The 9 Absolute Best Books on Writing by the Pros

September 20, 2017 | 6 min read

 


Today’s guest post is by Matt Grant. Matt is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. His work has appeared in Literary HubBook Riot, HuffPost, and BookBrowse. Find Matt online, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


As a writer, as with any form of art, you need to constantly hone your craft. Education plays a big role in self-improvement, but you don’t have to be an MFA candidate to keep learning. You can pay for classes (which often cost and arm and an leg), or try to find free options online.

One great way to find free (or at least cheap!) advice you can learn at your own pace is to read books on writing. Many prominent writers, publishers, English professors, and grammarians have written books on their craft intended to help writers improve their craft. And who better is there to learn from than the experts?

Below are nine books to add to your shelf today that will help you in all phases of your writing journey.

Reading Like a Writer Francine Prose

Reading Like a Writer,Francine Prose

Technically a book on reading, Prose’s book is written with writers in mind. Her entire argument is that before there was such a thing as creative writing instruction, the only way writers learned their craft was from reading other writers. Prose’s practical and straightforward book will give you a deeper appreciation for good literature in general, and what it takes to write good literature specifically. She has sections on sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, and more. Along the way, she stocks her advice with examples from literary titans, even including an entire section at the end called “Books to be Read Immediately.”

 

How To Read Literature Like a Professor Thomas Foster

How to Read Literature Like a Professor,Thomas C. Foster

Have you ever read a “great” novel and felt like you’re missing out on a hidden layer of meaning? If subtext often goes over your head and you have a hard time deciphering metaphors, this book may be for you. Foster, a professor of English at University of Michigan-Flint, has provided a fun and easygoing guide to “reading between the lines.” With chapter titles like “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires,” and “It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry if I Want to,” Foster’s book is a fun, lighthearted take on literary analysis. It’s a helpful guide for how to deconstruct motifs, themes, images and other symbols in great novels, which you can turn around and apply to your own work. 

 

The Elements of Style William Strunk Jr

The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

No writer’s library is complete without a stylebook, and The Elements of Stylehas been thestandard stylebook since 1918. You probably recognize E.B. White as the author of beloved children’s classics Charlotte’s Weband Stuart Little.William Strunk, Jr. was his English professor at Cornell University. Strunk wrote the original version, which White later expanded. This is an extremely practical book to carry around, just over 100 pages, and it easily fits in your pocket. It focuses on usage, form, and even lists commonly misspelled words.

 

Bird By Bird Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott

Lamott’s wonderful book is both a memoir and writing advice guide. Her emotional and honest take on the writing life is refreshing. In it, she tells a story from her childhood about her ten-year-old brother freaking out over a huge report on birds that he’d had three months to complete. Overwhelmed by the task and unsure of where to begin, Lamott recalls her father putting his arm around her brother and telling him to just take it “bird by bird.” The same advice applies to writing, Lamott says, as writers take their work one word, sentence, and book at a time. What’s more, Bird by Birdwill disabuse you of any notions of overnight success in literature.

 

Several short sentences about writing Verlyn Klinkenborg

Several Short Sentences About Writing,Verlyn Klinkenborg

Klinkenborg is a creative writing professor at Yale University, and his short, breezy book is one of best books on writing I’ve ever read. Written in short, snappy sentences laid out like poetry, Several Short Sentences About Writing aims to have writers focus on writing good, clear sentences. And that’s it. Klinkenborg argues that great sentences will lead to great writing, and that good sentences can make even the most boring and mundane subject seem fascinating. He encourages writers to think of each sentence as its own entity on the page, separate from everything that comes before and after it. At the end, he includes a section of bad sentence examples, culled from his years as a writing professor. I’m just glad he wasn’t mine!

 

On Writing Well William Zinsser

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

Zinsser’s On Writing Wellis a pretty classic college textbook for writing classes, so if you slept through English, now might be a good time to revisit it. As a former reporter for the New York Herald Tribuneand the author of 17 nonfiction books, Zinsser’s area of expertise is nonfiction. The first two sections of his book are a more narrative version of The Elements of Style,but the third focuses on different forms nonfiction writing can take. Zinsser shows what goes into good interviews, memoir writing, sports reporting, and travel writing. This volume is essential reading for anyone wishing to write good, compelling nonfiction.

 

On Writing Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

If you think Stephen King is enjoying a renaissance right now with the film versions of The Dark Towerand Itin theaters, you don’t know his work very well. King is one of the most influential and iconic authors of the 20th century. His stamp is everywhere you look and has been for a long time. In this acclaimed book that is “part memoir, part master class, by one of the bestselling authors of all time,” King shares the habits and practices that have solidified his place in American literary history. King’s prose is personable and reads like you’re talking to a good friend in person. On Writingis great for King fans and aspiring writers alike.

 

Story Style Structure Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting Robert McKee

Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee

Now wait a minute, you might be asking, how is a book on screenwriting helpful for prose writers? Well, read McKee’s brilliant Storyand you’ll see why. This is not just a book about screenwriting, but how all great stories are structured. After an introduction that takes you through the principlesof good storytelling – why do people find certain story elements compelling? – McKee breaks down, using examples from some of the most influential films in cinematic history, essential story elements. There’s the Inciting Incident, Three-Act story design, and the crisis, climax, and final resolution. If none of this sounds familiar, pick up this essential guide for writers of any genre who want to tell well-structured, compelling stories.

 

What We See When We Read Peter Mendelsund

Bonus: What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund

Another book on reading? Absolutely! All writers are good readers. This delightful book, told mostly through pictures, is all about the phenomenologyof reading – how words, which have no concrete images attached to them, can nevertheless conjure images in a reader’s brain. It’s an essential reminder that the writer’s work is bringing images to life with our words.  

When in doubt, a writer’s first stop should always be books. While we don’t all have personal, constant access to writing experts to ask their advice and opinions, we do have the next best thing: their books. Not to mention all the literary classics throughout history that you can learn a lot from just by reading. So don’t hesitate - head to your local library or bookstore today and pick out some of these titles!

 

There you have it, the books by the pros to get you writing like a pro. Which books on writing are your favorites? Which books did we miss? Let us know in the comments!

 


Matt GrantMatt Grant loves to write about writing, business, and all forms of popular culture – books, film, and television. Matt started writing DVD reviews for Pop Matters in 2012, and in 2016, he followed through on a life-long dream by launching a part-time writing business at www.mattgrantwriter.com. Since then, Matt’s work has appeared in Literary HubBook Riot, HuffPost, and BookBrowse, and he has several ongoing clientsHis first personal essay, Swimming Lessons, is being published in LongReads at the end of August. Matt is also currently hard at work on his first novel, a comedic take on fantasy tropes for young adults. When not writing or reading, Matt works in youth development as an after-school program director for one of the largest middle schools in Manhattan. Matt lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Katelyn. You can find him online at www.mattgrantwriter.com, on Twitter @mattgrantwriter, and on Facebook @mattgrantwriter

 

 

 

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There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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