I started writing about three years ago. I had wanted to write for years but never had the guts to start, and the idea of hitting the “publish” button was a horrifying prospect.
Once I mounted the courage to finally start writing, I realized that I had no clue what I was doing, so I turned to the only place I knew for inspiration: writing advice books.
I’ve now read many of the top boos in the field and even had the chance to publish a featured series with The Writing Cooperative highlighting advice from the best writers of all time. From all of the writing craft books I’ve read, these are the ten best ones. They’ll inspire you, educate you, and propel your writing career to a new level.
“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser
Don’t let Zinsser’s lack of name recognition fool you. The guy is a titan in the field. Not only did this book sell a remarkable 1.5 million copies, but Zinsser also wrote 18 other books about a slew of topics including baseball, jazz music, and travel.
Zinsser believed clarity should be the main ambition of an author. If your readers understand what you’re trying to say, you’ve won half the battle.
“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” -William Zinsser
Zinsser concedes that style is important, but he encourages writers that style will emerge naturally over time. The most important thing is to master the art of clarity. Seek clarity first and you’ll discover style along the way.
→ Read Zinsser’s top writing tips
“Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon
Sometimes I feel like the world is pushing me to read someone’s work because their name suddenly pops up everywhere I look. That happened with Austin Kleon. Three different books mentioned Kleon, so I succumbed to fate and picked up Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist.
The fundamental premise of the book is that every creative person is essentially a thief. Any artist, musician, or writer worth a damn has stolen ideas from others and weaved those ideas into their own work.
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.” -Austin Kleon
Yes, as writers, we must credit back to our sources and give credit where it’s due, but every artistic undertaking is an amalgamation of all of the creative works that preceded it. And that’s a beautiful thing.
→ Read Kleon’s top writing tips
“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott has written countless successful fiction and nonfiction books across topics as diverse as depression, faith, motherhood, and alcoholism.
Lamott writes truthful, vulnerable stories about topics that others don’t want to acknowledge. She believes that an author’s best tool is the truth.
“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must (open the door)…You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. You can tell if they’re there because a small voice will say, ‘Oh, whoops, don’t say that, that’s a secret,’ or ‘That’s a bad word,’ or ‘Don’t tell anyone you jack off. They’ll all start doing it.’ So you have to breathe or pray or do therapy to send them away. Write as if your parents are dead.” -Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird offers advice for how to ignore your critics, write from the heart, ruthlessly edit your work, and find stories in the everyday events of life.
→ Read Lamott’s top writing tips
“Pity the Reader” by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell
Vonnegut had one of the most unique writing styles of all time. He meshed fantastical elements and otherworldly storytelling with gripping social commentary on themes like pacifism, technology, and social equity.
In Pity the Reader, Vonnegut’s former student Suzanne McConnell compiles Vonnegut’s writing wisdom for those of us who never had the chance to meet the literary legend.
“When I teach — and I’ve taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a couple of years, at City College, Harvard — I’m not looking for people who want to be writers. I’m looking for people who are passionate, who care terribly about something.” -Kurt Vonnegut
As he saw it, the most compelling stories all contained one key ingredient: passion. And Vonnegut believed that passionate writing was one of the best ways to effect social change. That’s why he chose to protest America’s constant wars by picking up a pen instead of a protest sign. He channeled his emotion into writing the best damn novel he could to express his anger about unnecessary war: Slaughterhouse-Five.
→ Read Vonnegut and McConnell’s top writing tips
“On Writing” by Stephen King
There’s a reason why this book is cited by seemingly every author on Medium. It’s excellent. Not only is King one of the most successful writers on the planet, but he’s also someone who has pushed literary boundaries for decades.
In school, teachers frowned upon young King for his dark, gruesome stories, and when King published his novel Carrie in 1973, horror was still a sideshow genre. But rather than shy away from his dark fantasies, King learned to embrace them and marshal them into page-turning fiction.
He encourages all writers to not only write about their interests but to also write in plain-speak rather than trying to sound smart or professional.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.” -Stephen King
→ Read King’s top writing tips
“Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday
Super Bowl champions, golf pros, and Olympians have cited Ryan Holiday as their inspiration for mental toughness and perseverance. Holiday’s books about modern Stoicism are incredible, as is his book Perennial Seller, which explores how to create a work of art that lasts for centuries.
Holiday is a great marketer — he was formerly Director of Marketing for American Apparel — but he says that marketing something is nowhere near as important as creating something work marketing. And what is required to create something meaningful? Hundreds of hours of tireless work.
“The difference between a great work and an idea for a great work is all the sweat, time, effort, and agony that go into engaging that idea and turning it into something real. That difference is not trivial. If great work were easy to produce, a lot more people would do it.” -Ryan Holiday
Perennial Seller weds tactical tips and with a pleasant kick in the pants to help you get off the couch and put in the time to write something of substance.
→ Read Holiday’s top writing tips
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield
Pressfield’s imagery and storytelling are so realistic that West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the Marine Corps teach his book Gates of Fire to their young cadets to help them learn about war.
Despite Pressfield’s literary prowess, he still battles demons in his writing process. He calls his enemy Resistance, and he takes up arms against this Resistance every day when he sits down to do his work.
“Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.” -Steven Pressfield
The War of Art is one of the shortest books on this list and also one of the most memorable. Pressfield’s humility and artistic vulnerability make this book a must-read for any creative.