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Top Ten Books To Improve Your Writing

A likely first stop on the journey of any aspiring writer is the purchase of a writing book to teach them about the subject. Often they’re drawn to titles like “Write a Bestseller in Six Months,” or “Making Money from Kindle Publishing.” First and foremost though, the goal should be to master your craft, from the basics of structuring a story to the complexities of characterisation and subplots. With that in mind I came up with a list of books that are most likely to measurably improve your writing skills, books that clearly and concisely impart how to be a better writer, and since we’re on Fantasy-Faction, I tried to include ones that lean towards fantasy and science fiction.

Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (cover)1. Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle

As introductions go this is a great starting point, the book does a good job of detailing basic concepts and terminology with regards to the genres and broad aspects of writing. It’s a perfect ‘how to’ book for beginners, with chapters on story structure, language and the principles of worldbuilding. There’s also a nice section on rewriting which can be very useful and serves to introduce new writers to the vital skill of editing. Rounded off with a bit of business talk at the end, the book is a solid starting point.

The Writer’s Journey (cover)2. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Another good introductory book, it has the benefit of being packed with essential theory while being easily readable, unlike some of the very academically ‘thick’ texts from writers like Jung or Campbell. That the book uses popular films to illustrate its points means the reader can easily absorb and apply the information without having to plough through an English class’ reading list. The points and formulas described are just as applicable to novels as they are to film and the book is filled with information on classic plot forms and archetypes. While a writer may not choose to slavishly adhere to these formulas, knowing the historic formats and how the industry views them is invaluable.

Elements of Style (cover)3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

It’s not fancy or exciting but this little book is an excellent resource for a beginner wordsmith. Setting out basic rules of the English language with clear examples and explanations, this is one to reach for when you’re unsure if you’ve phrased a sentence correctly. The language is a bit thick, coached in terms of independent clauses and parenthetic expressions, but it’s much simpler to understand than you realise. The book also contains sections of general writing advice suitable to prose or essays and is well worth a read in helping an author establish their own style.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (cover)4. The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans

This book makes a strong effort to cover everything you need to know about writing fantasy and science fiction, from storytelling methods to characters, to genre specific queries like crafting measurements and language in worldbuilding; Athans doesn’t leave much out. All this information is neatly and precisely organised in short, focused chapters that always deliver what they promise. The books contain excellent examples of the techniques that steadily grow and change as Athans elaborates on each point, making them very easy to understand. Every aspect of the craft is given a high level of detail, and by constantly asking questions he encourages the reader to think through their own work and so develop their writing skills. If the dragon on the cover didn’t already sell you, the terrific advice inside should tip the decision.

Characters and Viewpoint (cover)5. Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

True to the title, this book contains everything you need to know on the subjects, it details the essential parts in creating and developing your characters as well as how to utilize viewpoints and craft an effective narrative voice. All this is done in an articulate, conversational tone with detailed examples that show the reader precisely how to use the techniques. The narrow focus of the books allows Card to explore in depth the process of a character engaging with the reader and of their relationship to the story. Whether you’re crafting a hero or villain, a love interest or placeholder, this book has you covered.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (cover)6. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

A bit of an oddity on the list but I think it’s a particular necessity for any would be fantasy writer. It can be all too easy to get caught up in the wonder of what you read, and upon trying it out for yourself, churning out a derivative mess of stereotypes and clichés. Seeing a book like this poke fun at an alphabetised list of tropes is the writing equivalent of a clip round the ear to make sure the author understands their work does not exist in a vacuum. Aside from being an entertaining read in itself with notes on bicycle-like horses that breed by pollination, this book will impress upon the writer the need for originality.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (cover)7. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Another text by Card, this is a more general writing guide but with very genre specific ideas and concepts. With a basic introduction to the genres the book quickly moves to a detailed instruction on worldbuilding using examples from Card’s own work to explain his points. There’s also a well presented chapter on story construction dealing with the mechanics of developing a story and fleshing out your ideas. A short chapter looking at writing craft and style is followed by a section on business and publishing which certainly gives a feel for his experience. For genre writers this book has some great tips.

On Writing (cover)8. On Writing by Stephen King

Part autobiography, part writing guide, the book blends the two forms together with grace and skill. You can feel the voice of experience in the pages as King recounts his life and journey as a writer, the events of his past told with the same eloquent prose as any of his books. Rustic stories and toolbox metaphors serves as the medium for how he explains the craft. The middle section of the book is devoted to the nuts and bolts of writing in general, without a real focus on a specific genre. With few chapters breaks the book tends to run along in a series of thoughts and musings on various subjects, yet the light tone and skilful explanations mean you learn a lot without realising it. The book leaves the reader with a sense of optimism and inspiration that’s almost as helpful as the writing information contained within.

Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Getting Published (cover)9. Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Getting Published by Brian Stableford

For a writing guide, this one is more high concept and with more complex ideas. Stableford’s book is a bit academic in terms of content and requires thought and concentration to appreciate, but the intellect of the writer clearly shows through in how he expresses his ideas. Covering beginnings, endings and everything in between this book has a wealth of knowledge to be tapped and will prompt the reader to look at the deeper meanings and aspects of their own work.

Reading by Fabian Gehweiler10. The Book You’re Currently Reading

A writer should always be learning their craft, you need look no further than the book in front of you. Whether it’s bad or good, the novel probably has something to teach you. Study the language, the characterisation, the narrative mesh, what is the author trying to accomplish, could they have done it better, how would you have done it differently? Every book is an example of the craft in action and as such there are few better places to learn from. Once a writer has got the basics down they can begin to evaluate and critique all the works they read, further broadening their knowledge.

What books and guides have taught you the most? Leave a comment below.

Title image by JMeccioPhotography.

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6 Comments

  1. Ambarish Sathianathan says:

    Everything by Donald Maas

  2. Brian Decker says:

    Great resources listed. While I haven’t purchased any books on how to write, I definitely use every book that I read—good or bad—to hone my writing.

    Also, another resource is on YouTube. Brandon Sanderson has all of his lectures that he gives at BYU posted up there, and they are quite helpful. Keeping in mind that it’s just one author’s opinion on things, but he’s remarkably open about things, from writing to publishing.

  3. Kai Mills says:

    Some of my favourites: Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel; Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer; Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Damon Knight’s Crafting Short Fiction; and K.M. Weiland’s books on writing craft. I also find Chuck Wendig’s profane rants very motivating, and Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp comforting.

  4. Gill Avila says:

    You left out Science Fiction Handbook by L. Sprague de camp

  5. Scott Hamilton says:

    In the internet age, there’s one more writing book that really should be added to this great list (I own them all and have for longer than the internet’s existed). It’s The Irresistible Novel, by Jeff Gerke.

    The Irresistible Novel helps people interpret the mountainous ocean waves of advice one cannot help but encounter, whether one stumbles on it in a Pinterest list of 16.83 things every writer MUST do, the unceasing diatribes of fiction pundits espousing NEVER DO [insert pet peeve], and even the books listed above. Gerke does not take a stand, he presents a fair and balanced assessment of the standard arguments for and against the principals we see so often raised in absolute terms.

    These include the traditional arguments for/against showing vs. telling, passive vs. active language, adverb use, paragraph length, pros and cons of prologues, etc., etc. In short, he suggests that there are NO solid, irrefutable rules. For every so-called Universally True Law, there’s a huge number of successful novels that violate it. This book helps one navigate these contentious conventions, and in a world that never shuts up, I found it to be a useful compass.

  6. Wastrel says:

    Unfortunately, whenever I look at books like these, I find advice on how to write books that I wouldn’t to read – by writers I don’t want to read or, more often, writers nobody has ever even heard of. And when I look at the books I think are good, I find them violating rule after rule from the advice books.

    I don’t know if anything has helped me write, since I’ve not written many things* and I’ve published nothing. But if anything has, it’s other novels and short stories. In a way, that’s one of the things that tells me that a book is really good – when I think it’s shown me something new about how it’s possible to write, and about what the genre is capable of. Recently, for instance, I’ve been struck by novels like ‘Babel-17’, ‘Only Forward’ and ‘The Stars My Destination’, because they’ve shown me how much you can get away with through shear audacity – and as someone who has always tended toward thick prose and who struggles to transition from scene to scene, that’s been a valuable lesson (which I’ve not yet fully learnt).

    *I’ve not completed many things. I’ve written PARTS OF lots and lots of things…

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