Classic Books On The Craft Of Writing

BOOKS_OpWhen we consider the definition of a “classic book,” most often we get a mental picture of our favorite works of fiction and the authors who wrote them. Yet as a writer, my most dog-eared print books are volumes on the craft of writing. Some I’ve owned since the 1990s, and they’ve been boxed up, moved to a new address, unpacked and re-shelved multiple times. They’ve remained my most dependable tools to both increase my skill and help me stick with this hobby-turned-career. A few stand out in particular, and I’ll present them here.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (1994). The best book about the writing process I’ve ever read, and it is truly dear to my heart. Every single writer should read – and own – Ms. Lamott’s classic. She tells us, “Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.”

The Synonym Finder, by Rodale Press (1978). Freelance editor Laurie Rosen suggested I buy this twenty years ago, and I’m here to tell you this huge book rocked my world. It’s nearly always beside my laptop, and although Word’s synonym-finding function (hit “shift F7”) has improved by leaps and bounds in the past decade, The Synonym Finder still offers word options that will make you drool and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?!

Keys for Writers, by Ann Raines (1996). Tabbed for easy use, covers issues from the writing process through sentence structure to AP and Chicago style. I’ve owned this little volume since an English Composition class, taken when I returned to college mid-life to finish a degree. It’s a close friend.

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King (2004). My friend Laura Zera recommended this to me, and I found it indispensable for correcting several sentence structure issues in my writing. Easy to read, follow, understand and implement, and it points out lots of newbie writer errors and guides you to correct them. Yikes!

Write Away, by Elizabeth George (2004). My friend Deryn Collier recommended this book to me for a couple of chapters in particular: developing setting and landscape in your plot. If you’ve read any of Ms. George’s novels, you’ll agree she’s adept at setting a proper scene.

Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein (1995). I read Sol’s book back in 1995 and I still thumb through it occasionally. “As readers, we are immediately interested in a character who wants something badly.” “What the writer deals with is the unspoken, what people see or sense in silence.”

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22 Responses to Classic Books On The Craft Of Writing

  1. cindy January 4, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    Bird by Bird is my favoite writing book, too. I also loved Elizabeth George. Stein on Writing is sitting on my shelf, I’ll get right to it!

    • Molly Greene January 4, 2013 at 7:41 am #

      Hi Cindy! Bird by Bird is a must-have on every writer’s shelf!

  2. Laura Zera January 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    I concur about Bird by Bird! And Molly, so glad you found the Browne/King book on self-editing helpful. I was surprised by Abigail Thomas’s “Thinking About Memoir,” partly because it’s a veeeeery small book and partly because it was published by the AARP, so I wondered if it ‘would apply to me,’ LOL! But I adored it, her voice is so lovely and the writing prompts are excellent. I know Cindy is a fan of Abigail’s, too!

    • Molly Greene January 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

      Hey Laura, the self-editing book was an eye-opener, and I am SO glad you suggested the title to me. As for memoir … can’t wait to read yours!

  3. Jeri January 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    One of my favorite books on craft is Adios Strunk and White. It offers a lot of fun and quirky writing exercises. Another eternally helpful book on the craft is The Art of Styling Sentences.

    • Molly Greene January 4, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

      Interesting, Jeri – “The Art of Styling Sentences” sounds intriguing — anybody else have this in their bookshelves?

  4. David M Brown January 4, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Great post, Molly.

    I did enjoy Stephen King’s book On Writing. I also once had a Creative Writing handbook put together by lecturers at a university in East Anglia which I read through many times when I was finding my feet with my own writing.

    I think the best writers are the ones that know they can never stop learning something new each day.

    Will have to try some of the titles in your post. They sound both intriguing and useful.

    • Molly Greene January 5, 2013 at 11:57 am #

      Hi David! I’ve heard others discussing how much they liked (and were surprised by) Stephen King’s book. Thanks so much for stopping by and mentioning it here!

  5. Judy Croome (@judy_croome) January 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

    In order of preference the top 4 books on writing that have influenced me strongly are:

    1) Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead”
    2) John Gardner’s “On Becoming a Novelist”
    3) Margret Geraghty “The Novelist’s Guide”
    4) E M Forster “Aspects of the Novel”

    Many others have helped me, but these four stand out in my mind as having pushed my writing up to a different level.

    • Molly Greene January 5, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      Judy, thank you so much! I can see I’ll be busy this spring!

  6. Tim Pieraccini January 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    Whatever you think of the fiction and the man, there are few more pungent takes on writing fiction than this interview with Hemingway:

    Books that have been useful/inspiring to me include Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer’, John Braine’s ‘Writing a Novel’ and Colin Wilson’s ‘The Craft of the Novel’ – in addition to the E.M Forster and Stephen King (which I like more than any of his fiction writing!) cited above. There is also Jane Smiley’s ’13 Ways of Looking at the Novel’, especially the last 3 or 4 chapters.

    I would be wary of pointing anyone at any particular author – better to point them everywhere. If you’re writing in a genre, read outside it! Description is an especially difficult thing to pull off and almost any example could be potentially damaging – better to evoke rather than describe, if possible. Walter Scott can happily spend two pages of small print describing a Crusader in the desert but not many people would try that now!

    • Molly Greene January 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

      Thanks Tim! You’ve given us a lot to consider and certainly added significant titles to our list of resources. I deeply appreciate your time and generosity, as well as your thoughtful comment. Thanks so much for stopping by – I’m off to read Hemingway’s interview right now!

  7. Elisabeth January 7, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    Molly I love your definition of a classic book. It should have been obvious – of course the books we read over and over, and use to craft our words and stories are classic. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Molly Greene January 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

      Thanks, Elizabeth! I can categorize my classics as “the books that make it on the truck every time I move.” Thanks so much for stopping by!

  8. Lisa January 9, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    ‘Between the Lines’ by Jessica Page Morrell is one of my favorites. The book seemed to give information on the more subtle aspects of writing. Books on writing can so often begin to all sound alike, and this one felt different. I read with a highlighter in hand; always a sign, for me, of a good book. I also loved Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ as others have mentioned here. He made me laugh.

    • Molly Greene January 10, 2013 at 8:36 am #

      Thanks so much for the suggestions, Lisa! “Between the Lines” sounds intruiging and so many people have mentioned Stephen King it must be a must-read. Thank you for stopping by and for your additions to our growing TBR list!

  9. Sonya Contreras October 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    I’ll add them to my Christmas wish list! Thank you.

    Another book I’d recommend is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guid to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
    They take 75 emotions and list body language, thoughts, and visceral responses caused by that emotion.

    Of course, this would be for fiction writers.

    • Molly Greene October 6, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      Thanks, Sonya! I’m going to track that one down.

  10. Stef August 17, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    Rennie and Dave’s self-editing book is a must read for authors (preferably before they put pen to paper). Timeless and succinct, this book is the most useful one I have ever encountered.

    The object of good writing is to communicate effectively, and this book is a paradigm by example and form.

    • Molly Greene August 17, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

      Thanks, Stef! I agree. I own it, I refer to it, and it’s taught me a lot.

  11. Garry Rodgers November 25, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Hey Molly, I just stumbled upon this post and had to put my 2 cents in. If you haven’t yet read “On Writing” by Stephen King, please do. “Elements Of Style” by Strunk & White is also a must-have and another that I highly recommend is “Wired For Story” by Lisa Cron. Lisa’s book is about the science of what story is and how human’s are genetically conditioned to absorb stories – great advice on how to get readers to connect.

    • Molly Greene November 26, 2014 at 7:44 am #

      Thanks, Garry! I’ll add these to the list.