large collection? How do you expand your corpus when you feel like reading another? Which would you recommend?

There are a huge number of books on writing and if you want to pick the absolute “best,” you have two choices. The first is to pick books that the most people have read and enjoyed. The second is to admit that the best books for each writer will be different. If you are a poet, nonfiction writer, or romance aspirant, you might want specialist advice and information.

Popularity contest

To find the books that are most popular, I looked at the intersection of lists of favorites — and I found an interesting pattern. If you combine the top books on Amazon and the picks found in a range of “top book” articles (Steven Spatz‘ 5 favorites, Shaunta Grimes‘ top 10, Jerry Jenkins’ “12 best,” Jeff Goin‘s “best books,” SmartBlogger‘s “9 Essentials,” The Write Life‘s “9 of the best,” Barnes & Noble‘s “6 best,” and Paste‘s “10 best”) we see some perennial favorites, but overall, surprisingly little overlap.

A few classics appear repeatedly, but most of the recommended books on writing only appear once. This is because excellent, but specialist, books fall down the ranks. The perfect book for you might never rank a “top 10” list of general writing books.

So, who are the winners? Two books stand head and shoulders above the rest in the tally of appearances. The winning category is “writers writing on writing” and the two top books are Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Other books often in the top lists are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and two on creativity: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity and Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.

Most at the rarefied top of the normative lists have some good years on them. Remember the classics now “too old” to rank on such modern lists. This includes Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces which describes the hero’s journey that inspired Star Wars, Aristotle’s Poetics (which comes in various translations and interpretations from modern authors), and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

New books continuously appear. Harvard linguist Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century already ranks as a modern classic update to the Elements of Style and writer and teacher John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process is just out for nonfiction.

If you want to hear the advice of an expert editor and you are interested in nonfiction, go for Sol Stein’s On Writing. Blake Synder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need is a textbook in screenwriting.

And the lists go on and on.

Just look at this list by Booker prize-winning author DBC Pierre in The Guardian to see how different and unique a personal choice list can be. It includes The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli to “discover what villains are born knowing.”

The best books to add to your collection fill the biggest gaps in your knowledge or provide the most inspiration. This could mean getting a tip from a colleague or mentor or scrolling curated lists to seek out something that matches your interests. Book Riot has a list of “100 Must-read, Best Books On Writing And The Writer’s Life.”

The choices might seem overwhelming, but it helps that you can download opening chapters for free on Kindle to have a look at style and content.

How many have you read? Which should you read next? In the end, pick to match your tastes and needs. The absolute best are the ones that help you most.

 

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I’m an editor/proof reader for a friend’s small publishing company. I’ve no formal training to know the kosher way to do this job and wonder where to start putting more structure into my work so I can help more people?

  2. I’d like anything relating to any aspect of writing or editing or publishing (through an agency/agent). I know there are so many books regarding these topics, but everything seems so conflicting. I’d like to see what you all have to suggest.

  3. Can’t believe you left off my favorite book of all time: “Writing Down The Bones” and others by Natalie Goldberg!

    • I could say the same of Isaac Asimov’s “Asimov on Science Fiction”– a collection of essays on writing, some of which are obviously geared toward SF&F, but others useful to writers of all disciplines.

  4. I”ll agree that each person must choose the ones that work best for them. I like almost all of James Scott Bell’s books on writing. Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” and LIsa Cron’s “Story Genius” are two more if you are looking for a way of writing. “Save the Cat” is great for the modern fiction writer. Stuart Horowitz and his “Blueprint Your Best Seller and “Book Architecture” aren’t for beginners but are worth reading. Rayne Hall has a lot of short book on various subjects that will give you a beginning knowledge of craft in the Writer’s Craft series. Brandilyn Collins “Getting into Character is a must read. “The First Five Pages” but Noah Lukeman is a must read for all authors. He tells you exactly what editor and readers expect. Robert McKee’s “Story” is one everyone should have in their library along with Sol Stein’s “Stein on Writing” and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.” Of course there are tons more books out there but these are the ones I have along with several of those mentioned above. For me, learning my craft has impacted my writing. I’m still learning and have gotten the “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King simply because you can write anything, but making it into something worth reading involves editing. and this book gives you a lot of things to look for when editing beyond your editing programs.

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