Books about Writing

What is your favourite book about the writing craft? Over the years I’ve built up a small library of books about writing novels, reading as a writer and, of course, grammar and punctuation. Which one is my favourite? Well, that depends on what I’m looking for.

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When I’m having trouble with a piece I like to turn to Stephen King’s On Writing for inspiration and tips on how to dig myself out of the mire. His easy going style and sense of humour about life (and writing) nearly always makes me feel better. On the other hand, his expectations of what makes a good writer can, at times, feel rather daunting to a beginner. For example, he says that when he begins a book he writes every day, and he finished one of his books in a week.

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I think he is right that we should try to work on our stories every day, if we can, or at least as often as possible. Writers should be driven by their writing just as painters are by painting or athletes are by playing sports. If you’re not then there is no point in being in this writing game. But I don’t agree that fast writing is always the best writing, or something that everyone can do. If you can be prolific without losing quality then you’re incredibly lucky, but not everyone can. Writers have to find their own way into their stories, fast or slow, and keep going with them. If writing every morning for two hours gets you there, that’s great. It’s equally wonderful if writing all day Saturday gets you to where you want to be with your story. As for myself, I tend to buy into the saying ‘slow and steady wins the race’. 🙂

But there is such good advice in here that you’d be hard pressed not to find space for it on your bookshelf. He covers everything from how to survive as a writer to creating memorable characters, strong plots and effective revision. One of my favourite parts is the book list he has at the back of the book. How many of these titles have you read?

The first book I ever bought about writing is Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Hemingway has always been one of my favourite writers because of his brevity and tightly knit prose. This book is a collection of quotes from his stories and letters about the craft, edited by Larry W. Phillips, and brought out in the 1980s, long after Hemingway’s death. Here’s one of my favourites:

“I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” To L.H. Brague, Jr., 1959 Selected Letters, p. 893 (page 18)

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He also talks about the importance of writing early in the morning before anything else can distract you and of not talking about what you’re writing so that you remain interested in it, advice I’ve attempted to follow but not always succeeded in.

Another great book about writing is called Reading Like A Writer by the aptly named Francine Prose. In this book she talks about the importance of reading carefully and slowly so that we fully understand what a writer is doing. She talks about courses she’s taught at college where students would speed read to the extent they didn’t actually know what the writer said, let alone how they got there. If we are to be good writers the first step is to be good readers. It is only by close reading that we are able to deconstruct character, plot and storyline to learn how it’s done.

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Of course, there are so many good books out there about writing. Which ones have you found useful for your own writing practice? And are you a fast writer, or a slow one? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below.

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