The best books on writing

John Vorhaus Author Of The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You're Not
By John Vorhaus

The Books I Picked & Why

The Elements of Style

By William Strunk, E. B. White

The Elements of Style

Why this book?

When I was a kid we used to make jokes about this book. We called it “The Elephants of Style” and considered that the height of hilarity. Yet within its thin frame lies more great advice on how to write than ten other books ten times its size. From “the Elephants” I learned to avoid clichés like the plague, to write with precision and candor, and that “writing in the passive voice should never be done by me.” To this day (more than half a century later) I keep a copy close at hand, to resolve any doubts I might have about grammar, punctuation, or the proper use of a semi-colon. It’s more than a hundred years old (!) and will continue to inform and improve writers long after you and I are dead, buried, and gone.


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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why this book?

Apart from all the hard information about how to set up and run an effective career in writing, I’m including this book on my list because of a startling revelation that King makes about his own work. In this revelatory and intimate self-expose, King points out that he was an alcoholic for many, many years of his career, and actually wrote several books that he now has no recollection of ever penning. To me that’s remarkable, and also a cautionary tale. I’m not saying don’t drink – many a writer has lubricated the process with a judicious whiskey or two – but I am saying don’t get so drunk that you forget what you write. Why? Because writing should be a pleasure, and the sensation of having written is one of the most sublime pleasures there are (Is? Are? Ask Strunk & White.) Don’t get so black-out drunk that you miss out on the best part.


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The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

By Christopher Vogler

The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Why this book?

If you were a screenwriter among screenwriters in the 1980s (as I was), you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a copy of this book – it was that important and that influential. Building on his mentor, Joseph Campbell’s, breakthrough work on “the hero’s journey,” Vogler lays out a template for story structure that is sturdy, solid, and workable. It gives writers a path through story where there was none, and helps the author know whether her story is a meaningful voyage of discovery or just an aimless wander. Many a Hollywood writer has written and sold projects standing on the robust scaffolding of Vogler’s work. He should get a cut, but he doesn’t.


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Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

By William Goldman

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

Why this book?

This is another book that seems to be about screenwriting but really is about all writing: about what goes through a writer’s mind in conceiving and developing a project; about how the rest of the world will greet that effort; and about how not to go crazy when small-minded people take colorful dumps on your work. I swallowed Adventures in the Screen Trade whole the first day I encountered it, and I have re-read it many, many times since. In moments of despair, when agents, publishers or readers just can’t seem to pick up the genius I’m putting down, I am comforted by Goldman’s immortal words, “in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.” I started my career in Hollywood, but as I’ve traveled around the world, over and over again I’ve found this wisdom to be true. Pretty much everywhere you go, nobody knows anything. This inspires me (and should inspire you) to the following modus vivendi: Keep giving them you until you is what they want.


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The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

By Julia Cameron

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Why this book?

Why include a book for artists in a list for writers? Because writing is art, of course, but also because writing is a practice, a craft, and the tools for getting better at one’s craft are the same tools whether one’s medium is words, paint, music, dance or macramé, the ancient sailor’s art of knot tying. The key to understanding the artist’s (and writer’s) way can be found in the subtitle, “a spiritual path to higher creativity.” If you think that writing isn’t a spiritual path, you’re wrong. If you thank that the way to improve as a writer is to increase your spiritual awareness, you’re wrong. If you think you can be a thoughtful and resonant writer without reading The Artist’s Way, well, you might not be wrong, but why would you want to take that chance?


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