Stephen King observed in his memoir On Writing,
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”
Of course, all different kinds of books can help you develop your skills as a writer. Well-written novels can show you how to tell gripping stories and paint vivid pictures with your words. Motivational books about writing can help you develop your confidence and find your voice.
But in today’s article, I’m sharing twelve books that focus specifically on teaching you how to strengthen your skills as a writer and storyteller. They get into the nuts and bolts of how to structure and edit your writing so it will captivate your readers.
I’ve chosen these books because they’re the ones I find myself coming back to again and again as I always learn something new. Reading them is like sitting in on classes for an MFA in writing. But you’re able to do so in the comfort of your own home leaning back in your own favorite chair!
They’ll help you sharpen your writing and storytelling skills so you can more effectively express yourself in words and spread your ideas.
This list includes books on nonfiction, copywriting, and fiction because I love to improve my writing skills in all three areas. There’s a book for you no matter if you’re writing a blog post, a sales page, a memoir, a novel, or a short story. (Please note that links to the books are affiliate links which means I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through the link with no extra cost to you.)
Interested only in fiction or in nonfiction or in copywriting? You can use the list below to jump to that section:
If you want to write compelling nonfiction: a memoir, a personal essay, an article, a blog post, a book…
by Marion Roach Smith
If you want to write a memoir or even just a personal essay, you need this book.
At just 128 pages, it might seem like a quick read, but it’s one book I keep coming back to because Marion’s advice is both helpful and profound. You might find yourself highlighting every page.
She illustrates all of her writing advice with captivating stories, recounting her experiences writing for The New York Timesand NPR and her struggle to pen a memoir about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
But don’t let the title fool you. This book isn’t just for memoirists.
Whether you’re a blogger or any other kind of nonfiction writer, you can use the techniques of memoirists to connect with your readers on a deeper level.
This book overflows with excellent advice on how to write what you know, tell compelling stories, and become a better writer. Read my complete review of the book here.
“What is your story about? Your answer to this might be something as precise as ‘revenge.’ That’s manageable. I would argue that something as small as a blog post or a personal essay can be reduced to one word…Right around the fourth paragraph, the writer must tell the reader what the piece is about — what’s at stake, what’s up in the air, what to value if it’s taken away.”
by William Zinsser
The title says it all. This is an invaluable guide for anyone who wants to sharpen their nonfiction writing and editing skills.
William Zinsser began his career as a journalist for The New York Herald Tribune in 1946 and later taught writing at Yale University.
In this book, he shares advice on everything from how to write strong introductions and conclusions to how to captivate readers to how to write different types of articles (travel, sports, etc.) to how to gain confidence as a writer.
Master the lessons in this book, and you’ll take your writing to the next level.
“Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach or Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing.”
By Jack Hart
This book completely changed the way I approach nonfiction writing. It’s all about how to become an engaging storyteller.
Jack Hart served for many years as managing editor at The Oregonian, the Pacific Northwest’s largest newspaper. He also guided several Pulitzer-prize winning articles to publication.
In this book, he shares everything that he learned from his many years as a journalist. Using examples from books and newspaper articles, he deconstructs how to tell a captivating story. He covers everything from how to develop characters to choosing point of view to bringing scenes to life.
Even though this book is aimed at writers of nonfiction, I believe there is much that writers of fiction can glean from its pages. I’ve used many tips and techniques that I learned from this book when working on short stories.
“Novice narrative writers often err by dumping in all the background they’ve gathered on key characters, delaying the story line that will grab and hold readers. Hence the principle that exposition is the enemy of narrative. Good exposition provides just enough backstory to explain how the protagonist happens to be in a particular place, at a particular time, with the wants that will lead to the next phase of the story.
If you want to improve your copywriting and persuasive writing skills and market your work more effectively…
By Donald Miller
Donald Miller was a memoirist, penning the New York Times bestseller Blue Like Jazz, before he started a company called StoryBrand. His company helps businesses connect with customers through the principles of storytelling.
In this book Building a Storybrand, Miller shares his marketing framework that follows the seven elements of the Hero’s Journey. The book dives into how to create the most effective messaging for websites, brochures, and social media.
This book is a must-read whether you’re an author, blogger, or copywriter. It shows you how to market your work more effectively to reach your audience online.
“Every story is about somebody who is trying to solve a problem, so when we identify our customers’ problems, they recognize us as a brand that understands them.”
5. How to Write Copy that Sells: The Step-By-Step System For More Sales, to More Customers, More Often
By Ray Edwards
Copy generally refers to the text in an advertisement: those words that persuade the customer to buy a product or service.
But in today’s Internet age we’re all writing copy even if we’re not selling a product.
We might be trying to persuade someone to click a link to read an article or leave a comment or sign up to our email list.
Books on copywriting teach invaluable strategies that will help you write more persuasively so you get your message out to the world.
This book is an excellent starting point for beginners. Ray Edwards has written copy and conducted marketing campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, the largest broadcast companies in the world, and the top names in leadership and business.
In this book, he shares all of his secrets, including a step-by-step framework you can follow to write more compelling sales pages, social media updates, blog posts, etc.
“What will motivate people to buy your product, invest in your service, or accept your idea is usually not the beautiful outcome framed in a positive light on its own. It is required rather, that before painting the picture of the ‘paradise’ they seek, you must get them to fully experience the consequence of not solving the problem. So while we do want to show our prospects how their life can look when they receive the benefits of your product, they first have to believe they need it.”
By Victor O. Schwab
Another fantastic book on copywriting. This one is considered a copywriting classic. It was published in 1942 so obviously it’s a little dated and doesn’t dive into email or websites, but I found many of the chapters still relevant today.
For example, the chapter on how to write strong headlines (with examples of 100 different headlines) contains principles that can be used for writing captivating headlines for blog posts.
If you want to strengthen your copywriting skills, definitely read this book.
“The headline is like a flag being held up by a flagman alongside a railroad track. He is using it to try to get the immediate attention of the engineer of an approaching train so that he can give him some kind of message…The message on the flag…must be persuasive enough…to compete with all the other distractions of life. It must capture attention. And it must offer a ‘reward for reading’.”
7. Advertising Secrets of the Written Word
By Joseph Sugarman
(This book was recently updated and republished with the title The Adweek Copywriting Handbook)
If you’re a professional copywriter looking to improve your skills or you need to write effective copy for your business or you want to learn advanced copywriting techniques to make your blog posts more engaging, I highly recommend this book by legendary adman Joseph Sugarman.
I wrote this article about his fantastic “seeds of curiosity” writing technique that will help you keep the attention of your readers.
I also love this quote from the book where Sugarman explains that good writing is like a slippery slide:
As you start to slide down and build momentum, you try holding onto the sides to stop, but you can’t stop. You continue to slide down the slide despite all your efforts to prevent your descent. This is the way your copy must flow.
The headline must be so powerful and compelling that you must read the subheadline, and the subheadline must be so powerful that you are compelled to read the first sentence, and the first sentence must be so easy to read and so compelling that you must read the next sentence and so on, straight through to the end of the copy.
If you want to write a novel or a short story that will touch the hearts of your readers…
By Damon Knight
I was delighted to find a book completely devoted to the art of short story writing.
Damon Knight, an award-winning science fiction author, shares clear, no-nonsense fiction writing advice on everything from structure to pacing to how to get ideas. There are also lots of excellent exercises to put that advice into practice.
In truth, this book is an excellent resource even if you aren’t writing short stories. I love the section on common plot faults and how to fix them.
Try to think of something in your childhood that you have remembered as mysterious and important…When you have this memory, think about it: try to understand why it seems to mean so much. Was this a moment when you first realized that someone you loved could be cruel — or that someone you hated could be warm and generous? Was this memory like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit — and if so, can you make it fit now? From this you may get an idea for a story, and if you do, it certainly will not be an empty shell.
By Renni Browne and Dave King
Anyone who is self-publishing their work should read this book, even nonfiction writers.
It’s a crash-course in how to evaluate your writing on a stylistic level to make sure it’s engaging, flows logically, and that you’re showing, not telling.
It makes a perfect reference guide to keep on your desk while you’re editing your piece of writing.
“Instead of saying ‘Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust,’ describe the room in such a way that the readers feel that disgust for themselves. You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”
By Shawn Coyne
In this book, Shawn Coyne, an editor with 25+ years experience, shows you how to use his Story Grid layout to write a successful novel or nonfiction book.
He describes the Story Grid as a “CT Scan that takes a photo of the global story of your book and tells the editor or writer what is working, what is not, and what must be done to make what works better and fix what’s not.”
In short, The Story Grid teaches you how to evaluate the structure of your plot to make sure you are telling a compelling story that will delight your readers.
Are you worried something is wrong with the structure of your story (maybe the plot has slowed in the second act), and you’re not quite sure how to fix it? This book will help you pinpoint what’s going wrong and show you how to solve it.
“If your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will deeply care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten.”
By Robert McKee
This is one of my absolute favorite books on writing!
Robert McKee’s screenwriting workshops have earned him an international reputation, and in this book, he lays out everything that you need to know to write powerful stories.
It’s an in-depth and fascinating read for anyone who wants to dive deep into story structure. While the book is aimed at screenwriters and analyzes movies, it’s a must-read for novelists too.
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
By Christopher Vogler
Last but not least, this is the book if you want a deeper understanding of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey archetypal story pattern.
Though Vogler focuses on movies, this book will help you follow the hero’s journey structure whether you’re writing a book, a short story, or even an article.
Vogler argues that all of the most compelling stories innately follow the principles of the Hero’s Journey.
“The pattern of the Hero’s Journey is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time…This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories built on the model of the Hero’s Journey have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they well up from a universal source in the shared unconscious and reflect universal concerns.”