Many of us have memories, some more pleasant than others, about learning how to write. Elementary schools (at least ones in the USA) teach kids how to write an essay like it's a math equation. Your essay should be this many paragraphs with x number of sentences, should always begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion that restates the thesis. It has to be double-spaced, written in Times New Roman font, size 12.
In other words, you might have the impression that writing is a boring chore. Not so, dear reader.
Does having telepathic powers like Professor X sound boring to you? What about using the Force to play a Jedi mind trick?
While you won't be swinging a real lightsaber anytime soon, putting pen to paper can be just as persuasive as telepathy. Best-selling author Stephen King writes, "All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation." How would you like to learn this superpower, whether it be for good or evil?
Over the last 5 years, I've re-educated myself on writing. I attempted to unlearn the grade school lessons ingrained in my head. I consumed every book on creative writing I could get my hands on. Some were more useful than others. In this post, I selected the best five 5 books to help take your writing skills to the next level.
You might ask, "Do I have to read, Tom? I'm not much of a reader."
Writing is not something that you can learn by watching a YouTube video. To understand how the best writing can engage, enthrall, and excite, you need to experience writing as a reader. It's also useful (and encouraging) to read terrible writing so you can see what doesn't work. So, while I recommend these books, I also encourage you to take your own journey into reading anything that holds your interest.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
by Stephen King
Prior to reading this book, I never read a Stephen King novel. Ever. After finishing "On Writing," I realized I was missing out. Since then, I've read numerous King books including his massive 8-novel opus "The Dark Tower" series.
What drew me to King's work was his direct style, his eye for relevant details that drove the story forward with each choice word. He's labeled as a "horror" genre writer. But, his work has plenty more depth than jump scares and gory descriptions.
Just like his storytelling, "On Writing" transcends genre-specific writing. Regardless of whether you are writing non-fiction or science fiction, there's plenty of instruction and inspiration to fuel your pursuit of the craft.
One of the most oft-quoted pieces of advice from the book is to avoid using adverbs whenever possible. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs," King says. "Adverbs, like the passive voice," he continues, "seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind." Take the high road and eliminate the redundancy of most adverbs.
For example, as I was writing this article, I did a quick CTRL+F to search "ly" throughout the document. I'll admit - there were a few hits. In every case, removing the adverb made the sentence more concise.
The Elements of Style (1979)
by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
As often as "On Writing" is referenced by other creative writing books and websites, "The Elements of Style" is so seminal that even King's book references it. Talking about concise, this pocket-friendly book is under 100 pages and contains a wealth of writing principles and useful lessons.
"Vigorous writing is concise," rule 17 starts. The brevity of this style guide is the perfect length to read between your first and second drafts. Keep your voice active, use definite language, no elbows on the table, keep your back straight, and always say "please" and "thank you." To use the telepathy metaphor again, this book teaches you etiquette while conversing with another person's brain.
For every key rule and principle, Strunk Jr. & White illustrate clear examples to show proper and improper usage. Although this guide is over 40 years old, it points out blunders that writers still make today. Can anyone explain when to use effect versus affect without having to Google it? That's what this book is for.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
by Anne Lamott
The reason why I said to reference "The Elements of Style" between your first and second draft is so you have the license to write the "shitty first draft," as Anne Lamott puts it. "Bird by Bird" is less technical, less concerned about the nuts and bolts of polished writing. Instead, Anne wants you to spill your guts on the page.
Much like "On Writing," Lamott's book dispenses writing advice within the context of a memoir. The title comes from a story about Anne's brother, who had to write a report on birds that was due the next day. Her brother was paralyzed by the enormity of the task. Anne advised her brother to "take it bird by bird."
The act of writing is translating the thoughts that are floating around in your mind. As you write, you tangle with the internal editor, the perfectionist mentality, and feelings of inadequacy. Anne shares her struggles and offers guidance on how to overcome these mental and emotional obstacles.
"Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive."
Let's say you're not writing about birds, where do you start? Anne suggests using the "1-inch picture frame." You could physically cut a 1" x 1" hole out of a piece of paper and hold it up to something in your room. Whatever is inside the frame's view, write about it. This exercise forces you to focus on a detail that's small and simple enough to get your pen moving.
The Right to Write (1999)
by Julia Cameron
I often relate writing with running. It would be difficult to run a 5K (3.1 miles) if you haven't exercised in months. It's because you aren't a runner yet. What will make you a runner? Run every day. Or, every other day. Run down to the end of the street. Then, walk the rest of the mile. Tomorrow, run a little farther.
The same gradual progress applies to writing. Sure, maybe you don't have the stamina, or the time, to write a novel (the equivalent of a marathon). You do have the time for a sentence or two. "Sentences can happen in a moment," Julia Cameron writes, "Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born—without the luxury of time."
In "The Right to Write," Julia takes the "Anyone Can Cook" approach to writing, stating that, "it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own." Counter to our culture's value of the end product - the published stories, the views on your latest post, the number of subscribers, etc - Julia encourages people to write for writing's sake.
Writing is good for you, even if it has no other purpose. Writing can clear the mind, reveal our intentions, and sort out complex emotions. Julia's "morning pages" writing exercise is often used by many successful people across all professions as a way to get a handle on our monkey mind. It involves a pen and three blank pages. Upon waking, start recording every thought that makes its way to the page. At the very least, it's a great excuse to use your fountain pens and inks more!
Share Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered (2014)by Austin Kleon
If you had to classify writing into two distinct categories, it would be "writing for oneself" and "writing for others." Writing 3 morning pages while decaffeinated and half-asleep would be considered "writing for oneself." Writing a post such as the one you are reading now would be "writing for others." The books I've suggested thus far can be applied to both types of writing. In recommending Austin Kleon's book, "Share Your Work," I'm nudging you outside of your comfort zone for the sake of improving your craft.
The process of writing can be a lonely, isolated affair. You can spend hours, days hunched over a keyboard (or notebook), saying all that you have to say about a particular topic until there is nothing left. If, and when it comes time to share that story, a whole other cast of mental villains look to derail your efforts.
Austin's short book provides pertinent advice on how to be outwardly creative in today's world. Scroll a few minutes on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube and you'll find plenty of examples of artists with thousands, if not millions, of followers. Having a rapt online audience, even of modest size, is a huge asset when you're ready to launch your new project. How does the artist sell out without "selling out?" This book pushes you out of the nest so you can spread your wings and fly on your own.
Much like "The Elements of Style," this book is a quick read that is prescribed like an inoculation against those virulent thoughts that prevent you from sharing your creative output. It's a book that convinces you that you have a place at the table with all the other creators out there.
Sharing your content doesn't mean you can only post when you have finished your masterpiece. Kleon recommends sharing daily as you go through the process: "If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share works in progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned."
And, here I am, Austin, writing about what I learned after reading dozens of books about writing. I am sharing these notes with you, dear reader, because I hope that these five books will spark your curiosity and improve your writing.
Want more reading suggestions? Check out the Ink Flight reading list for more books on the topic of writing and creativity. If you'd like to share any great books on writing that have helped you, please feel free to message me or hit @inkjournal up on social media. I'm always looking for a great read to further expand my knowledge and develop my telepathic superpowers.