Regardless how many books I’ve written (nearly 200) and sold (over 70 million), I fear if I’m not learning, I’m stagnating.
My late mother was a convincing example of one who never believed she had arrived. Mom was not only a piano teacher well into her eighties, but she was also a piano student.
So it’s the memory of my mother that spurs me also to keep reading everything there is to read—especially about writing.
The books below (in alpha order by author) represent a fraction of those available. You could read one per day for the rest of your life and not exhaust the resources. But, in my opinion, these are the best books on writing available.
Some require wearing your big kid pants due to language, which I have noted.
12 Books Every Aspiring Author Should Read
By Marie Arana
This book came from ten years of Ms. Arana’s Washington Post Book World column. More than fifty fiction and nonfiction authors share how they discovered they were writers and how they work. I was fascinated by what pleases and annoys them. Arana also profiles each writer.
2. Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish
By James Scott Bell (friend and colleague)
Anything but a dry textbook, this breezy guide is from a former trial lawyer who keeps you entertained while covering basics like how plot impacts structure, the difference between popular and literary fiction, and how to serve as your own book doctor.
By Brandilyn Collins (friend and colleague)
Calling on her theater training, Collins teaches bringing characters to life the way actors do on stage. She draws on the Method Acting approach to explain and adapt characterization techniques for novelists.
By Annie Dillard
Dillard’s hauntingly ethereal prose soars even when she’s writing about writing. That’s rare. I resonate with her honesty about how grueling the craft can be. This is one of the best books on writing available.
5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft [language]
By Stephen King (acquaintance)
At the risk of hyperbole, there’s so much to recommend here that I hardly know where to begin. Besides all the practical advice, you get King’s own rags-to-riches story in his inimitable voice. You learn a ton while being wildly entertained.
6. How to Write Bestselling Fiction [mild language]
By Dean Koontz
I’m not overstating it that this book changed my life. It informed the way I wrote the Left Behind series, which has sold more than 60 million copies and still sells six figures every year, nearly a decade since the last title was released. I use this as a textbook when I teach writing.
7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life [language]
By Anne Lamott
Lamott has you howling with laughter one minute and weeping the next as she recounts, with brutal honesty, the joys and travails of the writing life, single parenting, overcoming addiction, and coming to faith.
By Donald Maass
An agent challenges you to do more than just spin a yarn, but to also think “big concept,” tackle major themes, and write life-changing works.
9. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies
By Sol Stein (acquaintance)
Novelist, editor, publisher (Stein & Day), and writing teacher, Stein is one of the deans of the American literary scene. His career spans decades, and he shares insider stories of famous novelists and their work, as well as everything he learned along the way. I sat under his teaching years ago and still follow his advice.
By William Zinsser
Zinsser’s background should not be missed. He was a graceful classicist as a writer, and this million-seller has been lauded for its warmth and clarity. Zinsser offers sound tips on the fundamentals of writing any kind of nonfiction you can think of.
Now, don’t read any of those books for writers, until…
…you’ve read the bible of writing books:
By William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Failing to start your reading on writing with anything other than this undisputed classic would be akin to reading the top ten Christian classics while ignoring the Bible. This short paperback is recommended by every writing teacher I know. I’ve read it at least once a year for more than 40 years. Its simple truths cover everything from style and grammar and usage. Make them second nature.
By Les Edgerton
Les is one of the most powerfully edgy writers in the business, and you must have your big kid pants on to read his novels. But any writer will benefit from this great resource.
Packed with helpful, practical advice, it carries his blunt tone (but nothing offensive). I refer to it regularly.
If you’ve read none of the other books on this list, start with Stephen King’s On Writing. A short course in mistakes to avoid while writing, it’ll remind you why you wanted to be an author. Then, especially if you want to be a novelist, read Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction.
You could learn more in just those two books than in an entire college writing course.
BONUS: Before investing in one of these, download my free guide: How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps.