In this article, we will give details of the best book for aspiring writers. Of course, any aspiring author will benefit by reading the greatest novels and poems from throughout the ages. But here we will focus on the nuts and bolts of writing, the craft of writing and the books that might help with the organisation, motivation and inspiration an author will need if they want to be successful (whatever “successful” means to you).
We will split the books into three categories:
- Books about the craft of writing – the “craft” of writing might seem like some mystical, abstract entity, but it’s really just about learning to understand what you are doing and, crucially, why.
- Books about grammar and style – after all, if you can’t get to grips with the basics of constructing sentences, it’s highly unlikely (though not impossible) that you’ll make it as an author.
- Books about motivation and inspiration – you might have all the talent in the world, but if you can’t find the time or motivation to write your masterpiece, you – and indeed the world – will be lessened for it. Indeed, without an idea of some kind, a story or poem is impossible. Sometimes the fire of an idea needs a tiny spark to get it going, and there are lots of books that aim to provide such sparks of inspiration.
If you would like to purchase any of these (or a few others we’ve thought of since), check out our list at bookshop.org (Disclosure: we are an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. But you will also be supporting independent bookshops, which is always good!)
Books About The Craft Of Writing
Here we are looking at books that cover the nuts and bolts of writing from the basics like grammar to more in-depth topics such as plot, narrative structure, characterisation and effective dialogue.
Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa (Picador)
One of the greats of Latin American literature, Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, among his many other awards and honours. In Letters to a Young Novelist, Vargas Llosa addresses many aspects of writing that aspiring authors would do well to consider. Topics of the “letters” include The Power of Persuasion, Levels of Reality, Time, Style, and The Narrator and Narrative Space. Given the stature of the author, and indeed the amiable style of the advice, the reader cannot help but take note. Its brevity also makes it particularly handy for those who don’t want to spend too long away from their writing desk. Indeed, Vargas Llosa’s conclusion in the final letter might give you just the kick up the backside you need to get on with the task at hand: writing.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (Hodder)
Stephen King’s books have sold in their hundreds of millions. So he is certainly another writer to whom it is worth paying attention. On Writing is often cited as a highly accessible book about the craft of writing but it is also a very entertaining read in its own right. It gives an excellent insight into King’s early attempts at making it as a writer and the (reassuring) number of rejections he received for many of his early stories.
Unlike some books on writing, which can feel like hard work at times, King’s part-memoir, part how-to guide gives a fantastic insight into what it takes to make it as a writer. In summary: get used to rejection, hone your craft and, surprise, surprise, read and write a lot. As in every single day. Oh, and one of the first lessons King learned: don’t staple manuscripts.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
This fascinating and insightful book is a must-read for anyone serious about writing brilliant stories. Booker Prize winner Saunders uses his expert analytical skills to dissect what makes stories work using some of the greatest ever story writers to exemplify his points.
Reading A Swim in a Pond… allows you to learn from past masters Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, and indeed from a modern master of the craft of storytelling, Saunders himself.
This is a brilliant book for writers because Saunders picks apart the amazing stories contained within while also giving insights into how he approaches his own writing and, crucially, revising.
His emphasis on revising stories to ensure they contain rising energy and causality is a recurring theme and he goes so far as to suggest, “there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t. First, a willingness to revise. Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.”
As you might expect, Saunders communicates his ideas with skill and panache and this is one of the best books for writers we’ve encountered.
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker (Penguin)
Some might (fairly) consider the title to be a little pretentious, but Pinker is one clever fellow, so he can just about get away with it. With an academic career that has swept through various fields of psychology and linguistics, Pinker also has a knack for communicating complex ideas in a way the general reader understands. In contrast to the easy-reading, accessibility of King’s On Writing, Pinker’s book will tax the grey matter a little more and you will no doubt find yourself flicking to the glossary and notes at the back of the book regularly.
The title does warn the reader of what’s in store, of course, and if you are seeking thorough linguistic reasoning about how to avoid ambiguity in your writing, this will be your cup of tea. This could feasibly be placed in the next section, Books About Grammar And Style, but there are more than enough useful tips about the craft of writing to include it here.
The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr (William Collins)
For us, The Science of Storytelling manages to walk the line between the easy-going style of Stephen King and the rather cerebral approach favoured by Steven Pinker. Storr’s prose style is at once comprehensible and brimming with interesting (and well-researched) facts. For instance, “Russians are raised to see two types of blue and, as a result, see eight-striped rainbows.” It might not be immediately obvious how such titbits will help you become a better writer, but in the context of that chapter about Creating a World, it fits well. And the rest of the book is full of such eye-opening and mind-expanding wonderment. And having your eyes opened and your mind expanded can only be a good thing for an aspiring author, right?
More than that, though, Storr explains the things that work in fiction and – crucially – explains why these things work. This makes it easier to recall and replicate some of the key ideas when it comes to writing your masterpiece. And even if you never put any of the ideas into practice, the book is so enjoyable it is well worth reading for its own sake.
The Art of Fiction, David Lodge (Penguin)
Written by the renowned author and literature professor David Lodge, The Art of Fiction is made up of a series of essays that first appeared as Lodge’s weekly column in The Independent on Sunday in the early 1990s. Each chapter covers a particular theme and refers to a passage from works by some of the greatest writers who have ever put pen to paper. For instance, the chapter on Suspense focuses on Thomas Hardy, while that on Intertextuality used Joseph Conrad as its exemplar. Other featured authors include George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Milan Kundera, Fay Weldon, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and Lodge analyses the writing of each with skill and clarity to help aspiring writers learn from the masters.
Lodge’s style is authoritative and challenging in places and his expertise is evident from the opening page. He explains things extremely well, explaining what the writer has done and, crucially, why it works. His ability to transmit the information in a way that is a pleasure to read makes this book easy to get on with.
Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K Le Guin (Mariner Books)
Ursula K Le Guin was best known for her speculative fiction and science fiction but as well as her novels and short stories, she also wrote and published poetry, children’s books and collections of essays. Steering the Craft was first published in the late 1990s, but the recently updated version (published in 2015) is the edition you ought to read. Like Stephen King’s aforementioned work, this book is very readable and though it appears relatively simple on the surface, Le Guin manages to tackle some of the most common issues for new writers in a direct way that instils confidence and clarity.
Whether it’s tackling the thorny issue of adverbs or assessing and choosing the best options for point of view and voice, Le Guin doesn’t waste any time making her (very good) points. Being only 141 pages (including glossary), this is a great option for writers who want a confidence boost before getting back to their writing, and the exercises Le Guin sets in each chapter are well worth doing as these will give you a dry run of some of the techniques you will want to include when getting back to your main novel or short story.
A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice, Derek Neale (Ed.) (A & C Black)
The closest of the books mentioned to a textbook, and indeed used in that way in some creative writing courses (including that run by the Open University), A Creative Writing Handbook is split into three main sections covering “Ways of writing”, “Writing drama” and “Developing style”, with a further section of readings to which the authors regularly refer to exemplify points or explain techniques. There are extracts from a wide range of writers including Sylvia Plath, Anthony Minghella, Alan Bennett, Annie Proulx and Jhumpa Lahiri.
The book places a strong emphasis on the reader undertaking regular activities to help hone their writing skills. These include things like writing a poem utilising contrast, conflict and tension (after reading an extract that shows these things in practice) or annotating a piece of your writing to identify the “shots” through which the action is presented.
This book would particularly suit the writer who wants to get stuck in and who possesses the discipline to work through the various activities in a methodical manner.
Books About Grammar And Style
One surefire way to get your manuscript rejected is to pepper it with typos and grammatical errors. It doesn’t take much effort to avoid such a scenario but – depending on when and where you went to school – it is probable you might need to brush up on one or two things.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk (author), E. B. White (Pearson)
The classic text on all things grammar in the USA, and recommended by Stephen King and Steven Pinker in their abovementioned books, The Elements of Style is a rather uncompromising and forthright guide that sets outs the dos and don’ts of English grammar in no uncertain terms. There are various editions and though all will give you plenty of food for thought, UK-based writers might prefer the international edition to the US-specific original.
The Oxford Style Manual, Robert Ritter (Oxford University Press)
If you would rather stick to English English when it comes to grammar and style, you cannot beat The Oxford Style Manual. It is a combination of The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and Hart’s Rules, both of which were very highly regarded. Given that it is significantly bulkier than the Strunk and White offering, this book might be better as a reference guide than something you will read from cover to cover, but either way, if you stick to the conventions set out in this book, you won’t go far wrong.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss (Profile Books)
If you are seeking something a little less dry than the previous options, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves could be the option for you. As well as presenting some very useful rules and information, the self-professed “Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” is also very funny. And the humorous examples and explanations might well help you remember what to do and what to avoid when it comes to your punctuation, which has to be a good thing.
Bloomsbury Grammar Guide: Grammar Made Easy, Gordon Jarvie (Bloomsbury)
A similar grammar guide to Strunk and White’s in that it gets to the point without too much fluff, this is a lot shorter than The Oxford Style Manual. It has a very useful chapter on “Figures of speech and literary devices” that unpicks such phenomena as dead metaphors, malapropisms and oxymorons, among many others.
Exploring English Grammar: From Formal to Functional, Caroline Coffin, Jim Donohue & Sarah North (Routledge)
For those seeking to delve deeper into the functional qualities of the English language, this Routledge textbook will certainly help you out. It uses various linguistic theories and concepts to explain the functions of language and how the choices the writer makes can alter the representation of the meaning of the text. The chapter that covers genres and generic stages could prove particularly useful for many aspiring novelists.
Books To Motivate And Inspire
There are numerous motivational manuals and self-help books that some people might find useful, but if you are seeking something rather more poetic, these books should enliven your spirit.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare (Arden or Oxford)
It is impossible to emulate the genius of Shakespeare but it is easy to be inspired by it. Whether getting lost in the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stewing amid the darkness of Hamlet or reeling at the blood and gore of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s plays flow into the soul.
Of course, reading the Great Bard’s work might instil a feeling of such inferiority that any aspiring writer might give up their ambitions there and then. But aiming for the stars might at least get you as far as the moon, and the breadth and ingenuity of language and the sheer scope of Shakespeare’s works will hopefully inspire rather than intimidate you.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (Penguin English Library Edition)
You don’t have to care for the anatomical minutiae of whales to appreciate Herman Melville’s masterpiece, but you will certainly learn about that during this long but rewarding journey. The poetry of the language Melville employs throughout is breathtaking and surprisingly accessible. As Alfred Kazin states in his essay at the back of the Penguin English Library edition,
“Moby Dick is not only a very big book; it is also a peculiarly full and rich one, and from the very opening it conveys a sense of abundance, of high creative power, that exhilarates and enlarges the imagination.”
Every writer, new or established, can of course benefit from the enlargement of their imagination. So if you want to be a serious writer (or you really want to know a LOT about whales), read Moby Dick.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (Penguin English Library Edition)
Description and creating a sense of place are essential elements of most great works of fiction, and few are greater at such things than Charles Dickens. From its famous opening that swings like a pendulum between opposing concepts and images, A Tale of Two Cities grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and drops them in the streets of London and Paris and evokes not only the physicality of the locations but the overarching social malady that exists within the novel.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (New World Library)
Joseph Campbell’s classic which was first published in 1949 has inspired numerous authors, musicians and filmmakers. George Lucas acknowledge Campbell’s work as a big influence on Star Wars, while musicians including Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison also cited it as an influence.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a work of comparative mythology that references myths, legends and religions from across the ages as well as psychological and psychoanalytical theories and phenomena including many proposed by Sigmund Freud and, especially, Carl Jung. Not only is the book beautifully written but it contains a wealth of both information and inspiration and is a must-read for anyone considering writing anything in the fantasy or science fiction genres, or indeed anyone who wants to portray a protagonist who undertakes some kind of “hero’s journey”.
The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Robert Frost, Harold Bloom (HarperCollins)
Open Bloom’s collection of poetry on any page and you will almost certainly find a poem of nuance and beauty. Beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer and extracts from The Canterbury Tales, the collection takes the reader on a voyage of discovery through the highlights of English poetry through the ages. All the usual suspects are present, including Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson et cetera, but there are plenty of brilliant poets who are less well known. The likes of Chidiock Tichborne, Thomas Nashe, Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan and William Cowper will, for many, be new voices and ones that offer inspiration aplenty. Bloom’s insightful and learned introductions to each poet add context and the various notes and observations he includes can only add to the pleasure of reading, digesting and learning from some of the greatest poems ever written in English.