5 Books Every Writer Should Read
This story originally appeared on our sister site, The Freelancer.
Whether you’re an experienced writer or just getting started, learning about your craft can be an essential ingredient to professional and personal growth. For those without any idea where to start, books can help you get a handle on the fundamentals; for experienced writers, the texts might offer help for a specific problem like writer’s block.
Thousands of books have been written about writing, largely because there’s such a demand for them. But most of that huge pile of books in your local bookstore’s “Writing/Reference” section is—to put it bluntly—garbage. Often, as is the case with a lot of self-help books, they recycle intuitive tips without discussing anything all that interesting.
But there are some gems in the rough every writer should read. We’ve compiled a list of five of the best books about writing. Not all are specifically about freelancing, but they all contain extremely valuable wisdom and practical advice for those who write for a living.
1. ON WRITING
Excerpt: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
The quintessential writing manual, Stephen King’s book is part memoir and part study about the art of fiction writing. King’s narrative is inspiring—his journey mirrors that of most freelance writers. He submitted a ton of stories from a young age, getting rejected hundreds of times before he became an international bestseller. The tips on writing might be focused on fiction, but the nuts and bolts that King describes are vital to any kind of writing, including pieces of advice like making sure research doesn’t overshadow a story and eliminating distractions when working.
Many writing instructors recommend and teach this book, and I refer back to it constantly for my own writing.
Excerpt: “Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
Another classic, this book by brilliant nonfiction writer William Zinsser covers the basics of good journalism as well as some advanced tips for writers looking to carve out a specialty.
First published in 1976, On Writing Well has become an essential text in creative nonfiction and journalism courses in both high school and college, and manages to stay very relevant in a writing world that has changed a lot since the book was published.
Freelancers hoping to get a thorough education on writing clean, clear, and concise nonfiction should pick up this book and keep it handy.
3. BIRD BY BIRD
Excerpt: “It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”
In addition to being the first book I ever read about writing, Bird by Bird has been a major influence on how I’ve approached my life as a writer. Anne Lamott’s book stands out above other writing manuals because the author doesn’t presume to have all of the answers—or that there is a single set of answers in the first place.
Her advice starts small: Just write, and write honestly. Start from your earliest memories and work your way forward. New freelancers aren’t always sure where to start, and even if your goal isn’t to write personal essays, Lamott guides you through the inferno of the writing life.
From the chapter on so-called “shitty first drafts” (and the author’s memorable tips on quieting the voices in your head), to tips for dealing with jealousy, Bird by Bird can help writers find their footing on the page and in the world.
4. GOOD PROSE
Excerpt: “Every story has to be discovered twice, first in the world and then in the author’s study. One discovers a story the second time by constructing it. In nonfiction the materials are factual, but the construction itself is something different from fact.”
The spiritual successor to Zinsser’s book, Good Prose is the product of a lifetime of work and collaboration between Tracy Kidder (the writer) and Richard Todd (the editor). The pair began their professional journey at The Atlantic, where Kidder was a freelance writer and Todd a staff editor.
This book mainly looks at three types of writing the authors dealt with in their career: writing about the world, writing about ideas, and writing about the self. Freelancers looking to dabble in writing and/or editing will get a ton out of this slim but helpful text.
Excerpt, from novelist Anne Rice: “I certainly have a routine, but the most important thing, when I look back over my career, has been the ability to change routines.”
A bit different than the rest of the list, this book by Mason Currey focuses on the daily rituals and habits of a long list of writers and artists from Flaubert to Murakami to Mozart. I’ve found that most beginner freelancers have difficulty with the actual routine of writing—this book could provide some much needed encouragement and inspiration.
Overall, the author makes it clear that there is no “wrong” creative routine; everyone is different and requires specific methods to achieve maximum productivity. Some routine actions work for a lot of people, like writing for a set amount of time every morning. But not every writer functions that way. French novelist Gustave Flaubert usually wrote at night since daytime noises seemed to distract him. A lot of freelancers (such as yours truly) will sympathize with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found strict routines quite difficult to follow and often did his best work in random spurts regardless of the time.
If all of these books have a common thread, it’s that they offer paths to success that are clearly defined. Freelancers can glean great ideas about their own writing habits by learning about the extremely varied routines of famous artists and thinkers. And if I have any advice of my own, it’s to read the best books out there until you find an approach that works for you.