Essential Books on Writing


Nearly every time I post on writing, I get an e-mail from a reader asking what books on writing I would recommend. With the long weekend open to reading upon us, I thought I'd mention five books I consider essential.

Stein on Writing : A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies Stein on Writing

If you could only afford one book on  this subject, Sol Stein's is it. I discovered it on my own a few years ago, but since then, I've lost track of the number of writers who have casually name-dropped this book when discussing the craft. 

In the course of an amazing  career in publishing, Sol Stein's been a bestselling author, a respected agent, a crafty publisher, a "get him on the phone now" book doctor, and nearly every other hat  a writer can wear in the industry. In short, he's the kind of insider who can fill your head with wisdom.

Truthfully, everything Stein discusses in his bible of the craft can be found elsewhere, but no other book packs so much wisdom into so tight a work. This is a book you buy and read again and again. Absolutely essential.

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, Second Edition Woe Is I

 Grammar bedevils so many works today. When I book doctor new writers' work, I can guarantee that half my red ink goes to fixing grammar mistakes. I consider myself to be a good writer, but not a day goes by that I'm not fixing dozens of mistakes in my own work. The English language is remarkably complex, and if you think you know your grammar and word usage, I promise you you're wrong. Always in flux, our language never sits still. I've spent hours researching current hyphen use alone.

Rather than going for the overkill in a Chicago Manual of Style, I'd opt for this funny and concise book. Patricia O'Conner covers nearly every construction and punctuation you'll encounter in regular use. Perfect examples of what to write and what to avoid, readable layout, and pop culture references make this a reference you'll actually read from cover to cover

(I also use a spiral-bound Gregg Reference Manual. Better layout than the Chicago Manual of Style—though I do own a CMS—and more easily searched.)

Novelists Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes (Novelists Essentials) The Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

I've checked this one out of the library so many times their copy is falling apart. (Yeah, I need to buy it.)

Raymond Obstfeld tells you nearly everything you want to know about making a scene work. Features unbeatable info on writing to theme, character, and plot that's worth the price alone. Also discusses writing scenes to fit specific genres, not something you'll find in other books like this one. Apart from getting grammar right, nothing else is so critical to a novel than writing self-contained scenes. Can't recommend this one enough.

100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know

A truer title could not be found. Scott Edelstein covers a wide variety of writing topics, from organizing your notes to ways to jump-start the muse. The format of this book devotes short insights that make this a sort of "devotional" for writers. If Sol Stein is the sage on top of the mountain, Scott Edelstein's the approachable writer next door. Basic in many ways, but stuff even the pros need to hear.

Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye Making the Perfect Pitch

Simple premise: What do the biggest agents in the writing biz have to say about writing and pitching a novel? Sands has done a great job getting the best agents out there to speak on this topic, so it's a bit like having a couple dozen Sol Steins in one book. Katherine Sands interviewed them all and condensed their wisdom for us.  Everything from query letter design to turning your book into a movie is featured here. If you could only have one book on how to sell your novel, I would endorse this one.

That's my five book list. If you're a writer and have other suggestion, please leave them in the comments below.

Have a great holiday weekend reading and writing! 

7 thoughts on “Essential Books on Writing

  1. Deb

    Stein on Writing is #1 on my list, too. Then:
    Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
    Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King
    Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
    Quit Your Day Job, Jim Denney (from Quill Driver Books, great info on the writing life and how to make writing a full-time job.)

    • Deb,

      The Maass book nearly cracked my top five. Very good book.

      I’m not as fond of Self Editing for Fiction Writers. I think the great editing book is still to be written.

      I’ll definitely look up the Denney book, seeing that I’m trying to make a living writing! In only the first half of this year, I’ve nearly tripled my income from last year, so thing are going well. I’m always on the lookout for commercial clients, though!

  2. Dan, this is not related to the topic of the post, but I noticed a few weeks ago (maybe longer?) that sometime after switching to the new blog software, you changed your RSS feed to be a summary only (at least I’m pretty sure it changed). Was this a conscious decision on your part? If so, can you help me understand the logic behind publishing summaries only (actually, it’s just the first so many characters, I think) on RSS feeds? Those of us who read in an RSS reader (or at least, I can speak for myself) are too lazy to click over just if we want to read the whole post. I’d rather have it all in my reader, if it’s all the same to you!

    Sorry to be so off-topic. Just that a couple of times when I’ve emailed you, I haven’t gotten a response, so I thought you might be more inclined to respond to this here 😉

    I do enjoy your writing very much, and it was a nice surprise to see you comment the other day on my blog (although I had no clue who your comment was targeted at!)

    steve 🙂

  3. Rob

    For Steve – The comments here are often worth visiting for – not just the oringal posts.

    Also – Dan – congrats on the Writing progress – good to hear that you’re doing well with it and the book is getting closer to coming out. 🙂 – Think it will become the third christian fiction book I purchase. (Alongside some details from Kel Richards – who I should point out is probably the best “Aussie” writer in chrisitian fiction (i know you hate the term) – and his “Aussie bible” translation/literation is pure gold.)

  4. Rob, I definitely agree about the comments. And I frequently do come over to see the comments. And when I find a topic that really interests me, I even subscribe to the RSS feed for the comments on that post! 🙂

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