Knowledge is Power
I’ve come across and met a few writers who swear by not reading to get better at writing. They believe the only thing they need is life and a pen or computer. Everything else is inborn, unlearned talent. Talent that will carry their message to the right reader.
No need for effort.
But when I ask these writers if I can read their stories, they clam up. Or show it off like their story is the best thing I’ll ever read. Never—not once—has that been the case. These tunnel or self-centered writers who only focus on their life and themselves without learning write stories that are confusing, boring, and unexciting or inspired.
It’s because they literally have no idea how to convey an idea, an image, characters, or their story onto the page. The only examples they have to pull from are regular life and the books they may have read in school. None of these things teach writers how to:
- Use pacing to control how their readers feel throughout the story
- What a scene is and how to control the tempo and themes through it
- The various sentence constructions and their connections to effect
- Various plot and story structures outside of the three or four-act structure
- Genre conventions and reader expectations
- The important terminology that writers need to know to discuss what’s wrong in their story or even what they are trying to do
Essentially, living and relying on the classics we’re exposed to in school does not teach us as writers how to intentionally and intuitively tell a story. We can only learn that through close study, reading, and practicing our craft.
5 Books to Level Up Your Writing
A note on Stephen King’s On Writing:
I’ve said this before in other articles, but I want to mention it here in case you’re new to my writing. King’s book is a great inspiration tomb. It’s filled with quirky life moments from the father of horror and has some cool writing information in it, too. If you’re just starting out, I think it’s a great book to help you see how one writer tackled the road of becoming an author years ago.
But bear in mind, the book is over 20 years old and is extremely outdated when it comes to publishing standards, what sells, and what makes for unique and captivating writing. A lot of writers fall into the trap of sewing King’s advice into their skin as the end-all to writing advice.
It’s not, though. Just the beginning.
The books below are going to go far and beyond anything King wrote in On Writing. So if that’s your only basis for a great book on writing, prepare to be absolutely gobsmacked. These books will challenge you, change how you see story and write, and provide you with actionable tools to make a career out of your passions.
King’s book, despite how *cool* it is, will never do that.
1. Any Highly Regarded Recent Book Within Your Niche or Genre
Find a book in your niche or genre that is similar to the type of work you want to write. Check to see how it was received. It doesn’t need to have been a bestseller or anything like that. Focus more on what people have said about how the author conveyed the idea. Study this book. Read it like a fan, then read it like a student, then read it like an expert. Mark it up until the margins bleed. Learn how the author used the words, sentences, and structure of the narrative to weave their story.
2. Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
A lot of books teach writers this very stick figure, cookie cut out way of writing stories. This leads to a lot of writers writing the same types of stories because they’re trying to stick within the three-act structure or make sure their hero shows change or their romance has a break-up and rekindling. And while plots, structures, and genre conventions are all extremely helpful to writing a story, most writers were never taught how to finesse all of that into something original and unique. That’s where Jeff VanderMeer’s craft book comes in! Wonderbook is a large standalone writing manual that teaches writers that stories are not structures but living breathing beasts and monsters, each with their own quirks and ways of telling. VanderMeer, bestselling author of Annihilation and Dead Astronauts, gives writers of all levels the tools and knowledge necessary to succeed and publish as contemporary writers.
3. Spellbinding Sentences by Barbara Baig
I hate to break it to you, but there’s a huge chance you have no idea how to write a sentence. Like yeah, you get the whole subject, verb thing—or maybe you don’t—but using them knowledgeably and having an understanding of how they affect your reader, pacing, and atmosphere, definitely not. If you’ve read any of my 100+ craft articles, you know how much I stress writers understanding the rules, styles, and frameworks of the languages they are writing in. Barbara Baig’s Spellbinding Sentences helps English-speaking authors take their understanding of grammar and syntax to the next level by teaching them how to use and break these rules for specific effects in their writing.
4. Welcome to the Writer’s Life by Paulette Perhach
When I used to work 2 jobs while building my writing business and craft this is the book that instantly made the path clear. Paulette Perhach taught me what the contemporary writer needs to do if they want to work and live as a full-time writer. The book was funny but also extremely realistic and straightforward. A year after reading Welcome to the Writer’s Life, I quit my jobs and moved into full-time writing, using everything Perhach outlined. She’s also extremely personable and loves meeting writers and readers. Having a craft book that teaches you how to be a writer in this day and age without telling you that you also need to buy this $400 course or follow their email list or blah blah blah only to hear them regurgitate what everyone else has already said a thousand times is worth its weight in gold and silver and the best writing snacks.
5. Story by Robert McKee
Like with Perhach’s book, Robert McKee’s Story instantly took my storytelling to the next level. Out of every book on this, this is the only one I re-read whenever I start a major project or if I want to re-connect with the idea of what story is and can be. While his book is pack filled with examples and information that blows the heads off what many writers are taught about story, he is a bit inaccessible. Sometimes he says things that are very typical of old white guys, but I read over that stuff and focus on the nuggets like:
“Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”–Robert McKee from Story
Simply Reading Won’t Make You Better
I know, I know, this whole article was about what books to read to become a better writer, but I have some super bad news.
Reading alone won’t make you better.
Same with simply writing.
Those acts are nothing more than fun exercises, but without deliberate practice and application, they are nothing. When I talk about practice with a lot of writers, they say they’re doing it, but most actually have no idea how to practice. They consider each blog post as practice, talking with readers as practice, but they never change or get better at their writing, and if they do, it takes an extremely long time.
Like a musician with their scales, writers have to actively and thoughtfully apply their knowledge to their craft, bit by excruciating bit. Grab a copy of each of these books and go through the practices outlined inside them. For the book from your niche or genre, rewrite it word for word while ruminating on each choice the author made to build their story—also think about the tiny changes that could affect the story, like longer paragraphs or shorter chapters.
If you come across something in the books you don’t agree with or feel is wrong/goes against what you believe, listen to that emotion. Are you feeling insecure that there are other ways to write out there? Or are you actually coming from a basis of knowledge and practice?
Available online for free is Charlie Jane Anders’ writing craft book, Never Say You Can’t Survive. The advice she gives is centered and focused on writing in today’s pandemic and stress-filled world. There are articles on world-building and character development but without all the templates and archetypes and all that noise. She teaches writers how to write their unique stories in a way that will garner readers in the contemporary publishing world.