When we need guidance on how to write, there is nothing quite like a book from an author we admire. Which other format could be more appropriate for sharing wisdom about our beloved craft?
Personally, I'll never forget the feeling of settling down with On Writing by Stephen King. The experience of learning not only his life journey, but the reasons for his stylistic choices, is something that continues to stay with me in my own writing.
Of course, the writing book you need at any given time will depend upon your current project. You might need technical guidance. You might need some examples for guidance. You might need some inspiration from famous writers to break through a creative struggle.
Whatever the reason, you can rely on the wisdom of books to unlock the powerful writing guidance you seek.
Here are five widely admired perspectives on the written word, along with a few ideas from each you can apply to your work.
1. On Writing by Stephen King
If you haven’t read On Writing, stop reading this right now. Then, go to your favorite book store and get yourself a copy.
Of all the writing books out there, I haven’t come across any other book that’s able to convey both the life of an author and the technical nuances that make up the craft. On Writing doesn't just give you a fly on the wall perspective of King and his meteoric rise. It also gives you practical and easy to understand guidance for your writing projects.
One of my favorite sections sees King write out a first draft, and then make corrections to it to give you insight into the way he self-edits.
So what are some ideas and principles you can apply from On Writing to your next project?
Your Ideal Reader
When Stephen King is working on a new book project, he writes with his wife in mind. By focusing your energy and attention on a particular person (or your target audience), you allow yourself to please them, rather than trying, and failing, to please everyone.
King advocates that first draft and revisions should take place within a certain period of time. He states that if we as authors leave a story too long, it loses its urgency and mental potency.
The Psychic Power of Writing
One of the most memorable parts of this book is when King likens the craft to being psychic. How? Ideas are transmitted from the mind of the writer to that of the reader.
No guide to books on writing would be complete without King’s contribution. If you haven’t read it, check it out for yourself, and apply some ideas to your next book.
2. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B White
The Elements of Style is widely considered one of, if not the, quintessential book on writing. It’s formed the basis of writing guidance handed down through the decades. Although you might worry that Strunk Jr and White’s ideas are dated, you needn’t be. By taking the time to read and apply The Elements of Style, you allow your writing to become more potent.
So how can we take the ideas found in this best book on writing and apply them to our craft?
Omit Needless Words
Sounds obvious, right? But it isn’t! Chances are, if you run your first draft of any article or book through a writing tool, it will come back with a fair amount of errors or sticky sentences. Often, we need to cut out words that we like the sound of, but fail to add anything to the sentence as a whole.
Revise and Rewrite
Another common-sense piece of advice, but one worth hearing. Often, our first drafts will be pretty messy and full of technical errors. That's OK! It's desirable. It gives us raw material with which to craft something worth reading.
Use Active Voice
This is something a lot of book writing software apps will flag up. When you use the passive voice, your writing loses impact and authority. Avoid it where possible in favor of the active voice.
The Elements of Style is the perfect example of a classic writing book that has truly stood the test of time.
3. War of Art by Stephen Pressfield
Stephen Pressfield took the creative world by storm when he released War of Art. Of course, looking at the nature of creativity, as well as the things that help or hinder it, is nothing new necessarily. However, Pressfield's ideas are straightforward and easy to comprehend. They are written in a way that is undeniably accessible and understandable.
So how can we learn from War of Art to overcome writer's blocks and times of low output?
Perhaps the key concept in War of Art is resistance. Resistance is defined by Pressfield as the difficulty we have in engaging with our creative work. Next time you struggle to write, consider turning to War of Art for answers.
Accept Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong, or aren’t good enough? Believe it or not, most people feel that way. Pressfield advocates permitting yourself to feel less than good enough from time to time. It's simply an aspect of living that most people experience.
Craft Over Everything
Do you spend your time wisely? Perhaps not as much as you could. Next time you have a free moment, stop and consider how you can further your craft. Is there something you could practice, for example? Some writers like trying out a new style. Why not give narrative nonfiction a go?
Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art is the perfect example of a book that gets inside the creative process and explores it for what it truly is.
4. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Did you know that Ray Bradbury did more than write awesome sci-fi and fantasy novels back in the day? He also tried to help his fellow writers, like you and me, by releasing a guide. This was termed Zen in the Art of Writing and is widely read by all authors and writers today.
But what ideas does it contain, and how can you take action on them to be a better writer?
Truthfully, when was the last time you stopped and read some poetry? Perhaps longer than you’d like to admit! By adding some poetry back into your reading rotation, you give yourself a sense of the style and rhythm of language that isn’t found anywhere else.
Tell Your Truth
Bradbury is adamant that you must tell your own unique truth. Everyone has a unique background and set of experiences that equip them with a perspective and outlook that no one else quite has. Use this to make your writing your own.
Don’t Chase Fame
Bradbury is also very clear that writers shouldn’t chase money or fame directly. Instead, focus on sharing your unique truth through your work. Money will eventually come to you as a result, but it shouldn’t be the thing you seek, merely a byproduct of fulfilling work.
If you’re feeling stressed out about your writing, or like you have to be someone you’re not, take the time to read Zen in the Art of Writing. Your next book, not to mention your wellbeing, will thank you for it!
5. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Steal Like An Artist might be a slightly misleading title.
Kleon isn't claiming that artists are more likely to steal than other people, to be clear. His message in this book on writing is far from that.
Instead, what Kleon is getting at, is that writers, like artists, should remix and repurpose ideas. Rather than stealing someone else’s art, try and capture its essence, and let it inspire you.
Which concepts did Kleon include in his book, and how can you put them to use in your own writing life?
Write For You
Kleon is very clear that you should write the book you want to read. Don’t be inauthentic. Don’t try and write in a style that isn’t yours. Instead, lean in to the concept of writing just for you.
Get Away From The Screen
Kleon makes the point that we are always on our phones. Instead, his suggestion is to consciously unplug and shut down, and focus on being present in the moment.
As part of the idea of being open to remixing and mashing up your creative writing, you need to be open to the feedback of people you trust. Take their ideas on board, and see if they could improve your writing.
While you should never plagiarise, Steal Like an Artist allows you to open your mind to the possibility of remix and inspiration. What could possibly be bad about that?
These are five of the best books on writing. Each one delivers a unique perspective on the writing craft, with inspiring take-aways that every type of writer can apply. While there are many other insightful books on the subject aside from the ones mentioned in this article, this short list should be your starting point.
Good luck, and may the muse be with you.