Literature

5 Books for Writers (Also 1 Video Series)

Whenever you write, there’s always that mean voice in your head that keeps saying that you need to write much, much better. Shut it up by reading some books and making small tweaks to your writing workflow (this is a 2-part blog post).

These books are great, obviously. I’ve read them, I’ve learned a lot from them, and they’ve helped me change and improve the way I think about writing. However, as you can see from what you’re reading, they’re not a magic cure that’s going to turn a mediocre blogger into a Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling writer.

The Elements of Style

by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr.

The Elements of Style should be any writer’s Bible. It’s a must-have on your bookshelf. It’s a book you must read at least once a year to refresh your memory. It’s short, it’s to the point, it’s written really well, and it covers all the tonal and stylistic elements you would be interested in as a writer. When should you use semicolons? When is the right time to use the m-dash? When should you use adjectives and adverbs, and when is it best to avoid them? This book covers that and more. Over slightly more than 100 pages this book will lay the foundation you need to become a good writer. As a strong believer in the fact that you need to know how to write right before you can know how to write well—I give/lend this book to every copywriter I’ve had to work with in my career as a marketing copywriter and editor.

On Writing Well

by William Zinsser

On Writing Well is to The Elements of Style what the new testament is to the old testament. It’s a much more nuanced text that tries to smooth the rough edges of the first book. Where The Elements of Style gives you fundamental rules on how to best apply your knowledge of English to writing, On Writing Well gives you a feel for some of the nuances. It also covers some basics (like punctuation and style), but then goes in much more depth on individual types of writing. Most of it is for non-fiction writers, covering topics like criticism, personal narratives, journalism, etc.

It gives you a feel of the structure your writing should have, how to think about your audience (and whether thinking about your audience is something worth doing at all), and how to get your thoughts across in the most economical way possible.

Literally Anything

by George Orwell

George Orwell wrote about writing quite a bit, but his most valuable contribution to writing is that he led by example. The Elements of Style and On Writing Well cover the rules, but George Orwell’s writing demonstrates what can happen if those rules are applied and followed. This goes for his fiction, but even more so, it goes for his non-fiction writing.

I highly recommend reading his essay Books VS Cigarettes, as well as the classic essay on Politics and the English Language.

Screenwriting 101

by Film Crit Hulk

This one applies to anyone working on fictional stories, but mostly (and especially) to people who are writing screenplays. Most screenwriting books I’ve seen give you a set of templates to follow (the three-act structure, Saving the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, all that shit). Instead of doing that, this book covers the basics of what makes a good story. It explains why templates don’t work, and gives you some fundamental rules to follow when writing your screenplay. It describes the mechanisms behind good stories, and that gives you the necessary tools to make a good story yourself.

Its biggest accomplishment is that it aims to reshape the way you think about “story” so you can write a good one in your own unique way. It doesn’t instruct you how to write a screenplay—it teaches you how to be a screenwriter.

The Comma Queen

by The New Yorker

The Comma Queen is an editor at the New Yorker. I (think) I’ve already talked about how much I love that publication and how rigorous their editing/fact-checking process is. The Comma Queen is a series of videos that covers basic, but little-known rules of grammar. When to use the Oxford Comma (always), when to use the semicolon (whenever appropriate, but also as sparingly as possible), when to use umlaut marks, like in the word “coöperation” (pretty much never, unless you’re writing for the New Yorker), and other stuff that you don’t need to know, but knowing it will really set you apart from the rest.

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