On Writing: Helpful Books for Writers

There are numerous books on the market claiming to help you become a better writer. Any self-help book is set to provide advice as to what tools you need to improve upon yourself, but in this case it’s about improving your craft. Beyond Do-It-Yourself (DIY) type manuals I’m not one to partake in reading books about all you need to know about writing and how to improve. Mainly because no one can teach you to become a better writer. Can someone provide receive guidance? Absolutely! But the sole role of development comes from you and your willingness to take in information and learn from it.

Am I saying that writing books are unnecessary? Not at all. And what does my opinion matter anyways if that were what I was saying? From my viewpoint artists (emerging or established) help other artists, and you can learn & improve at all stages.

What I will say is that how I’ve developed to be a better writer than the one writing Goosebump like stories including her friends from junior high school on is that I’ve read, read, and read some more as well as listened to those I respected and even those whose opinion I didn’t necessarily agree with. Open-mindedness is the best tool a writer can have. And in that vain I have to admit there are books I’ve found helpful that aid in the guidance of improving upon your writing.

Stephen King’s On Writing has been touted as one of the best books on writing in the past several decades if not ever. It’s a short book and is split into two sections. One is his experience becoming one of the best-selling genre writers of this and the previous decade. The second focuses on the editing process on what works and what hasn’t, while also noting there’s no key formula to the overall publishing formula of hits and misses. He speaks on vocabulary (simple is good, if it’s your style), pacing, and dialogue (I think one of King’s strengths).

On Writing is a helpful read for the emerging writer because you learn about how he started out and how his writing was not a career at all but a pastime he believed in. King worked as a janitor to help support his family and made the time to write. Now, his story isn’t one that will happen to everyone who reads this book but it’s always humbling to know that those who have it all today (and by all I think we as artists feel that the art itself will sustain us so that we do not have to have another job to supplement our income and our time) had to clean toilets and change diapers and wake up early or stay up late to get their words on paper and then wade through numerous rejections before finding that one ‘yes’ that will hopefully lead to many more.

Another well known author is Francine Prose. Her book Reading Like a Writer is a great resource because of the fact that the main and consistent advice a writer will always (and yes, I say ‘always’ even though you probably shouldn’t use the word depending on whose advice you take) be to read, read, and read some more. How can you write without reading what’s out there? Whether it be in the genre you write in or others. Should you confine yourself to only reading what you want to write or expand on literary if you write genre, contemporary if you write history, non-fiction and poetry if you only write prose? Yes, yes you should. Read as much as possible people!

Prose delves into portions of writing itself building from words to paragraphs to narration to details, etc. She gives examples from said books in each portion. Prose dissects these sections to help you see what she does when it comes to the overall structure of the work itself and how it helps to get you, the reader, to feel and see what the author’s intent was. She also provides a list of books “to read immediately” via the snippets within the sections she uses as illustration. For me this was a great read because it added to my reading list and I could see if I wanted to pursue reading more from a particularly author she touted or not. I have definitely learned a lot from reading more and seeing how authors manipulate words and choose to be lengthy in their description or not. How to work with gestures and not use them so much as markers but in ways to reveal more about the character when it comes to certain situations.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is one of my favorite books. Lukeman actually helps more with the editing process whereas other books may be more general. It was through First Five Pages that I realized how much adjectives and adverbs can be overdone when not using them can also pack a punch! He breaks it down into the prelims (presentation, sound, style) to content (hard to follow plot, reading between the lines, providing information) to the overall picture (show vs. tell [a lesson all writers learn at some point], tone, and focus, and--one of my Achilles heels--pacing). Lukeman examines and explains the writing/revision process from the perspective of a prospective agent and what their first impressions will be based off the first five pages of your submission. And believe it or not, with all the submissions agents and editors receive you may only get five pages to impress them enough to read further. Lukeman presents the problem and offers realistic solutions for you to consider when writing/revising. What I also like is that he has End-of-Chapter exercises which often includes taking a piece of work and rewriting it via the parameters of what he’s suggested. First Five Pages is something you can read en route but to really take Lukeman’s advice to heart you have to set yourself down, read it, and then pursue the exercises he’s provided to actually see and hear the difference in your work. I know when I removed adjectives and adverbs it forced me to chose action words that really hit the emotion of the scene hard.

Lukeman offers various books on how to improve your plot, write a great query letter, and use punctuation properly. Lukeman is one-stop shopping for editing and revising. Check out his website as soon as possible!

The books I’ve noted are all relatively short (less than 300 pages) and reasonably priced (none are more than $15) and you can find them anywhere. If you’re skeptical of How to Write books I’d suggest checking these out to at least get some inspiration. Stephen King provides insight as a famous writer who worked hard to get where he is now. Francine Prose examines literature itself and how we can learn from it the more we read. Noah Lukeman reveals insight into the mind of an agent. All of these are great tidbits to strengthen your work and to consider more of what others see when it comes to your writing. The first step is to create and the next one is to revise and edit, then repeat. With writing being a solitary field these books help you feel like you’re not alone.