12 Books Every Writer Should Own

The opinions and experiences in this post are mine. The links to the referenced resources are affiliate links, which means if you click & make a purchase, Amazon throws some pennies my way. 

As a reader and a writer, I love seeing what other authors have to say about the art of writing. In both my master’s program and in my real-life experience, I have learned that writing advice is universal. What helps the nonfiction writer helps the fiction author and vice versa. My collection of reference books amassed through recommendations by other editors and writers who I’ve learned from (Jennifer Lawler, Lourdes Venard, Jane Friedman, Carolyn Haines, James White, Thomas Lakeman, etc.). These are the books I found most beneficial and why.

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

I read The Elements of Style far later in life than any aspiring writer ever should. It’s more than a grammar guide (which is so important); it’s a writing guide that trains you to think about the art of usage. If by the end omit needless words isn’t your mantra, read it again.

Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

Sol Stein’s book as another one I acquired in college. It’s a comprehensive, straight-forward guide for writers of all experience levels. It advises on how to improve or perfect fiction and nonfiction prose as well as how to write interestingly in general.

Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman

Thomas Lakeman was my screenwriting professor, and I learned more about plot from screenwriting than I did in fiction courses. Which Lie Did I Tell is part memoir, part guidebook. It’s entertaining, humorous, and informative. If plot and structure are areas in which you struggle—if you have a hard time hitting act points, then this is a great (and cheap) book to own.

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, Ronald Tobias

When I was a student, it was my secret shame that plot was one of the areas where I faltered. No one told me this; I just…could tell. I struggled to understand the essence of plot, so I got 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. I never copied the book’s recommendations, but I’ve read it over and over, and it –along with other reads—have helped me overcome my weakness. It gets bonus points because it’s an entertaining read about plot basics.

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

Zinsser’s book is top-rated and is useful for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.  It gives basic advice like, “Writing is hard,” in such a way that makes you get it and accept that yeah, writing is hard. Zinsser had some agreeable information (such as that laughter is the universal solvent to the universal qualm, loneliness) and some not-so-much (such as his derision of the “confessional” or “overcoming” memoir). I respect that such books are overdone, but I don’t necessarily concur that these are not memoirs. Regardless, it’s a great read.

On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft, Stephen King

King is best known for writing horror; however, in his memoir, he talks about his writing process, which I enjoy. Though King has some fairly rigorous positions (he’s very anti-outline), he makes many salient points about writing as a discipline. For example, I concur that the inspiration fairies and their blessed dust only come once in a blue moon and that if you wait around for them, they won’t come. The memoir has three major sections: his early life that contributed to his becoming a writer (including his many failures), his insight on writing, and the car accident that nearly took his life.

Outlining Your Novel, K.M. Weiland

Ms. Weiland also has a book on structure and character arc as well as a blog. Her advice is rock solid. Her book on outlining was a total eye-opener. For writers who like a road map, Weiland’s book is the ticket. For writers who want to glance at a map her and there, this is also a great book. The MVP point this book made was explaining how to outline as an author and was showing that outlining isn’t what you did in sixth grade history class with Roman numerals (thank God).

The Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson

Another book that every writer should own, The Plot Whisper: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master is packed with useful information about both craft and creator. It explains the many reasons writers fail and falter before detailing the essence of plot in great depth.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King

Even if you hire an editor at some point, you need to know how to self-edit to a reasonable extent. Using Beta readers and professional editors will always help you take your writing to the next level; however, needs to be read over (by you) with a discerning eye multiple times before it goes into the hands of an agent or a paid editor. This book will save you money because it will (ideally) keep you from needing a costly developmental edit and will instead enable you to only need a copyedit or a line edit.

How to Publish Your Book, The Great Courses, narrated by Jane Friedman

Jane was editor-in-chief of Writer’s Digest magazine for ages, so she has serious clout. Her course, which I listened to on Audible provides a fantastic overview of publishing, writing, querying, editing, marketing, etc. one’s book. She delves into fiction and nonfiction, dishes on pitching, and more. She recommends other works, programs, and blogs / sites that are some of the best. This is a must-listen-to for any writer serious about publishing be it traditional or self.

Publishing for Profit, Thomas Woll

I love this book as a writer, editor, and future publisher because it’s so comprehensive. Woll’s text details everything a self-published author or a traditionally published author needs to know to understand the industry. It covers copyrights, international rights, licensing, marketing, budgeting, profits and losses, and more.

The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir, Jennifer Traig (ed.)

Some of today’s best-known memoirists like Elizabeth Gilbert and Sarah Vowell (to quickly name two) share their experiences and insights with the genre in this book. The book is chunked into sections with different writers sounding off on the topics. It goes to show that no two authors will approach the genre in the same way and that the road to success is paved differently for all of us.

…And One to Grow on

The bonus book I’ll throw in is John McPhee’s recently released Draft No. 4 On the Writing Process. I have a feeling that once I’ve completed it, it will make this a list of 13 books. I have other books on writing that I have yet to read but will share insight on their usefulness to you once I’ve explored them.

Importantly, when you read writing advice be it mine, someone else’s, or one of these established authorities, take said advice with a grain of salt. Do what works for you. Don’t force a method on yourself; though, do make writing a habit. Take time to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. Value what advice experienced writers and editors have to impart; they’re only trying to help.

Here’s a nugget of advice from my experience. No matter what and most of all, keep writing. Don’t stop writing. I think of my first draft like Sodom and Gomorrah. If I look back, I’ll turn into a pillar of salt. I must keep moving forward without looking back until I’ve typed the end. If I look back, I will stop, and I will try to save the city, and it will be to my detriment. If I keep going and finish, then I can revisit the metaphorical city without being destroyed and start making repairs.


Post a comment with a reference book you’d include in the list. Tell us why you love it!

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