9 Books Aspiring Writers Must Read

Today’s guest post is by freelance writer Nicolette Morrison:

One of the “rules” often touted is that writers must always spend hours reading. It helps in improving comprehension and grammar, but most importantly it guides them to find their footing as writers.

Reading can give you an idea of what you like and what you don’t in a piece of writing. It’s about taking every bit of the things you like in a creative piece and trying to incorporate them into your own voice. It’s about widening your range of influences and learning what works for your style of writing.

Though writers are free to read whatever book comes to mind, there are some works that every writer needs to spend the time to read, digest, and apply. For people who have to work magic on a blank piece of paper (or a computer document for some), a word of motivation from some of the most prolific and successful authors can go a long way.

Below are nine books that can give any writer that necessary push to hold their pens mightier than ever.

  1. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke. “This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” The book is a compilation of ten letters to a young poet Rilke corresponded with during an important stage of his artistic exploration. Giving his non-condescending and genuine advice to the poet, Rilke imparted advice that many writers hold dear even years after they first read the book.
  2. How Fiction Works – James Wood. “Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, wheras literature teaches us to notice.” Written not just for writers but for readers as well, How Fiction Works gives a fresh take on the connection of real life and fiction. It also provides a good perspective on the creative writing process. Wood’s entertaining prose clearly shows his love for books—something any reader can appreciate.
  3. On Writing – Stephen King. “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” One of the most prolific writers of horror fiction shares his thoughts on the creative process and his experiences on the difficulties and triumphs in writing. He talks about writing in a frank and straightforward fashion. The book offers an imaginative memoir focusing on the life of someone devoted to fiction writing.
  4. Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury. “And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.” Readers will get lost in Bradbury’s tales and anecdotes that are written with vigor and passion. Though it’s not innovative, as some may claim, it can still take you on a spin inside the mind of the one of the greatest American writers.
  5. The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr. “When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” There’s no book that better shows an author following his own advice than this book. William Strunk Jr. dishes out some of the most timeless pieces of advice on writing. Keep it short, omit needless words, etc. Strunk practices what he preaches, and the fact that this book is in nearly every must-read list for writers shows that his work pays.
  6. The Writing Life – Annie Dillard. “He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.” Dillard pens an engaging and honest look at her relationship with writing. It opens the readers to the realities of a writer’s life. The book compiles Dillard’s essays explaining why, where, and how she writes. So far, she has published eleven books, each a gem of its own.
  7. Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg. “If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” Goldberg talks about writing, and the writing is in approachable fashion in this golden book. It doesn’t offer practical tips on how to make your writing work, but it’s a great motivation to writers who feel the need for some guidance in their careers.
  8. Why I Write – George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Orwell paints a not-so-desirable picture of the writing life, but underneath the grime and gore, he lets us see what makes it all worth it and why must one continue to hold the pen.
  9. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott. “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.” From plot to dialogue to character to first drafts, Lamott inspires aspiring writers on her anecdotal lectures on writing. She’s one of the funniest writers around, and this book proves that she’s also one of the writers who gives the most practical and humble advice.

These books are not meant to be treated as writing bibles, as every one of them needs to be read with a critical and open mind. However, each one offers a refreshing take on writing, for every writer has different perspectives. Take a pick and you won’t regret it.

Nicolette Morrison headshotNicolette Morrison is a freelance writer and social media manager for Bestessays.com. She’s currently working on her novel and hoping to finish her master’s degree by next year. You can read more of her musings on her blog Nicolette On Writing.

Feature Photo Credit: jaci XIII via Compfight cc

9 Responses to “9 Books Aspiring Writers Must Read”

  1. Marilynn Byerly November 3, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    When you are reading these books, any time an author tells you that his method is the ONLY method of doing something, don’t believe a word of it. The writing process is individual.

    Stephen King, in particular, is a method Nazi who states that being a pantster with absolutely no planning is the only way to write. Many of us would disagree.

    Most of these books are more touchy-feely about writing rather than craft books. Decent craft books like the ones by Writer’s Digest help with the nuts and bolts. Finding a good writing teacher is also useful.

    • sherrie miranda November 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

      Good points, all. I agree, Marilyn, most of the books listed here are inspiring and offer some good tidbits, but I don’t believe any of them discusses the 3 Act Play structure or anything else that really gives us some hints on what comes next and what needs to be left out.
      For me, leaving out writing is the hardest thing. You have this beautiful sentence or paragraph and you have to accept that it just doesn’t belong. It can be heartbreaking! Was it Hemingway that equated it to “Kill your darlings”?
      Sherrie
      https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1946619846/secrets-and-lies-in-el-salvador-is-the-novel-i-am

  2. Megan Morgan November 3, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Bird By Bird is one of the best books about writing, ever. I highly recommend all of Anne Lamott’s books!

  3. Beth Havey November 3, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    When you have some time to listen to what works for other writers, these are good choices. But you must stay true to yourself when you sit at the keyboard.

  4. Deb Lund November 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    This is a good list! I’ve read all but two of them. One I’ll pass on, but I’m getting the other. Just a little bit about reading about writing… It won’t substitute for actually writing, and it won’t lessen your learning curve unless you apply what you learn. I tell you this from experience! Reading about writing is a great way to avoid writing. It can feel like a great shortcut. But, write along with reading about it!

    The author touched on an important idea at the beginning of this post, and that is about reading books in general, not just books about writing. We learn by imitation. It’s even how we learned to talk. When you read the types of books you wish to write, you’ll begin analyzing what’s happening from an author’s perspective. You must read to write. It’s not wasting time. Reading is input, and writing is output. It’s a balance.

    Happy writing!

    • sherrie miranda November 4, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      Great points, Deb. I have to say I have read 3 of these books. I read King’s book slowly with a highlighter and sticky notes, but I don’t believe I used much of what he said. I do believe there is a balance between outlining and being a pantser. Some of us are more one than the other but I don’t believe any of us is purely either of these.
      I do wish I could read fiction like a writer but if I am enjoying a book, I just go with the flow. Now, if I’m not enjoying a book, I am more likely to try to figure out why. The only times I have really looked at HOW a story is told was when I did it for a class I was taking or when I was teaching a class (and got a lot of help from the teacher’s edition).
      Sherrie
      https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1946619846/secrets-and-lies-in-el-salvador-is-the-novel-i-am

  5. Julie November 4, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    This list is a great mix of inspiration and notes on craft. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Michael Tevlin November 5, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    I would add “Story,” by Robert McKee. It’s written for screenwriting but applies equally well to fiction. I’d call this one of the heavyweights in writing technique.

    “Writing Fiction,” by Janet Burroway, is considered a core reference.

    Along the lines of Strunk and White, “Style, Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” by Joseph M. Williams, should be used in any serious class on writing fundamentals.

    And for a good nuts-and-bolts, plain-language book on novel writing, try “Story Engineering,” by Larry Brooks. His take on story structure is especially helpful.

  7. Lamont E. Wilkins November 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Like your book list and have all except three of them. Also like the astute comments to you post. I too think Joseph M. Williams’ Style, Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace is an important book. Also Williams’ other books, since they all basically make the same points.

    If I were making a list, I’d include Measure and Madness, by Leon Surmelian. In an interviewer when asked about her writing process for The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd she said, “The process of writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon Surmelian referred to as ‘measure and madness.’ He suggested that writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous ‘measures,’ such as character studies, scene diagrams … I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure ‘madness,’ which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into the work. Inducing ‘madness’ also meant that I often left my desk to sit on the dock overlooking the tidal creek behind our house and engage in a stream of reverie about the story …”

    Surmelian’s book is an important book about the craft of writing, but it might be boring to writers interested only in genre fiction. And some of us early 21st Century fiction writers can be put off by Surmelian’s use of male gender pronouns. Of course, plenty of women were writing fiction in 1960s, when Surmelian’s book was published. Anyway, gender bias is still with us, and because Sue Monk Kidd has given Professor Surmelian a posthumous pardon for his literary gender crime, I think the rest of us can do the same. Measure and Madness is a book you’ll either read several times, or use for a sleeping aid.

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