You don’t need to read books on writing to write a great book.
If you want to be a professional writer and dedicate your life to the craft, then books on writing might be useful. But for most people, reading a book on writing is a distraction from actually writing. It’s a waste of time.
You can take the greatest practitioners in the world and have them describe how they do what they do. But no matter how well they describe it, you’re never going to have a manual that perfectly teaches you how to do that thing.
For example, Thomas Keller is arguably the best living chef in the world. Pick up one of his cookbooks. Follow a recipe. It still won’t be as good as what you’d eat if you went to his restaurant, The French Laundry.
It might get you close. But you don’t become Thomas Keller by reading his cookbooks. You become Thomas Keller by walking your own path and putting in tons and tons of hours.
Writing books are often about the “how-to” of writing, but being a successful writer is more than following a set of instructions.
Reading isn’t a substitute for writing. The only way to publish a book is to sit down and put your ideas on the page.
To be clear, I don’t hate books about the writing process. They can be useful. But they won’t magically make you a better writer.
If you do want to read more about the craft of writing or find some writing tips, don’t pick just any book.
There’s a lot of bad writing advice out there, so make sure you’re only reading the best books on writing. Below, I’ll list 11 of the most essential books.
I’ll also list 4 books you probably want to avoid. People recommend these books all the time, but in my opinion, you’re better off spending your time writing.
The 11 Best Books on Writing for Authors
1. The Scribe Method
This is it. This is the only book on writing you’ll need.
Of course, I’m half-joking. But seriously, The Scribe Method is a great place to start if you want to write and publish a nonfiction book.
It outlines the step by step writing process we’ve used at Scribe to successfully publish thousands of books.
There’s no fluffy “write what you know” or “believe in yourself” advice. Everything in The Scribe Method is practical, actionable, and clear.
The book covers everything you need—including preparing to write your book, positioning, outlining, drafting, editing, designing, and publishing.
2. “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell
“Politics and the English Language” isn’t a book. It’s an essay. But it’s hands down the best essay on writing that exists.
We adapted Scribe’s nonfiction writing rules from this essay.
Orwell explains why you should dump tired metaphors, pretentious language, and meaningless words.
In other words, he explains why you should stick to these 4 essential principles of good nonfiction writing:
- Make it short
- Make it simple
- Make it direct
- Make it about the reader
If you can do that, you’re much more likely to write something that people will want to read.
3 & 4. The War of Art and Turning Pro, by Steven Pressfield
Aside from The Scribe Method, Pressfield’s book is the best book on writing. Period.
That’s mostly because he doesn’t talk about writing very much.
Instead, he talks about the main obstacle that stops people from writing, which he calls “resistance.”
For most Authors, getting stuck has nothing to do with the fact that they don’t know enough about writing. It has everything to do with writer’s block, fear, and resistance.
You have to learn how to overcome resistance when you’re writing a book.
If you really want to read a book on writing, read The War of Art.
If you want to read another one, read Pressfield’s follow-up book, Turning Pro. It’s about the internal transition you have to make to move from an amateur mentality to a professional one.
Then, that’s it. You’re done. Start writing.
5. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s advice is so good because he was a popular novelist.
That means he sold copies. A lot of copies.
He knew how to keep readers engaged.
Zen in the Art of Writing focuses on what really matters in writing and how you can keep readers interested.
This book helped me a lot when I was trying to learn how to write a story that people would want to keep reading.
6. On Writing, by Stephen King
This is a good book because Stephen King’s a good writer. But it’s not going to teach you a lot about writing.
That’s not an insult to Stephen King.
The book focuses a lot on the things he thinks and feels when he writes, and it’s interesting to get a look inside his head. But it’s not all that useful if your goal is to learn more about writing.
7. Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Leguin is a fantastic writer who talks about a lot of deep story elements.
But honestly, Steering the Craft isn’t that useful for beginning writers. It’s more for intermediate and experienced writers.
I read this book about 10 years ago, and I didn’t get very much from it. I read it again recently, and I got a lot from it.
If you want to read it, go for it. But just know that she’s writing to higher-level writers.
8. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
This book is solid.
It covers the fundamentals of writing well. For example, it teaches you why it’s important to ditch complicated language and why you need to know your audience.
On Writing Well also has more instructional information than a lot of other books on writing.
But for most first-time Authors, it’s not going to radically improve your creative process or make you a great writer.
9. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
This is a great book, but it’s got a really limited focus. It’s about 1 thing: the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey is a classic story structure that involves a hero going on an adventure, learning a lesson, winning a victory, and returning home transformed.
It may sound simple, but it can be really powerful.
Fiction writers have to understand story structure if they want to write a good book. That means The Writer’s Journey is especially helpful for people working on screenplays or novels.
It’s probably less helpful for nonfiction writers.
Still, even nonfiction books have anecdotes and short stories. And every story needs a good structure. So, this information may come in handy.
Vogler was one of the in-house scriptwriters for Disney. This book started as a memo that he wrote to other writers who worked with him.
So, this is a book by a high-level, professional writer for other professional writers. It’s not for beginners.
10. Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein
My friends who are editors love this book. But it’s another “deep in the weeds” book.
If you’re a professional editor, I highly recommend it.
But if you’re not, reading it probably isn’t the best use of your time.
11. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
I hesitated about adding this book to the list.
I hate books about rules and style. They’re generally all wrong. But out of all the books on style, this is the most useful one.
It teaches all the same stuff we teach at Scribe: keep it short, simple, direct, and about the reader.
Strunk and White just do it in a more formal way.
This is the book I give people who just went through an MFA program or who have been writing in an academic style for a long time. It helps get the garbage out of their heads.
But for beginning writers who don’t have those preconceptions, it isn’t all that useful.
4 Books You Probably Don’t Want to Read
You’ll see these 4 books recommended a lot. But you shouldn’t waste your time on them. Here’s why.
1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
What I’m about to say is very controversial because a lot of people like this book.
I really think this book has done more to ruin writers than it has to help them.
Don’t get me wrong. Anne Lamott herself is a very good writer.
I just think Bird by Bird is one of the worst books for beginning writers looking for practical guidance.
It’s an endless parade of status-signaling bullshit, like what kind of desk you need, what kind of pen you use, and what kind of tea you drink.
None of that will make you a better writer.
Know what will?
2. The Associated Press Stylebook, by the Associated Press
Burn this book before you read it. It will ruin you as a writer.
You’ll be thinking about all the wrong things. You’ll focus on grammar and a lot of other nonsense instead of the important parts of writing.
Instead of thinking about a lot of pointless rules, you should be concerned with whether your book is clear and interesting.
You should ask, Will the reader get something from my book?
If the answer is yes, no one will care about your commas.
The Associated Press Stylebook is useless unless you’re a professional journalist who has to follow a lot of stupid rules.
3. The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker
This is a 400-page book that should have been a 10,000-word essay.
That should tell you everything you need to know about Steven Pinker’s writing style.
Actually, let me clarify. This book is disappointing because Pinker is a good writer. Anyone who can make phonemes interesting has some skill.
But this is a perfect example of a common writer’s pitfall.
When Authors start writing about writing, they often lose their minds. They go on and on and on and write a lot of nonsense that doesn’t actually help people.
Pinker’s book falls victim to that.
4. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
This is actually a good book. But it’s a book for someone who wants to write professionally or who wants to make writing a daily practice.
It’s not a book for people who want to learn about writing so they can write a book.
Most nonfiction writers want to share their knowledge. They’re not looking to “discover themselves” or “nurture their inner artist.” They also don’t need a lot of writing exercises.
The only way to become a better writer is to write, but random writing exercises aren’t useful.
You’re better off setting up a writing plan and tackling the first draft of your book.
There are hundreds of other books on writing.
These are the ones I’ve found that actually move the needle one way or the other.
If you stumble across something you feel like you should read, go ahead and give it a shot. It’s probably not that useful, but go ahead.
But whatever you do, don’t use reading as a way to procrastinate.
If you want to learn how to write, sit down and start typing. That’s how all successful writers got their start.