I've read a hell of a lot of books on writing over the years, and most of them have been a complete waste of time. I think it's because a lot of them pitch their message all wrong. This is especially true of books on how to write fiction; they often seem to be pitched at novices, but they never get around to talking about specific techniques in enough detail, or with enough examples, to allow a beginner to effectively apply them.
Ironically, many of the books that I did actually find effective as a novice are lost to me now -- I borrowed them from one of the many public or university libraries I've had access to (maybe even through inter-library loan), and didn't realise I'd one day want to re-read them, so I didn't bother to remember the titles or authors. Duh!
The most memorable of these lost books was one on essays, which laid out a method for constructing an essay-style argument that was so logical and easy to follow, and produced such consistently good work, that I'm still using the method today. (Thank you Mystery Writer!)
I have found some useful books, of course, and as I'm currently looking through them with an eye to recommending them to students, I figured I'd share the best with you. If you know of any other gems, I'd love to hear about them, and especially what you found useful about them.
Behind the cut are the favourites I've bought for my personal library. They are the ones I've used and re-used. It's not a definitive list, by any means, but you could do worse than starting with some of these if you've not read any How to Write books before.
On Writing Fiction
- Story by Robert McKee
The number-one most useful book on writing fiction I've ever read. It's designed for scriptwriters, but I think it works for any fictional form, largely due to the way it analyses how a writer intertwines story and theme in order to create powerful emotions in the reader/viewer. McKee has written a very accessible take on theory, illustrated it with fascinating diagrams, lots of examples, and best of all, practical advice on how to get started on putting your ideas into the framework of the classic story structure. Fantastic!
- Writer: A Working Guide for New Writers by Graeme Kinross-Smith
I'm not entirely sold on this book as a whole -- it was too simple for me by the time I found it -- but I have used some of the many exercises in class, and they've worked well. It also gives a decent overview of the different fictional forms, considers some of the practical issues of submission and industry standards in Australia, is illustrated with a good number of examples, and has a substantial bibliography to allow for further reading.
The next three are books I haven't finished reading yet, as I've only just acquired them, but they are all shaping up to be useful.
- The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
This is an exhaustive, well-researched overview of the links between genre and story form. There are lots of examples given, ranging from fairy tales to more recent touchstone stories (such as Star Wars). From what I've read so far, I think this book will be useful as a way of thinking about how generic expectations can be more effectively deployed (or turned on their head) in order to woo a reader.
- How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
This book looks to be an excellent beginners guide to writing fiction, as it runs through the major techniques (eg. the different viewpoints, foreshadowing, shaping a scene), illustrates them with examples, and makes them accessible with some general advice and context on how to apply the "rules". This is the kind of book I wish I'd found right back at the start of my journey.
- Gotham Writers' Workshop: Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School edited by Alexander Steele
This seems to be a more sophisticated take on the subject than Frey's book, but covers the same kind of ground in more depth. Techniques are defined, illustrated with examples, and then discussed in terms of how to create variations depending on the effect you want. There are also useful-sounding exercises to get you going.
It's a thin selection, isn't it? Most of the books I've read weren't worth re-reading, and certainly not worth buying. I'd really love to beef up this section of my library, though, so if you know of anything else really good, please, please tell me about it. I'm especially interested in books which meld the theory of writing fiction (more advanced theory would be particularly awesome) with examples and practical advice.
On Writing Non-Fiction
- The New Oxford Guide to Writing by Thomas S. Kane
What I like about this one is that it's kind of old fashioned. It covers a lot of the technical stuff I wasn't taught at school (and thanks for that pedagogical choice, Australian government. Not.) It's very thorough and uses the technical language of writing, so that I can now both recognise and name things like "polysyndeton" or "asyndeton" series.
- The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife and KD Sullivan
This is pretty much an idiot's guide to sentences, but I love it because it describes the grammatical parts, shows the syntax in diagrams, and gives actual examples; this combination makes the common pitfalls in construction so easy to understand and recognise.
- The Professional Writing Guide: Writing Well and Knowing Why by Roslyn Petelin and Marsha Durham
This is my favourite general book on how to write. It's not quite as awesome as the lost book on essay writing, but it gives good advice, and it considers the topics from the macro (thinking, argument), to the micro (paragraphs, sentences, words, punctuation), plus there's stuff on revising, design, and suggested further reading.
- Professional Writing: The Complete Guide for Business, Industry and IT by Sky Marsen
Another excellent general guide, which gives plenty of examples of the techniques discussed. This one has more focus on the genres of business writing: journal articles, reports, job applications. It also discusses the integration of sources, graphs, etc.
- Writing, Researching, Communicating: Communication Skills for the Information Age by Keith Windschuttle and Elizabeth Elliot
This is a textbook, and pretty expensive, but it's one of the better ones largely because it's easy to read, includes example documents, and covers a lot of ground.
- Read This! Business Writing That Works by Robert Gentle
Really useful and easy to use guide to layout; the examples are very effective and demonstrate just how much clearer a message can become through the use of headings and white space.
- Style Manual: for Authors, Editors and Printers (AKA the Australian Government Style Manual) by Snooks & Co.
The Bible. Every decision you ever need to make about standardisation, already made for you. Worth the crazy, crazy price.
So, that's my current list. What's on yours, and what do you love about them?