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What do you recommend as reading material to improve writing for beginners? If one recommendation is put per answer and can be voted separately a good list of resources should build up.

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How can I make that a community wiki? – Mnementh Nov 19 '10 at 10:20
Flag for mod attention. I already did it for you. – John Smithers Nov 19 '10 at 10:24
@John Smithers: Thanks. :-) – Mnementh Nov 19 '10 at 10:25
Also see podcasts, magazines, and online info about writing. – MGOwen Sep 24 '12 at 5:49
Good luck, Don Quixote. No perfect book exists. You'll find only "good enough" and such is the "industry standard", books aren't written by robots for robots but by people for people and no matter how dry and professional the subject it's impossible to wring a text entirely dry of all informality and subjectiveness like you'd want it. – SF. Jul 31 '13 at 9:23

39 Answers 39

To start the list: I myself found 'On writing' from Stephen King very helpful.

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This was one of the best books and most informative sources I've found. – Reverend Gonzo Nov 19 '10 at 13:07
+1 I'm re-reading this book now and I'm reminded how great it is. – Alan Jan 4 '11 at 5:33

A few of my favourite writing books:

  • Steven King's On Writing - hands down the most inspirational read on writing I've read (and his process is different than many).
  • Eats, Shoots, and Leaves - a witty read on punctuation, great for sharpening that part of your brain.
  • Sin and syntax - a book of examples of good and bad syntax, some of the most fluid writing I've seen.
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+1 for Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It's informative, fun, and sadly not well known. – sjohnston Dec 8 '10 at 4:56
I think it was less popular in the US as it was written by a British author, so some of the idioms and examples don't fit as well for American readers. Here in Canada, we straddle both conventions so it was a more familiar read for us. The book also gained a bit of negative press based on a few typos in the first edition itself, and arguments over proper usage in some of the examples (grammar is a hugely dogmatic enterprise). – Bruce Alderson Dec 12 '10 at 19:16

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

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+1 This one is a nice addition to the Elements of Style and is the complement of One Writing from Stephen King: oriented toward nonfiction and slightly biographical. – Barthelemy Dec 1 '10 at 11:08
As new to writing I found this book very helpful for me. – AtlasRider Feb 13 '12 at 14:27
  • Orson Scott Card: Characters and Viewpoint
  • Keith Johnstone: Impro for storytellers (intended for improv actors, but energizing to read and it gives useful tips about what makes a story roll)
  • Jerome Stern: Making shapely fiction
  • Paul Matthews: Sing me the creation (exercises intended for poets, but useful for prose writing, too)
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+1 for Characters and Viewpoint by OSC. Mandatory reading. – sjohnston Dec 8 '10 at 4:58

The following were very informative for me, for various reasons:

  • How to Write Best Selling Fiction, by Dean Koontz: no-nonsense, practical, full of real-world examples, though a bit dated.
  • The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells, by Ben Bova: examines the mechanics of what the craft of writing good fiction consists of (note Bova was an editor for many years, so his insight is doubly valid).
  • On Writing, by Stephen King: more of a biography of how he did it (as he admits), but incredibly insightful and very well written.
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Writing Down the Bones

Good start, nice lessons to improve your skills, just ignore the Zen stuff.

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I would strongly recommend these three books for any author, published or aspiring:

  1. On Writing by Stephen King
  2. Plot & Structure by James Campbell
  3. Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card

I'd also commend the yearly Writer's Market books - they have great articles in there for writers.

And you can't beat Strunk and White's Elements of Style. You don't have to follow every single rule, but it's a good idea to know them anyway, if for no other reason than to know when to break the rules for maximum emphasis. It's the difference between sloppy writing and truly creative writing.

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Story by Robert McKee is one of my favorites. It's about screenwriting, but has a huge amount of information on storytelling in general.

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Yeah, Story is really good. It's kind of a no-bullshit approach. You can read just the first few chapters and get a lot out of it. – Ethan Dec 16 '10 at 7:41

The following are the books I have found especially helpful over the years

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition) by Janet Burroway et. al. This is the first book on the craft I bought based on the recommendation of the instructor in the first fiction writing class I took back in college. It is now in its 8th edition.
  • Points of View edited by James Moffett & Kenneth R. McElheny. This is a collection of short stories written from different points of view. I find it helpful now and then to go back and help find the narrative voice for a piece I am working on.
  • Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

Hope this helps

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Not strictly about writing, but useful for any creative process: The War of Art

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Definitely a must-read for anyone in a creative field. – Strozykowski Feb 14 '12 at 15:23

I must add to the praise for Bird by Bird. I've been a professional, full-time writer and editor for 18 years, but I found Bird by Bird immensely supportive (especially her advice about getting the words written down first, without worrying about editing) and laugh-out-loud funny. It's not only for beginners.

I'm not a fiction writer, but my husband was quite fond of Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card and Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress.

My own "Wow, that helped!" book was The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, which helped me figure out the difference between "that's an idea" and "that's a story." It was a gift from a mentor/editor and I just gave a copy to a mentee of my own.

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"Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" is a nuts-and-bolts book that taught me an awful lot about how to write effectively.

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I really liked Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm

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I found 'Get Started in Creative Writing' tremendously inspiring. A good quick intro that covers several genres and media, and has a lot of good exercises for creativity and getting started.

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Here are some of the books I am always going back to and recommending:

  • Writing Fiction: A guide to Narrative Craft, by Jannet Burroway - This is an awesome book that you can keep re-reading and learning new things from. Burroway sets out a series of guidelines for your prose which remain true to all genres. You don't have to adhere to all her advice, there is certainly room within her guidelines for experimentation, but you'd be wise to seriously consider Burroway's advice.

  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott - If you're looking for a bit of encouragement and life lessons, look no further. When I was first assigned this book I was really worried. It sounded like self help and I didn't want to read it. These days I still look over it every now and again. It reads more like a memoir than a writer's tips and tricks book, but certainly worth your time.

  • On Writing, by Stephen King - If you in any way enjoy him as a writer, it might be another way to go. He discusses many elements of the craft, but the first half of the book discusses his life as a writer. The whole thing is a very fast read, and his ideas and opinions on craft decisions later in the book are certainly worth considering.

  • If you're interested in reading a bit more about the creative process for a number of writers, check out The Paris Review Interviews. You can find some of them online, and the rest are published in a series of volumes. It's always interesting to hear other people's opinions and takes on how they write.

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I recently stumbled upon How NOT to Write a Novel a few months back and have read it twice already. Well worth the time and money, IMHO, and I own most of the other titles on this list.

Here's a link: http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Novel-Misstep-Misstep/dp/0061357952

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Oooh. I like the preview. Seems very clear and well-written. – Standback Jun 14 '12 at 9:43

Hot to write a damn good novel. The name might sound shallow, but the book is so packed with great information that it makes for a great source of knowledge, especially for the beginner.

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Christopher Vogler's summary of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth, "A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces".

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Joesph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces

I think that writers tend to love mythology, which jives perfectly with how helpful it is for writers to know mythology. This book recounts and unites myths from many cultures throughout the ages under the thesis that important stories-- from parables to fiction to the way we announce breaking news or share personal experiences-- are reappearances of a single, enduring story whose structure lies in the "Hero's Journey."

With inspiration from this book, a new writer can not only gain a better sense of her characters' (and possibly her own) grand story, but will also find inspiration to continue writing, even if only to further contribute to the grand story that unites her with story-tellers from all times and grounds her work in what touching stories are really all about: a universal human connection.

Two companions to this book are The Power of Myth in book form, an interview of the author by journalist Bill Moyers, and the actual The Power of Myth documentary-interview on DVD.

To make his points, Campbell draws from psychology, religion, mythology, cultural ritual, and philosophy; and he lays out character archetypes and stages in a hero's journey. If you want the same information but prefer it in a bite-sized portion, there is Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which scoops an extra dollop of Carl Jung on top of Campbell's work and flattens it out into an undemanding template for writers, chiefly screenwriters.

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This is a very good book, but I think it is more helpful with story creation (or structure for non-fiction) instead of writing. Maybe I'm drawing too fine a distinction between the two though. – AtlasRider Feb 13 '12 at 14:31
@AtlasRider, I think you're right that the book is a strong resource for story but not for something like how to write stronger sentences (if that's the distinction you're making). For the original question, which asks for material that helps "improve writing," I thought this fit the bill for both fiction and non-fiction, since narrative and story creation are fundamental to both. The book has definitely helped me, but maybe I'm treating the question too broadly. – Dawn Feb 13 '12 at 17:15
Brandon Sanderson once pointed out that most writers probably don't actually need to read the whole book. While it is an important academic work, it's probably a lot more in-depth than most writers need. That is, you can get a pretty good idea of what the Hero's Journey is and how it can help your writing from reading a short article or two about it (or even a two minute video. Spending hours reading the whole book about how it was discovered and so on won't really enable you to use it much better in your own writing. – MGOwen Apr 4 at 4:18

And also good in my Opinion: 'Gold' from Isaac Asimov. It's not completely about writing, but also contains stories and essays.

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I liked "No Plot; No Problem" by Chris Baty.

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I think I have a new favourite book about writing:

Story Engineering

This book made me go from pantser to outliner. It focuses on story creation, not writing techniques. Do note that it's very much about making sellable, commercially popular stories. So much that it might turn a few people off. I write mostly to entertain, and not so much for the art of it, so I loved it.

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Having books to teach you those fundamentals is great. But, perhaps you don't need a book at all if your purpose is to learn the basics. There are a lot of resources online where you can learn the building blocks of the craft of writing.

Here are some websites that I find quite informative and useful:

If you decide to get serious in your writing, then you should read these three books:

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

A lot of people also recommend Stephen King's On Writing. If you want to be an author, then I think reading that book will do you great.

Bonus Tip: Since like me, you're concerned about your grammar, punctuation, etc. I want to share with you a free online tool that I regularly use: SpellCheckPlus.com. Have fun writing!

P.S. I apologize being unable to provide a direct link in the majority of sites. Since I'm a new user, I still have limitations on the amount of links that I can use.

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Thanks for the detailed information. – Javeer Baker Aug 1 '13 at 14:26
Thank you for offering help. Your suggestions are great, yet currently I'm not looking for resources "about writing". I'm looking for a good example. A very well written book that professional writers would admire the most. – Nate Aug 1 '13 at 15:38

A friend of mine recommended James N. Frey’s work (How to Write a Damn Good Novel, and so on). I was underwhelmed by those books, but I noticed that Frey frequently cited Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, which I did find very helpful.

I also recommend John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

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for exercises, check out the gotham writers' workshop writing fiction guide.

for inspiration, i really like brian lamb's booknotes books in which lots of great writers talk about their habits and processes.

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I have a large number of writing books, but the only one that I really keep going back to is Artful Sentences by Virginia Tufte. The book is a collection of 1000+ beautiful sentences organized by structure. Reading each sentence and writing my own sentence in the margins using the same structure has had an incredible effect on my writing. The book added a huge number of great "sentence great" to my writing toolkit.

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Two of my favorites already mentioned above: "Writing Down the Bones" and "Bird by Bird." The other one in my top three is "If You Want to Write" by Brenda Ueland. All three of these books are always inspiring and motivating to me, time after time.

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