7 Great Books about Writing

The internet is full of people who claim to have the secret to making millions from writing.

Much of their advice is focused on how to market your book. Despite your novel being the unedited ravings of a lunatic, you can follow their Facebook marketing strategy and be a publishing millionaire by the afternoon, or by lunchtime if you sign up for their premium package.

Marketing is an art form of itself, an essential part of publishing, and something I’m still getting to grips with myself, so I appreciate all the useful info out there. However, it frustrates me that most self-publishing ‘gurus’ conveniently ignore the fact that it helps to have a good product to sell in the first place. And the only way you can guarantee that is by improving your writing.

The best way to improve is to write, write, and write some more. But it helps to have a guide in the form of a book. These seven might not have all the answers, but they’re a good primer for any writer.

1. The art of dramatic writing – Lajos Egri


“Neither the premise nor any other part of the play has a separate life of its own. All must blend into an harmonious whole.”

I bought this book in 2008 in London, after I finished university and decided that I wanted to be a screenwriter. There had to be some kind of handbook, I thought, so I ordered a load of books off Amazon, hoping to find the magic formula. Most of those books now sit idly on shelves, gathering dust. Often those were the ones that I finished reading, convinced that I’d found the secret to writing a million dollar script, then started writing, and realized that their theories were completely impractical when it came to the actual writing process.

This book was different. It gave me no sudden epiphanies. It was published in 1942 and focused on playwriting. I found it difficult to comprehend. But out of all the books I bought in 2008, it’s the only one I re-read. I don’t agree with everything in this book, and some of it can seem outdated, but it’s still a great treatise on dramatic writing. The chapters on premise and character are worth the purchase price alone.


2. About Writing – Samuel Delaney


“Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully…”

This is a fascinating read, though possibly not one for writers starting out. It’s highly technical and at times hard to follow, but always forthright and engaging.


3. Ernest Hemingway on Writing – edited by Larry W Philips


“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

The collected thoughts and quotes of Ernest Hemingway on writing. Like his prose, these reflections on writing are sharp and to the point, conveying in a few sentences what other authors convey in a chapter or a lifetime.


4. Becoming a writer – Dorothea Brande


“All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail.”

Not so much about the craft of writing, more on the craft of actually being a writer, on the process of sitting down each day and writing. Full of practical, honest, and at times tough advice on the practicalities of writing. Written in 1934, the advice is as useful now as the day it was written. Since then, the same advice has been recycled and retold in writing book after writing book, but this one is the original, and to my mind, the best.


5. Stein on Writing – Sol Stein


“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

Sol Stein’s opinions on how to fix common writing issues. Probably refers to his own books a little too much for my taste, but if you can look past that, and some of the other ego-driven stuff, this is a treasure trove of useful advice on craft.


6. The Art of Fiction – John Gardner


“Fiction does not spring into the world fully grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original, if not profound.”

These two books by John Gardner are fairly recent additions to my own library, but they’re probably the best writing books that I’ve read. Both are packed full of succinct advice gleaned from a career spent teaching creative writing to students like Raymond Carver. His style of writing will probably alienate some readers, along with his somewhat preachy tone, but as with Sol Stein, it’s definitely worth looking past that to the great writing lessons within.

7. On Becoming a Novelist – John Gardner


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