The 5 Best Books for Learning to Write Well

This post contains a collection of quotations from some excellent books. You can find other roundups of the best books about different fascinating topics in the Best Books and Quotations section. If you have the Kindle app, the Location links at the end of each quotation will take you straight to the relevant section.

Learning to write requires trial and error. Most of all, though, it requires reading. In this post are a collection of my favorite books for learning to write. I’ve included a brief description, link, and some quotations from the book so you can get a sense of the style and audience. The books included in this post are:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser


Though this book is ostensibly targeted an nonfiction writers, any author will find it invaluable. No other book has had a larger impact upon my writing style. It cured me of many bad habits. It proved to me that short, concise writing is not only clear but beautiful.

 

Clutter

Clutter is the disease of American writing. Location: 160

A simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Location: 2550

Endings

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it. Location: 946

 

Bird by Bird by Anne Larnott

This is one of those cultural phenomenon I heard alluded to dozens of times before I ever actually read the book. The core message is one of diligence and patience, but also of joy and craft.

 

Why Write?

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. Location: 233

Being Lost

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. Location: 494

Character Development

How would your main characters describe their current circumstances to a close friend, before and then after a few drinks? Location: 797

You want to avoid at all costs drawing your characters on those that already exist in other works of fiction. You must learn about people from people, not from what you read. Your reading should confirm what you’ve observed in the world. Location: 1034

On Writing by Stephen King


If you’re writing a story, Stephen King’s advice is the undisputed master. His advice is pithy and poignant. Get “On Writing” here.

 

Word Choice

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word—of course you will, there’s always another word—but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean. Location: 1320

The Greats

Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn’t they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius. Location: 1372

Fear

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with. Location: 1465

Being Smart

No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift  . . . . dozing to Byzantium, you might say. Location: 1624

Choosing Topics

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. Location: 1852

Developing a Story

The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere. Location: 1903

Descriptions

Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character. So spare me, if you please, the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes and outthrust determined chin; likewise the heroine’s arrogant cheekbones. This sort of thing is bad technique and lazy writing. Location: 2048

Backstory

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Location: 2774

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Leguin

Leguin has written some of the best fantasy novels of our era. She shares her insights from a lifetime spent refining her style. The book contains concrete lessons for improvement, and reads as much like an instruction manual as anything.

 

Judgement

If there’s one thing almost all writers agree on, it’s that we can’t trust our judgement on our own freshly written work

Craft

Once we’re keenly and clearly aware of these elements of our craft, we can use and practice them until—the point of all the practice—we don’t have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills. A skill is something you know how to do […] Craft enables art. There’s luck in art. There’s the gift. You can’t earn that. You can’t deserve it. But you can learn skill, you can earn it. You can learn to deserve your gift.

 

The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman


Don’t let the title fool you. This book is about so much more than selling things. By spending his life in advertising, Joseph Sugarman developed an uncanny sense for clear and persuasive writing. If your goal is to write effectively, this book is for you.

 

What People Want

Learning the piano is tough. You can’t sell that. But you can sell the idea of social success and overcoming whatever deficiencies you have in order to become popular. Location: 447

Never sell a product or service. Always sell a concept. Location: 1650

Always sell the cure and avoid selling prevention. Location: 3883

Brevity

All of my first sentences are so short they almost aren’t sentences. Some typical ones might be: Losing weight is not easy. It’s you against a computer. It’s easy. It had to happen. Hats off to IBM. Location: 928

In the editing process, you refine your copy to express exactly what you want to express with the fewest words. Location: 2190

Losing the Reader

The moment you get the reader to say “No” or even “I really don’t believe what he is saying” or “I don’t think that relates to me,” you’ve lost the reader. Location: 1104

 

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