Best Writing Reference Books
a work in progres….
This section includes some of the best writing reference books I have come across. They’re written by authors or teachers of the craft (often both). They are part autobiography, part essay, and part reference. Additionally, they offer great tips about what it takes to make it as a writer. I’ll continue to update all lists as I add additional resources.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King – This is probably one of the most recommended writing books, and for good reason. Whether or not you appreciate King’s writing, you can’t deny the man is prolific and has been for decades. He offers a lot of practical advice for any writer, including this anti-muse line, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anna Lamott – This is another highly recommended book that’s presented as part autobiography and part writing reference. I’ve seen reviews putting this book down, but they’re usually from people looking for specific writing advice about subjects, like plot or structure. They’ve missed the point. There are thousands of books out there offering such advice. There comes a time when we must actually sit down to write, with honesty and from our hearts. Lamott’s Voice and advice hit home. Writing isn’t all about publishing. We must enjoy the journey.
- DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira – I got so much out of this book! Ms. Pereira lays the book out in 3 sections: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, and Build Your Community, and she does a fantastic job of speaking to each subject in layman’s terms. I’m a huge proponent of reading widely to become a better writer, so I love that she spent equal time covering this subject and how to read for analysis, and not just for pleasure (but do both!).
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
- The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
“How To Write” Reference
These are the best writing reference books I’ve read. I believe they offer great advice on how to write within different genres. They go beyond your basic 3-act structure and dig deeper into great storytelling. There are a lot of reference books out there that cover specific aspects of story, such as plot or dialogue. For now, though, I’m focusing on ones that offer a great overview for writers of any level.
Novels, Short Stories, and Screenplays:
- Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence and Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron – In these two books, Cron suggests our brains are hardwired to appreciate engaging storytelling (because neuroscience rocks!). She offers examples from different creative works (novels, short stories, and screenplays) on how specific aspects of story tap into our curiosities and desires. Wired For Story explains how our brains react to aspects of storytelling. Story Genius breaks things down further by offering great examples of writing a novel from idea to finished product. I think Writing For Story would be a great resource for narrative nonfiction writers as well.
- Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder and Save The Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody – Snyder wrote the original Save The Cat! book, and while it focuses specifically on screenplays, it also offers some great tips anyone could use when writing creative prose. I personally like Brody’s version because writing a novel is my goal, and she breaks down the process of writing a novel into a 15-point story structure format. I’ve heard some people call this process formulaic, but I think she offers great advice on how to write a story that captures a reader’s attention and is also more likely to sell in today’s market.
- Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing and Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling by Larry Brooks – Story Engineering introduces the six core competencies Brooks believes are vital to any great story. Story Physics expands upon this concept, going deeper into each aspect of storytelling. Both books have been useful as they offer great tips on structuring your writing.
- The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby – Truby offers great advice on general storytelling across all fictional genres, though his specialty is screenwriting. He states this simple definition of story, “a speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.” Later, he expands this definition into seven key steps for a good story structure.
- Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight – Knight founded the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America organization. He has also been a well-regarded writing instructor for decades. I love that he started this book with, “three reasons why I should not have written this book.” Those reasons are: “1. Writing can only be learned, not taught 2. Even if it can be taught, you can’t learn to write by reading a book 3. Even if you can learn that way, you may stifle your creativity by learning too much about processes that should be spontaneous and automatic.” The introduction alone is full of little truths like this. This book is probably best for the beginner, but it still offers great tips for writers at all levels. An updated 3rd Edition came out fairly recently too (in 2017).
- The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler – This book has become a classic for the Hero’s Journey theme, and rightfully so. In episode #71 of the Tim Ferriss Podcast, Jon Favreau recommends this book for screenwriters. He went on to explain that he used it to determine if Swingers, his cult hit 1996 movie, was structurally correct.
- The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt – This book is set into three main sections. The first section helps you create an outline, while the second helps you write the first draft of your novel. It follows the Hero’s Journey outline. The main benefit of his process is its simplicity. It helps you move past the overwhelm of writing a novel. You still have to do the work and suspend your editor’s brain, but this will help you if you’re struggling to bring it all together.
Non-Fiction, including narrative, essay, memoir, and article writing:
- On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing NonFiction (30th Anniversary Edition by William Zinsser (Non-Fiction)
- The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell (Article Writing)
- Writing As a Way of Healing by Louise Desalvo (Memoir)
Publishing and Self-Publishing Reference
- Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum – I heard about this book from an author at the 2020 virtual YallWest. She suggested it as an excellent reference for the publishing process. I’ve not yet published my own book, so I can’t attest to everything it covers. It’s great to have at least one book in your arsenal that goes over the full process of getting traditionally published, though.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition by The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff – The CMS is the style guideline used by most fiction and non-fiction publishers (or is the basis of their in-house style), so it’s a valuable reference to have on hand.
- The Associated Press Style Book: 2020-2022 (55th ed.) by The Associated Press – The AP style is the style guideline used in most forms of journalism, such as news writing and magazine writing. It’s also used in most corporate environments or other public-facing forms of communication
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
- The Elements of Style: Classic Edition (2018): With Editor’s Notes, New Chapters & Study Guide by William Strunk Jr. – This is the latest update for this short, classic tome. It includes the full classic version, plus some updates and additional resources.
- It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences by June Casagrande – This is a valuable resource that packs a lot of fun, humor, and sentence structure tips into its 224 pages.
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
Other Writing Reference
- Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan – This book is a great resource for writing descriptively and learning to observe the world around you. Includes examples and exercises.
- A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman – This is a book of evocative essays investigating the five senses from a cultural, historical, and scientific standpoint.
- The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations (Expanded Second Edition) by David Grambs and Ellen S. Levine
- The Dictionary of Clichés: A Word Lover’s Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases and Almost-Pleasing Platitudes by Christine Ammer
- The Positive Trait Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus, and The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
- Ka-boom! A Dictionary of Comic Book Words, Symbols & Onomatopoeia by Kevin J. Taylor
- P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever by Raj Haldar
Tapping Into Your Creative Resources
- The Artist’s Way: 25th Anniversary Edition by Julia Cameron – If you’ve read my blog, then you know this is the book that started it all. I admit it’s a little hokey and a little spiritual. If you can get past that, though, you’ll find it very helpful in developing and inspiring your creativity and overcoming your fear. If you’d like to follow my Artist’s Way journey, you can find my pre-challenge posts here: Creativity & Fear and Creative Process Tools and my posts from week one here: Creative Block – Part One and Creative Exercises – Part Two.
- The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp – Easily one of the first books one would recommend for anyone trying to capture the creative spirit. Tharp offers practical advice about habit, process, and introspection. This would be a great book for anyone trying to understand the creative process.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert – This one is a bit of a “rah-rah” creative help book. In other words, it’s fully encouraging and inspiring, but it’s not high on practical substance. I’d still recommend it, though. It’s helpful for anyone having trouble getting started (fear) or anyone who needs reminding of why they love pursuing the creative arts. It addresses these topics well.
Overcoming Your Writing Obstacles
Books So Good You’ll Learn How to Write Just by Reading Them
A list of awesome websites
- NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – Per the website: “National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand new novel.” Why not try it out this November?
- StoryADay – Per the website: “StoryADay is a creativity challenge: Write (and finish) a short story every day during May and/or September.” When you sign up in May or September, you’ll receive daily prompts in your inbox to kick off some inspiration. Give it a try!
- Writer’s Digest – Writer’s Digest publishes a bi-monthly magazine. They have a wealth of writing resources on their website, including articles, webinars, courses, critique services, annual writing competitions, and writing prompts. In April, they also have the “Poem a Day” challenge. I reference one of my favorite articles from their site in my post about Writer’s Block.
- Gotham Writer’s Workshop – Gotham offers writing courses in their hometown New York City office, as well as online. They also publish their own books and have some great resources for writers, including articles, tips, and reading lists.
- Advanced Fiction Writing – The home of the popular “Snowflake Method” of designing a novel by Randy Ingermanson.
Links to Writing Related Podcasts
- Writing Excuses – New episodes every Sunday from authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. They also have recurring or special guest authors, like Wesley Chu. Discussions relate to all aspects of writing and the aim is to to help writers improve their craft.
- First Draft Pod – New episodes every Tuesday from author Sarah Enni, featuring discussions with various professionals within the creative process. Sarah has featured many bestselling authors, including Veronica Roth, as well as agents, editors and other industry professionals.
- Track Changes – New episodes every other Thursday until August 6th, 2020. This is a limited series (related to First Draft Pod), featuring discussions about every step of the traditional publishing process.
- Helping Writers Become Authors – New episodes every Monday from author K.M. Weiland (of Structure Your Story and How to Outline Your Novel). It Features general tips and tricks for becoming a better writer.
- The Creative Penn – New episodes every Monday from author and entrepreneur, Joanna Penn. Discussions feature interviews, writing information, and other creative and inspirational topics.
- So You Want To Be a Writer – New episodes every Monday from authors Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo. The show features news, tips, and advice from fellow authors and industry experts to assist with your craft.