Here is a list of fourteen books on writing every writer needs on their shelf.
I was going to say you should have. But the only thing I would “should” you about is not a book, but a verb. You should write.
(And you should have a cat, or two. I have six, and seven litter boxes.)
These books are the actual books I have on my shelf. I didn’t go buy new books to make myself look smart.
Some of these books could be used as a reference to solve a specific problem, like “Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.” That answer is on page one of The Elements of Style.
Or maybe you have a dragon called Resistance every time you try and sit down to write and you need to read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Or maybe you need to figure out how to make the reader care about your villain, and you need to read Save The Cat by Blake Snyder.
If you are a writer, you write. Right?
Writers should be writing, but sometimes you need to read and learn from other writers.
14 Books Every Writer Needs on Their Shelf
There are all kinds of books on writing out there, each covering some different aspect of the craft. I’ve listed fourteen of my favorites below. I’ve categorized them based on which aspect of writing they deal with so that you can easily find the ones that will be helpful to you.
Here are fourteen books every writer needs on their shelf:
1. For Fiction
Joe Bunting suggested I read this book. A good suggestion, Joe. The book is full of wisdom from Koch as he shares insight and techniques from several great writers. Stephen Koch used to chair Columbia University’s graduate creative writing program.
(What a funny way to say someone was in charge of something. I am the chair of my cats.)
Art is long and life is short. Except for the miraculous times when it doesn’t, everything you write will take longer than you think it should. —Stephen Koch
2. For Formatting
The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers from the University of Chicago Press
All the rules you will ever need if you are a writer, editor, or publisher. And in this world of self-publishing, you could be all three.
This book’s shipping weight is 3.2 pounds. I can’t find my scale to weigh my copy. If this book were a steak you wouldn’t be able to eat it in one sitting.
In the absence of electronic files, the author should provide the publisher with two identical paper copies of the manuscript; one may be a photocopy. —The University of Chicago Press
3. For Fun
Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss
Words are fun. Life is fun. This book reminds me language is beautiful and words are fun. They rhyme, they dance, and Mr. Brown is out of town.
Leave room in your day for laughter and play.
Pat sat on cat.
Pat sat on bat.
4. For Goal Setting
The Freedom Journal by John Lee Dumas
This will give you a detailed plan to get your book finished. It is one thing to say, “My book will be written at the end of the summer.” But what are you going to do every day to get it finished? Dumas gives you daily action steps to actually finish.
Actually is such a great word. Goals and actually, they need to go together. The word “goal” is on page 564 in my dictionary, and “actually” is on page 14.
Now, I actually need to use this book, or I will never get my book finished.
5. For Grammar
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
A small little book with rules to help writers with their craft. I carry this book in my messenger bag (I don’t carry a purse) to read while I am waiting in line to buy cat litter, or when I am waiting at the veterinarian’s office. It’s a quick read to help you write better.
Or is that write well?
I suggest you read the whole book and not just use it for rule reference.
6. For Memoir
The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
If you want to write about your life, read this book. Hmmm, now I am sounding bossy. I have read this book three times, not because I didn’t understand it the first time, but because it is so full of good information and fun stories. I read it for pleasure and to learn.
We all have stories to tell. This book will help you write your story so someone will want to read it.
In any decent game of chance, you must be present to win. That’s also true with writing what you know, where paying attention is the skill you need to succeed. —Marion Roach Smith
7. For Resistance
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Here is one battle writers need to win: the inner creative battle. The War of Art will give you the weapons to fight and win the battle to create. Don’t waste your life doubting your ability.
If you only have one book on your bookshelf, make it this one. Read the rest of the books at the library and buy this one.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. —Steven Pressfield
8. For Screenwriting
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
This book is about screenwriting. However, no matter what you write, you have to be able to tell me what it is about. This book helps you answer two essential story questions.
First, what is the logline for your story?
Second, why do you need to save the cat?
If you can’t tell me about it in one quick line, well, buddy I’m on to something else. Until you have your pitch, and it grabs me, don’t bother with the story. —Blake Snyder
9. For Self-Doubt
This book talks truth with a few cuss words. I almost didn’t buy the book because Sincero said “badass” in the title. However, being a badass means loving yourself and not listening to lies other people tell you about who you are.
Seriously, don’t doubt your greatness. Live an awesome life.
You are perfect. To think anything less is as pointless as a river thinking that it’s got too many curves or that it moves too slowly or that its rapids are too rapid. ―Jen Sincero
10. For Self-Publishing
APE: How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawaski and Shawn Welch
You don’t need permission from anyone to self-publish a book. However, you do need to know how. This book is a complete guide to self-publishing. I have not only read the book, but studied it. We can have total control over what our books look like.
Whitman, for example, self-published (and typeset!) Leaves of Grass. Self-publishing could change from stigma to bragging point—maybe we could change the term to “artisanal publishing” and foster the image of authors lovingly crafting their books with total control over the process. —Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch
11. For Self-Editing
The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
When you write, it is important to be able to self-edit. Shawn Coyne, an editor for over twenty-five years, tells you everything he knows in this book and on his podcast, The Story Grid Podcast.
Without an Inciting Incident, nothing meaningful can happen. And when nothing meaningful happens, it’s not a story. —Shawn Coyne
12. For Story
Robert McKee’s book Story is about the principles of screenwriting; however, he explains clearly what makes a good story.
Some people have a long bucket list. The only thing on my bucket list, besides driving to Canada to see my mom, is to attend one of Robert McKee’s Story seminars.
A story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change. —Robert McKee
13. For Submitting
Lukeman gives very specific information about story submission, from point size to margin width. Don’t give an editor an excuse not to read your story because you didn’t know how to properly submit.
14. For Words
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language edited by William Morris
Words are beautiful, and you can discover their origin and meaning. I know you can find definitions online; however, on a screen you cannot see the words that come before and after the one you are looking up. A dictionary is like a family reunion: the words are all related.
By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status. —William Morris
Stop Reading and Write
Reading books on writing can help you write. But no matter how many books you have on your shelf, the only way to get better at writing is to write.
Write is a verb. Go do it.
What book or books would you add to my list? Let me know in the comments section. I would love to know what books you recommend.
Write for fifteen minutes about a writer who keeps buying books on writing and never writes. Or just share what book you think every writer must have. I gave a list of fourteen books. If you could have only one book on writing, which one would you pick? No, wait, your top three. Or your top fourteen. It wouldn’t be fair if I got to list fourteen and I only let you list one. Now would it? 🙂
Please share what you have written in the comments and read and comment on someone else’s list. Let’s share what we know and help each other learn and get better at writing.