The best writing books

8 authors have picked their favorite books about writing and why they recommend each book.

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On Writing Well

By William Zinsser,

Book cover of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

From the title you might think this book is about writing, and it is. But it's much more than that. Mr. Zinsser makes the point from the beginning that writing clearly is about thinking clearly, and thinking clearly is about knowing who you are and what you want to say.


Who am I?

We live in the age of selfies, when it’s easy to snap a picture of ourselves in the day-to-day activities of our lives. But a deeper and far more satisfying journey is to take a selfie of our inner selves to better understand who we are, what we want, and how to get it. I’ve spent a lifetime on this journey. Self discovery and self understanding, and through them self-empowerment, these are the essence of my work. As a #1 bestselling author, my purpose is to help others discover their purpose, and live it. The five books I’ve recommended here have helped me greatly along that path.


I wrote...

Magic Bullet: The Secret That Can Change Your Life in 10 Seconds—or Less

By Keith Ellis,

Book cover of Magic Bullet: The Secret That Can Change Your Life in 10 Seconds—or Less

What is my book about?

This book takes only 20 minutes to read, but it can change your life forever. You see, we’re born asking questions. Magic Questions turn that skill into a superpower. There’s nothing complicated about it. There’s no ten-step system to memorize, no mantra to chant, no checklist to follow. And it doesn’t cost a penny. The power of a Magic Question isn’t limited by language, gender, culture, race, education, age, or IQ. Anyone on the planet can ask a Magic Question to help solve any problem. All it takes is about 10 seconds to ask it out loud and begin listening to your answers. Then, like a magic bullet, they can help you get what you want from life.

Why? Because Magic Questions let you hack directly into your brain to access mental resources you might not know you have. Combine this with their uncanny power to cut through emotional red tape and Magic Questions become the ultimate catalyst for change. If you ask yourself the right question at the right time, you can begin to change your life in 10 seconds—or less. In fact, when you know what you’re doing, Magic Questions can change your life at the speed of thought. But there is a trick to it. The right questions take you where you want to go in life. The wrong questions take you in the opposite direction.

If You Want to Write

By Brenda Ueland,

Book cover of If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit

Writers often struggle to think of themselves as “writers” because the world has us believing that we can only carry that title if we are successfully published, and of course words such as “success” and even “published” can be fraught with subjective controversy. One of the lessons I learned from Brenda Ueland, among other great thinkers, is that we need to focus first on our own authenticity and only much, much later dare we think about what the world might have to say. This allowed me to let go and move on and trust myself on my writing path. It wasn’t easy, but as emphasized in If You Want to Write, we will be all right if we believe in our inner richness.  


Who am I?

As a published author with an MFA in Writing, I know how hard writing can be in terms of how to find a muse, employ an elusive craft, and deal with the soul-shaking consequences of digging deep. But as a survivor of life, including multiple moves, broken relationships, alcoholism, illness, and debilitating grief, I've also experienced the transformative power of writing. I took that belief into the community, and developed writing workshops for cancer survivors, women facing domestic violence, and many other people wrestling with trauma and illness, often recommending some of these books in my workshops. And along the way, I’ve witnessed time and again what the written word can do. 


I wrote...

Writing Through the Muck: Finding Self and Story for Personal Growth, Healing, and Transcendence

By G. Elizabeth Kretchmer,

Book cover of Writing Through the Muck: Finding Self and Story for Personal Growth, Healing, and Transcendence

What is my book about?

Life can be hard. When we get knocked off our feet and into the muck, writing can sometimes offer the leverage we need to climb out. Inspired by dozens of writing workshops for cancer patients, domestic violence survivors, and others seeking inner truth, Writing Through the Muck offers thoughtful insight and encouragement for anyone who wants to discover holistic wellness through the written word.

You’ll find: surprising evidence that shows why writing is good for you; easy-to-use tools and techniques to awaken thoughts and memories; dozens of poems and quotes to enlighten and motivate; fresh, new ways to look at yourself and your stories; and more than fifty creative writing prompts that will get you going on your journey to growth and healing today.

Write Away

By Elizabeth George,

Book cover of Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life

When I sat down to write my first novel I knew I wanted to model my characters on George’s Lynley and Havers but I couldn’t even start writing because I had no idea how to structure a novel, particularly a mystery. As fate would have it, George released her book on writing, Write Away, around that time. In it, she described her process with examples from her own books and it was exactly what I needed. This book provided the essential tools I needed to write. 


Who am I?

I write the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery series featuring Corelli and her partner Detective P.J. Parker. Most mysteries have a single main character so I’m passionate about finding other authors who write mysteries with two professional investigators as main characters. It’s fascinating to see how authors writing the same type of characters handle them and what they do about character growth over the course of the series. To me, watching two characters react to each other, seeing their relationship change over the course of a book or a series is much more interesting than reading about a single detective.

I wrote...

A Matter of Blood

By Catherine Maiorisi,

Book cover of A Matter of Blood

What is my book about?

Just back from her second tour in Afghanistan, NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli goes undercover to expose a ring of dirty cops. Ordered to kill to prove her loyalty, she aborts the operation. Now, she’s the one exposed. And being ostracized. Can she trust Detective P.J. Parker to watch her back?

Parker, the daughter of a vehement critic of the NYPD, wants to work homicides. And learn from the best. Unfortunately, Chiara Corelli is the best…and the most hated detective in the department. Without Parker, Corelli will be condemned to desk duty. Without Corelli, Parker loses her entre to homicide. Can they put aside their fears and join forces to solve a brutal murder and stop the dirty cops from threatening Corelli’s family?

Writing What You Know

By Meg Files,

Book cover of Writing What You Know: How to Turn Personal Experiences Into Publishable Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry

We’ve all got one of those life stories that we end up telling over and over again. Research has confirmed that those stories hold power. Meg Files in Writing What You Know offers us a path to transform those stories from the telling onto the page, and just maybe into the larger world. I credit Files’ workshops for helping me refine work that was later published. While you might notice that she draws on her teaching, conference creating, and publishing experience, she also writes with the voice of a supportive, nurturing friend. She reminds us not to be too self-critical, gives us the questions to get started, and challenges us with many opportunities to be “Jumping into the Abyss.”


Who am I?

As a kid, I loved how words on a page transported me. Later, I was astounded by how the words I wrote myself could help me solve problems, deepen my understanding, and expand my thinking. Over time, that writing offered clarity and built my confidence. And in my most challenging times, writing has saved me over and over again. Learning to observe like a writer or an artist continues to help me be more present in my life. Sharing expressive writing experiences with others, during a 35-year career as a writer and workshop facilitator, allowed me to witness how this creative engagement offers a respite while building resilience and joy in others too.


I wrote...

Neon Words: 10 Brilliant Ways to Light Up Your Writing

By Marge Pellegrino, Kay Sather,

Book cover of Neon Words: 10 Brilliant Ways to Light Up Your Writing

What is my book about?

Neon Words is a book that will illuminate the writer in you. By using the tools and activities here, you'll connect the word-organizing part of your brain with your free-ranging imagination—and you'll love what you've captured on the page! It's an exciting, confidence-boosting, and deeply satisfying experience.

Whether you want to be a writer, or just want to explore what it's like to create with language, you'll discover that playing with words can help you be more present in your life. Best of all, it's lots of fun. Who knew writing could be so enlightening?

If You Want to Write

By Brenda Ueland,

Book cover of If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is believing in an idea and jumping into it with heartfelt energy. This classic, written in 1938, gave me hope when I started on my book-writing journey 20 years ago, and it still occupies a place of honor on my bookshelf. I referred to it with fresh eyes when I jumped into nonfiction. Gotta love a book that boldly states that “everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” Ueland shows fresh ways to connect with readers through your words and to connect with yourself as a writer.


Who am I?

From my days as editor of The Barret Banner in sixth grade, I wanted to find out about people and tell their stories. Through decades as a newspaper reporter and editor, I discovered again and again how much stories matter—and how fascinating in-depth research and interviews are. Everyone has a story, and capturing the voices of real people is important. Getting to know ordinary families whose lives were turned inside-out by an adoption scandal has been a great honor. Listen to someone’s story. You may be surprised what you learn. 


I wrote...

Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children's Home Society

By Judy Christie, Lisa Wingate,

Book cover of Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children's Home Society

What is my book about?

Poignant true stories of victims of a notorious adoption scandal—some of whom learned the truth from Lisa Wingate’s bestselling novel Before We Were Yours. From the 1920s to 1950s, Georgia Tann ran a black-market baby business at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. She offered up more than 5,000 orphans tailored to the wish lists of eager parents – hiding the fact that many weren’t orphans at all but stolen sons and daughters of poor families, desperate single mothers, and women told in maternity wards that their babies had died. Encouraged by the work of journalist Judy Christie and Wingate, who document the stories of fifteen adoptees, many determined Tann survivors set out to trace their roots and find their birth families.  

Writing the Natural Way

By Gabriele Lusser Rico,

Book cover of Writing the Natural Way: Turn the Task of Writing Into the Joy of Writing

Writing professor Gabriele Rico knows how to take the fear out of writing, which is why this book became such a powerful best-seller and why I love to read and recommend it. Among the many strategies and techniques she offers in Writing the Natural Way, one of my favorites is her brainstorming strategy called clustering, which gives us permission to wander and bypass the critical censorship we are often hindered by. In turn, this fuels creativity and prompts us to make associations among ideas, memories, and feelings that are otherwise seemingly diverse or disorganized. She also firmly believes that, although writing can be a painful process, it’s not what hurts us that matters but rather it’s how we deal with the pain, and it’s through an honest expression of our truth that we can grow and heal.


Who am I?

As a published author with an MFA in Writing, I know how hard writing can be in terms of how to find a muse, employ an elusive craft, and deal with the soul-shaking consequences of digging deep. But as a survivor of life, including multiple moves, broken relationships, alcoholism, illness, and debilitating grief, I've also experienced the transformative power of writing. I took that belief into the community, and developed writing workshops for cancer survivors, women facing domestic violence, and many other people wrestling with trauma and illness, often recommending some of these books in my workshops. And along the way, I’ve witnessed time and again what the written word can do. 


I wrote...

Writing Through the Muck: Finding Self and Story for Personal Growth, Healing, and Transcendence

By G. Elizabeth Kretchmer,

Book cover of Writing Through the Muck: Finding Self and Story for Personal Growth, Healing, and Transcendence

What is my book about?

Life can be hard. When we get knocked off our feet and into the muck, writing can sometimes offer the leverage we need to climb out. Inspired by dozens of writing workshops for cancer patients, domestic violence survivors, and others seeking inner truth, Writing Through the Muck offers thoughtful insight and encouragement for anyone who wants to discover holistic wellness through the written word.

You’ll find: surprising evidence that shows why writing is good for you; easy-to-use tools and techniques to awaken thoughts and memories; dozens of poems and quotes to enlighten and motivate; fresh, new ways to look at yourself and your stories; and more than fifty creative writing prompts that will get you going on your journey to growth and healing today.

How to Become a Straight-A Student

By Cal Newport,

Book cover of How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less

The best book for college students, Newport wrote the book by looking at top-scoring, relaxed students and observing what they used to study. His findings mostly back up my own book, Ultralearning, which points to the importance of active recall over review, solving problem sets in technical classes and Quiz and Recall for essay-based classes.


Who am I?

I'm a writer, programmer, traveler and avid reader of interesting things. For the last ten years I've been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. I don't promise I have all the answers, just a place to start. 


I wrote...

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

By Scott Young,

Book cover of Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

What is my book about?

Learn a new talent, stay relevant, reinvent yourself, and adapt to whatever the workplace throws your way. Ultralearning offers nine principles to master hard skills quickly. This is the essential guide to future-proof your career and maximizes your competitive advantage through self-education.

Scott H. Young incorporates the latest research about the most effective learning methods and the stories of other ultralearners like himself—among them Benjamin Franklin, chess grandmaster Judit Polgár, and Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, as well as a host of others, such as little-known modern polymath Nigel Richards, who won the French World Scrabble Championship—without knowing French.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

By Lee Gutkind,

Book cover of You Can't Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

Gutkind founded the journal Creative Nonfiction and has been a tireless advocate of the CNF genre for decades, as a writer, teacher, public speaker, and publisher. His nuts and bolts guidebook, You Can't Make This Stuff Up, offers a wide-ranging examination of the craft of writing true stories – dialogue, description, beginnings, endings, intimate detail, reflection, point-of-view, framing – as well as clear and helpful chapters about forming a writing habit and learning to live one’s life as a writer. Gutkind has generously packed decades of wisdom and knowledge into perhaps the most comprehensive nonfiction guide available.


Who am I?

Dinty W. Moore is the author of the writing guides The Story Cure, Crafting the Personal Essay, and The Mindful Writer, among many other books. He has published essays and stories in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere, and has taught master classes and workshops on memoir and essay writing across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, and Mexico.


I wrote...

Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction

By Dinty W. Moore,

Book cover of Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction

What is my book about?

Award winning essayist Scott Russell Sanders once compared the art of essay writing to "the pursuit of mental rabbits"—a rambling through thickets of thought in search of some brief glimmer of fuzzy truth. While some people persist in the belief that essays are stuffy and antiquated, the truth is that the personal essay is an ever-changing creative medium that provides an ideal vehicle for satisfying the human urge to document truths as we experience them and share them with others—to capture a bit of life on paper.

On Writers And Writing

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of On Writers And Writing

Atwood’s reputation speaks for itself, but what I love about this book is that it’s derived from a series of six lectures that she gave at Cambridge University in 2000. And because lectures are delivered in person it’s like having a conversation (albeit one-way) with their writer. This is a witty, occasionally self-deprecating, erudite but also pragmatic and accessible book, and all in her inimitable voice. You discover about the process of Atwood’s own writing but also that of other writers, so while it’s quite personal, it’s also wide-ranging and inclusive.


Why this topic?

Where do writers go for distraction? For me it’s usually into the work of other writers and, when I’m done escaping into fiction, I turn to nonfiction and particularly those writers who write about writing. Why? Because it helps refresh my own writing to read those writing with clarity, insight, and coherence when my own process is in danger of fragmenting. What’s more, many writers write so well about the components of writing - voice, structure, narrative or even something as prosaic as getting started - that I am reassured about what I’m trying to do with my own writing.


I wrote...

Write Every Day: Daily Practice to Kickstart Your Creative Writing

By Harriet Griffey,

Book cover of Write Every Day: Daily Practice to Kickstart Your Creative Writing

What is my book about?

As a published writer, but also an ex-publisher, tutor with the Creative Writing Consultancy and writing retreats facilitator, I have been asked for advice about writing and getting published for years. This book encapsulates what might be helpful and rests on the premise that writing is accomplished by the writing itself. That is, to become a writer you have to write - not necessarily every single day, but a writing practice demands that you write.

That said, the book provides an overview on some of the component parts of writing that both novice and even established writers might find useful, for example, voice, narrative, plot and structure, character, dialogue, point of view, and place. It also covers different forms of writing from fiction to nonfiction, prose, poetry, and memoir, plus that all-important insider information about finding an agent or a publisher if your ultimate aim is to get published.

Writing to Be Understood

By Anne H. Janzer,

Book cover of Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why

Some writing guides can be a little bit “citation needed.” The author certainly sounds like they mean it—but where’s the proof? 

There’s no such problem with Anne Janzer’s superb Writing to be Understood. Setting out to get to the heart of what makes a piece of text clear and memorable, she offers a masterclass in clear and expressive writing. 

Along the way, she interviews experts in every area from non-fiction writing to psychology, risk management, behavioral design, and even comedy, bringing their authoritative guidance directly into her book. Read, learn, and see your writing improve.


Who am I?

I’ve been working with words for over 25 years, as a writer and editor in publishing houses, design studios, and now as a freelance. I help everyone from big brands and small businesses through to academics and consultants get their ideas out of their heads and on to the page. I was an original co-founder of ProCopywriters, the UK alliance for commercial writers. I’ve written and self-published four books, the most recent of which is How to Write Clearly. The books I’ve chosen all helped me to write as clearly as I can—not least when writing about writing itself. I hope they help you too! 


I wrote...

How to Write Clearly: Write with purpose, reach your reader and make your meaning crystal clear

By Tom Albrighton,

Book cover of How to Write Clearly: Write with purpose, reach your reader and make your meaning crystal clear

What is my book about?

Aliens have abducted all the freelance writers in the world! OK, that’s not true. But How to Write Clearly is the book I wrote when I imagined it was.

If my clients suddenly had to write for themselves, what would I tell them? I’d deal with titles, sentences, and structure. I’d talk about plain language. I’d cover key steps like planning, research, editing, and feedback. I’d share ways to make your message real, like metaphors and stories, and ways to explain new ideas and make them stick. Finally, I’d bring my guidance bang up to date with the latest ideas in education, psychology, and digital user experience. Basically, if you need to express yourself clearly on the page, How to Write Clearly is for you.

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