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Although I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned to write, I hadn’t considered reading books about writing or intentionally learning anything about the craft until a few years ago. I do not exaggerate at all when I say it changed my life. My writing life, of course, but also my life in general when I realised I really, really like constantly learning about things and bettering my life.
This list of the best books about writing might not do the exact same thing for you, but if you read each and every one of them, you will absolutely become a better writer.
I am someone who is naturally good at writing. I don’t feel weird about saying that out loud, because it’s something I’ve been complimented on throughout my life, in school and outside of it. Some people are athletic, some people sing really well, and I just write. It’s my thing. However, it’s one thing to be good with words and another altogether to write good stories. If you want to write something great and not just alright, you need to know how to work with what you’ve written and make it even better and better.
There is no book that will teach you EVERYTHING about writing, though. There is simply too much. Even the biggest book would have to be written by multiple people because no one can be the expert on all the aspects of writing. That’s why you need to learn from multiple sources and not to use any specific book as the ultimate gospel of writing novels no matter how useful it might be for reference.
So now that you know WHY you should read about writing, here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful in learning about my favourite craft. You don’t need to be writing your first book to get something out of these craft books – I’m currently writing my fourth novel and I’m still re-reading these books. That’s how useful and valuable they are.
What makes a good book
Donald Maass was the first whose books about the craft of writing I ever purchased. Writing the Breakout Novel and the accompanying workbook are absolutely full of actionable tips on how to make your book LOVED by readers. Maass goes through different elements in several “breakout novels” and tells you exactly what makes them compelling, and many of the books are something I personally wouldn’t have considered reading but they’re still worth studying.
Maass also has another book about contemporary fiction called Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Although classics are absolutely worth reading and learning about, the modern reader is looking for something quite different, and this book shows you exactly what they’re looking for. It also comes with many actionable tips that you can apply to your work in progress, and this book taught me A LOT about how to naturally weave real emotions into my writing.
Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing is another great book by a pro that gives you actually useful tips on improving your novel manuscript by showing you problems that you’re likely having and tells you how to fix them. Personally, I most liked the parts about writing dialogue and it really helped with writing What Birds Are Made Of.
Books about story structure and scene structure
Many aspiring writers fight against story structure despite the fact that you just cannot escape it. If you disagree, you most likely don’t understand structure well enough, and you could definitely do with learning more about it.
Believing that following a structure makes your book formulaic just shows that you don’t actually understand structure to see beyond “this plot event happens at 9% into the story”, and I promise you have nothing to fear and your writing won’t immediately become a copy of someone else’s writing just because you go and learn about structuring stories.
So what exactly IS story structure? To quote the words of author K.M. Weiland, “If there’s just one thing that matters to your success as a writer, it’s story structure. Story structure is what allows authors to create stories that work every single time. Story structure is what allows you to quickly diagnose and remedy plot problems.”
Naturally, Weiland herself has a book about structuring your story, as well as a workbook to help you go through the process. (You can get them both easily at once with the Structuring Your Story Boxset.) If the concept of structure confuses and frightens you, her books are a very good place to start simply because she has written them in a way that is very easily approachable.
Anatomy of Story by John Trudy is a little more complex read and it has a lot of examples from classic films, which might get tedious if you’ve never seen any of them. However, his approach to structure is very much NON-FORMULAIC, and I would happily recommend this book especially to people who don’t like to outline their books. You will learn to plot your story’s most important elements without making it feel like you’re taking all the discovery and wonder out of the process.
Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is a favourite in the writing community, and with a good reason. The book shows you what plot points you need to have to write a captivating story and tells you how to make them work for different genres. I’m never been great at coming up with the plot of my stories, I usually start from a character I like or from some kind of a vague vibe, so this book was a huge game-changer for me and erased “writer’s block” completely from my vocabulary. What writer’s block?
Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham is a book that I haven’t quite finished yet but it gives you so much insight into how scenes work in your novels. Mind you, some of Bickham’s advice goes against what I’ve learned from other writers, so take it with a grain of salt if it doesn’t concern with scene structure.
The best storytelling books for beginner writers and more experienced authors alike
Like I said earlier, creating a compelling story is a skill that is almost separate from good writing. Obviously, both should exist, but they are things that can be learned separately and occasionally they exist separately. (Ever watched a movie with mind-blowing plot events but with characters that were so flat they could float away?)
Fortunately, there are people who have analysed stories and then written books about what they learned. Matt Bird’s The Secrets of Story tells you exactly how to tell stories that captivate your readers, and it goes through practically every aspect of your book, including your tone and your dialogue.
Wired for Story, on the other hand, takes a more scientific approach to what makes a great story by taking a look at what we humans are wired to expect. The book also tells you why stories are so important to us and how they’ve helped us survive. That’s all really important stuff, and if you want to write stories that stick with your readers, this book is seriously worth reading. Understanding what readers respond to also really helps with plotting because it shows you how events go from one to another in a logical manner – also crucial for beating writer’s block.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft might have a fancy title but I’ve still found it very accessible and it teaches you things about writing fiction that you might not have even thought about. It goes over several aspects of writing stories and I’ve taken so many notes while reading it.
Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld has been crucial for me for understanding the differences between all the points of view that we use in fiction. The book teaches you so many things that you probably don’t intuitively get right even if you read fiction a lot, so I’d really recommend this book for every author out there.
The best books about writing great dialogue
But what do characters do when they talk? While editing my novel, I’ve noticed I’m really a big fan of making my characters look at something. She looked at her. He was looking at her. She Sat He Stood by Ginger Hanson gives you a lot of ideas for how to get your characters interacting with their environment while they talk, making your writing a lot more dynamic.
Plotting and outlining your novel
You might think that writing a book outline takes away the joy of discovering your story, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. You get to discover your story as you’re plotting it, and then again when you get to the actual writing and all the wonderful details come to life. And can you imagine not having to suffer from writer’s block??
That said, there’s no One Method to outline your novel or the only way to see story structure. Our brains are different and we see the world differently, so it’s worth reading different books and exploring different methods. Just because you don’t like ONE craft book, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read another. Writing fiction is not like coding – there isn’t a “right answer” to anything.
I’m going to have to mention K.M. Weiland here again, and not just because most of the craft books on my Kindle are by either her or by Donald Maass, but because her books simply are so accessible and she has so many fantastic and FREE resources on her website as well. Outlining Your Novel (And the workbook! I love workbooks!) has been a really good resource for me for when I’ve been planning my new stories.
I’ve recently read Plot Gardening by Chris Fox because I wanted to see if there was something that I could add to my own outlining process. If the idea of writing a novel outline does not sound appealing to you, this book gives you a fairly gentle process to do it and it also teaches you about Hero’s Journey and Story Circle in the chapters about story structure.
Remember what I said about needing to explore different methods? I was recommended Book Architecture by Stuart Horwitz, and although I wasn’t looking to update my methods of outlining, I knew that there wouldn’t be any harm in adding new tools to my writerly toolbox especially since I’d be teaching a new class on writing a novel in autumn 2022. If you haven’t liked other books about planning your novel and you don’t feel like understanding story structure just works for you, you should give this book a try. Not everything in the book felt useful for me personally, but I did learn one new storytelling tool that I’ll be using from now on.
I know many writers like How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson so I feel comfortable recommending the book here although I’m still yet to read it myself. Who knows, maybe that’ll be the thing that works for YOU.
Reference books for writers
Tired of writing about how sad someone is and how that makes them cry? There are books to help with that, too! The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a fantastic resource for all those times you can’t quite put your finger on how to describe what your characters are feeling or when you’ve somehow managed to run out of words.
There are other great books in the thesaurus series, like The Rural Setting Thesaurus, which I also own. (Though I realised later that it was a bit too America-centered for what I was writing, and culture is always something to keep in mind when you’re using any reference book about the environment or human behaviour.)
1000 Character Reactions by Valerie Howard has been another life-saver for me. Are you someone whose characters are always raising their brows or sighing? Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone! When you’re writing your first draft, it’s natural to use the expressions that first came to mind, and then later you can refine your writing with more descriptive language and more accurate choices of words. Books like this are a fantastic resource for that and there’s no shame in using them.
Books about writing life
Not for writing about life, but about being a writer. Stephen King’s On Writing was actually the very first book of the sort I ever read because it happened to be on my dad’s bookshelf when I was a teenager, and I’ve found many writers still consider it a good resource.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a book I’m still personally yet to read, but it seems very popular in the writing community of Instagram, so I feel very safe recommending it to any writer. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is another classic that I’ve been personally recommended, and if you’re familiar with the concept of morning pages, this book is actually where it comes from. And hey, wouldn’t you know, there’s also a workbook.
I hope you’ve found something new and helpful in this list. I tried to stick to books that I’ve read or that I’m planning to read very soon, so naturally, there are plenty of books that I’ve left out that could still be even better than these. However, I will be updating this list whenever I read something worth mentioning, so bookmark this post somewhere and come back to it later 🙂 Did I leave out your favourite? Let me know in the comments!