18 of the Very Best Writing Books of All Time

Here are 18 of the best writing books that don’t force your novel into a cookie-cutter mold.

These writing books teach you how to channel your passions into a solid product, troubleshoot issues, and build an author’s mindset. Start learning the craft of writing by getting that idea on paper while it’s still hot. Then set your story aside until you can read it again with fresh eyes. Finally, the most important step is: Fix the problems. If you’re reading this article, you already have a passion for your project. However, translating that vision in your head onto the page is a skill that you need to learn.

Here are some of the best old and new writing books that will help you fix the flaws hiding in a first draft and hone your writing process:

(Need to finish more books faster? Check out my guide to reading more often.)

Tighten Up Your Writing With The 18 Best Writing Books

Before you buy one of these writing books, consider what stage your career is at and your preferred genre. Nonfiction writers have different needs than those writing romance.

Next up, evaluate what problem you want to solve or if you simply want to be entertained by another author.

For example, some of these writing books will help with outlining, self-editing and self-publishing. Others offer more top-level advice about the craft and your creative process.

1. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

The Elements of Style

Go back to the basics with The Elements of Style. If your word processor’s grammar checker is throwing up a lot of red, this is the book for you. It’s a comprehensive refresher that will teach you how to get your point across with clean, clear sentences.

As a bonus, your editor won’t have to work as hard to clean up your manuscript. This could save you hundreds of dollars on your journey to getting published.

If you want to learn how to write better, it belongs on your bookshelf.

Read for: self-editing.

The book contains gems like:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

William Strunk, Jr. And E.B. White
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
  • Wusthof
  • Strunk Jr., William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 105 Pages - 07/23/1999 (Publication Date) - Pearson (Publisher)

2. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser

On Writing Well

This book widens the focus a little over The Elements of Style. Instead of centering on sentence-by-sentence grammar and word choices, it discusses how to successfully bring your overall point across.

On Writing Well covers a wide variety of subjects. These include narrowing down your unique perspective and author’s voice and analyzing what works and what isn’t working.

Read for: writing anything non-fiction including blogging.

It contains practical English writing tips like:

Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person

William Zinsser
On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Zinsser, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 335 Pages - 09/11/2012 (Publication Date) - Harper Perennial (Publisher)

3. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell

Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure

You’ll notice Bell’s name twice on this list. In my opinion, both of these books are must-haves for any serious fiction author.

In Plot & Structure, Bell discusses how to outline your novel. He describes what should be in each section. Then he breaks down the different plotting systems available to a novelist.

Read for: plotting your book.

Write Great Fiction - Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting and Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Bell, James Scott (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 242 Pages - 09/22/2004 (Publication Date) - Writer's Digest Books (Publisher)

4. Write Great Fiction – Revision & Self-Editing, by James Scott Bell

Revision and Self Editing for Publication

Revision & Self-Editing go beyond telling you what should be in your story. He tells you how to identify problems and fix them.

This is an invaluable skill to learn. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll turn in a cleaner draft to your editor. If you’re going the traditionally published route, your tightly written manuscript is more likely to catch a publishing house’s attention.

Read for: editing your fiction novel.

Revision and Self Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Bell, James Scott (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 290 Pages - 12/10/2012 (Publication Date) - Writer's Digest Books (Publisher)

5. Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing, by Libbie Hawker

Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

Not every writer thrives under a long, detailed outline for their book’s plot. Some prefer to “fly by the seat of their pants” and discover the story as they write.

As writer’s guides go, Take Off Your Pants! explains how to avoid common “pantsing” pitfalls while still letting your writing muse run free.

Read for: outlining your book.

Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing: Revised Edition
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Hawker, Libbie (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 163 Pages - 03/10/2015 (Publication Date) - Running Rabbit Press (Publisher)

6. The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir

Most popular memoirs use a literary style to explore the subject’s inner life. However, this style is tricky to get right.

The Art of Memoir quickly moves from basic mechanics to more advanced advice. You’ll read excerpts from others’ memoirs, helping you find the literary style that you click with. Karr then explains how to infuse your own voice into the work, creating memoirs with real emotional resonance. I write a lot of nonfiction and I found this book particularly helpful.

Read for: writing a memoir.

It contains writing advice like:

“The memoirist’s job is not to add explosive whammies on every page, but to help the average person come in.”

Mary Karr
The Art of Memoir
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Karr, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 09/15/2015 (Publication Date) - Harper (Publisher)

7. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

McKee’s screenwriting workshops have attracted a star-studded group of screenwriters, from Diane Keaton to John Cleese. This book contains the distilled heart of his advice. McKee teaches how to show the characters’ inner growth, vary the pace, and create satisfying conclusions.

The Story is focused on story structure for films, but it can be adapted for theater productions, TV series, and other applications.

It’ll help you become a better writer and storyteller. McKee makes arguments like:

Read for: improving your storytelling skills.

“Write the truth”

Robert McKee
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • McKee, Robert (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 490 Pages - 09/28/2010 (Publication Date) - HarperCollins e-books (Publisher)

8. How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

In their 30 years of collective experience as writing teachers, editors, and reviewers, Mittelmark and Newman have found that budding authors make the same mistakes over and over again.

How Not to Write a Novel demonstrates 200 critical errors to laugh at (the book’s seriously funny) and learn from.

Read for: writing better fiction.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Mittelmark, Howard (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 274 Pages - 03/17/2009 (Publication Date) - Harper Perennial (Publisher)

9. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Writing Down the Bones takes a Zen approach to the creative process. One of the essential principles of Zen meditation is to live in the current moment. This is a valuable skill for people who are paralyzed by writer’s block.

Here, Goldberg urges the aspiring writer to “just do it.” Stop second-guessing yourself and obsessing over each word. Just start writing, and the story will flow.

Read for: kissing writer’s block goodbye.

It contains writing tips like:

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Goldberg, Natalie (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 260 Pages - 02/02/2016 (Publication Date) - Shambhala (Publisher)

10. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

As one of the most prolific and bestselling authors of our generation, Stephen King has valuable advice on the big picture of writing for a living.

On Writing mixes entertaining glimpses into King’s past with real talk about building the mindset of a lifelong writer. He describes how writing a draft of his first book Carrie only to throw it in the bin. His wife took out the draft and encouraged King to keep going. This book is a must-read for writers of all types if only to gain an understanding of how someone at King’s level approaches the craft.

I read this book when I was struggling with some short stories and later when I transitioned to nonfiction writing. I got learned new about writing life from it, each time.

Read for: inspiration and craft advice from a top author.

It contains insights like:

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (A Memoir of the Craft (Reissue))
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • King, Stephen (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 10/03/2000 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

11. Bird by Bird By Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird

I came across this book while in a writer’s group in Dublin, years ago. Basically, it breaks down Lamott’s journey and how to tackle difficult creative writing projects.

Perhaps the most famous quote from this book is when the young writer asked her father how she was going to finish a writing project about birds.

Read for: learning how to tackle your first book.

He told her,

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
  • Lamott, Anne (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 09/01/1995 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

12. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast

I listened to this book on Audible a few years ago. Hemingway recounts his first marriage to Hadley Richardson and his life in Paris after the First World War.

The author of many bestsellers, Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary and his literary agent published it after his death.

Less a practical manual than an insight into an author’s life, this book epitomizes the myth of the tortured artist writing in French cafés. It also contains rather a lot of stories about booze and drink.

Read for: learning what it was like to become a famous author years ago.

It contains nuggets like:

“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition
  • Hemingway, Ernest (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 07/20/2010 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

13. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

The Artist's Way

This book is popular with new writers and those who experience problems like writer’s block.

Cameron, a writing teacher, advocates for keeping morning pages whereby you turn up and write about whatever is on your mind for a predetermined period before moving on with the day.

Read for: becoming more creative.

She says:

“Boredom is just “What’s the use?” in disguise. And “What’s the use?” is fear, and fear means you are secretly in despair. So put your fears on the page. Put anything on the page. Put three pages of it on the page.”

Julia Cameron
The Artist's Way: 30th Anniversary Edition
  • Cameron, Julia (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 272 Pages - 10/25/2016 (Publication Date) - TarcherPerigee (Publisher)

14. How to Make a Living With Your Writing by Joanna Penn

How to Make a Living With Your Writing

Many writers struggle to turn their creative ideas into money. There’s nothing wrong with earning a living from creative work either. After all, you don’t expect a doctor to work for free.

I read an earlier version of this book a few years ago when I was getting started with self-publishing. I also had the chance to interview Joanna for the Become a Writer Today podcast.

Read for: earning a living from self-publishing.

How To Make A Living With Your Writing: Books, Blogging and More (Books for Writers)
  • Penn, Joanna (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 132 Pages - 07/07/2015 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

15. The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even if You’re Not By John Vorhaus

The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even if You're Not

Both new and successful writers can benefit from learning how to inject a little color and humor into their stories and books.

This book was published back in 1994. I read it a few years ago and return every now and again to take notes. I also recently interviewed John for my podcast.

Read for: becoming a more entertaining writer.

It contains gems like:

“The difference between a class clown and a class nerd is that the class clown tells jokes everyone gets while the class nerd tells jokes that only he gets. Comedy, thus, is not just truth and pain, but universal, or at least general, truth and pain.”

John Vorhaus
The Comic Toolbox How to Be Funny Even If You're Not
  • Vorhaus, John (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 191 Pages - 07/01/1994 (Publication Date) - Silman-James Press (Publisher)

16. Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas by Mark Levy

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas

Free writing is a skill every writer should cultivate. There’s no great secret to it, and it’s easy to learn. All you have to do is sit down and write about whatever comes to mind for a predetermined period.

In this book, Levy explains:

  • Why writers should approach topics from multiple points of view.
  • How lengthy free writing sessions unlock new creative arguments that writers couldn’t have previously envisaged.
  • When writers should “try easy” instead of working harder to overcome a problem in their work.

If you’re hitting a creative roadblock, Levy’s book is full of practical writing tips that will help you become more productive.

He writes:

“Free writing is one of the most valuable skills I know. It’s a way of using your body to get mechanical advantage over your mind, so your mind can do its job better.”

Mark Levy

17. The Journals of John Cheever

The Journals of John Cheever

I’m a big believer in the power of journal writing as this practice makes it easier for beginners to find something to say, and encourages more honest writing.

Plus, the act of keeping a journal fosters a regular writing habit.

Lots of famous authors published revealing journals (Virginia Woolf, Vladamir Nabakov), but John Cheever’s is one of the best.

In this book, he discusses his troublesome marriage, his alcoholism, and his relationships. He describes at length the craft of writing and his works.

He writes:

“When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand.”

John Cheever

Cheever kept this journal right up until his death in 1982, and his decline is upsetting to witness.

However, his argument towards the end of his life that “a good page of prose remains invincible” is a mantra any writer can adopt.

If you’re looking for an insight into the mind of a literary writer with an astonishing output (Cheever wrote one book a year), you can find it here.

18. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

If you procrastinate, have trouble motivating yourself, or put off turning up every day in front of the blank page, this book will help.

It’s a short book on writing and art that you can finish in several hours. In it, Pressfield explains how great art is a war and that any serious artist is in a constant battle against themselves. He argues it’s natural to feel resistance against sitting down to write, but as a writer, your job is to face this resistance and overcome it.

The book is more than just a motivational pep-talk. Pressfield explains how his mindset helped him overcome a career crisis as a failed screenwriter during his forties.

He writes:

“We’re facing dragons too. Fire-breathing griffins of the soul, whom we must outfight and outwit to reach the treasure of our self-in-potential.”

Steven Pressfield

The Final Word on the Best Books About Writing

So there you have it, some of the best writing books to add to your reading list.

Now you don’t need to pay for that MFA! Just remember…

Your novel or work of nonfiction book won’t emerge perfectly on the first try, and that’s OK. You can fix problems in a book, whether they’re minor grammar issues or big plot holes.

If you still need help, the writing books here can help you bridge the gap between the first draft and published author.

Further Reading

Our Always Up-to-Date List of Great Books to Read

Best Productivity and Time Management Books

Best Self-help Books

Best Leadership Books

Best Grammar Books

Best Sci-Fi Books

Best Dystopian Novels

Audible: Is It Worth It?

Best Philosophy Books

Best Creativity Books

Best Business Audiobooks

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.