10 Best Books to Boost Your Writing and Creativity
Great writers have two things in common: They practice, always working to get better at it, and they read—a lot. Why not do both at the same time? These are some of the best books to read about writing. The advice, exercises and examples you’ll find will help you become better at your craft.
The books listed below cover different aspects of writing, from creativity and inspiration, to advice from the experts, to grammar and style:
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon
Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
On Writing, by Stephen King
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lammott
Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition), by William Zinsser
It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences., by June Casagrande
Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer
The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
Creativity and inspiration
These are my top three picks for books that’ll encourage you to write and live more creatively. If you only have time to read one, I suggest Big Magic—it’s the most inspiring of the bunch. If you’re looking for something with more exercises and concrete tips, start with Writing Down the Bones or Steal Like an Artist. Looking for more books on creativity? Check out The Artist’s Way or anything else by Julia Cameron.
01. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
Best for: Writers from all backgrounds, genres and levels.
Read it when: You’re feeling stuck with your writing career, need some inspiration, or just have good ol’ writer’s block.
Fondly called ‘Bones’ by other writers, this book is like taking your inner writer to therapy. Explore not just how you write, but why. Become mindful of your unique pain points as a writer, think about what being a writer means to you, and find the best way to move forward from where you are now—even if you’re feeling like you’ll never make it as a writer.
Goldberg herself had her share of rejection: Writing Down the Bones was turned down by seven big publishing houses, before being accepted by a new and small publisher called Shambhala. Now, there’s a 30th edition with a foreword by Julia Cameron.
The author sprinkles writing prompts and creativity exercises throughout the book—the goal is to help you explore and get connected to yourself. One exercise I had a lot of fun with was to take ten minutes and write about a meal you love. In no time, I was deep in nostalgia about my mom’s baked salmon and leafy-green salad. It can be tempting to skip the exercises, especially once you enter “reading mode”, but you’ll get a lot more out of the book by taking a few minutes to try them.
Goldberg’s main mission is to encourage you to simply write. Not to go out and find a writing class, not to force yourself to “just write” for 10 minutes a day—but to really sit down and put your whole self into it. If you’re watching the clock and writing because you heard somewhere that you need to write every single day, then your heart isn’t really in it. So go deep and speak your truth—with your writing and also in your life.
“That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life about writing.”
02. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon
Best for: Writers looking to jumpstart creative thinking.
Read it when: You’re short on time and feeling unsure of how to start your next project.
Kleon, a self-described “writer who draws”, authored multiple best-selling books about creativity. In this New York Times hit, he gives ten tips for getting in touch with your inner artist. It’s quick and fun to read (I read it in about an hour). Even if you’ve already read many books in the genre, this one still delivers.
The author starts out by calling out obstacles that get in the way of being creative—the pressure to be “original” and the all-too familiar imposter syndrome. Kleon wants you to get inspired by work you admire, because there isn’t anything out there that’s truly original. Everything is based on something that already exists. Even if you don’t feel ready, just start making things. “Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.”
What resonated with me the most in this book is the importance of movement and using your hands when being creative. For his first book, the author used a newspaper and a black marker to write a best-selling book of poetry. His writing process was hands-on, engaging most of his senses - touching the newspaper, the sound and smell of the marker, the sight of words being blacked out. Bringing this practice into my own life, I’ve finally taken my new Paint by Numbers kit out of its packaging.
“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.”“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.”
03. Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Best for: Anyone who wants to live a more creative life.
Read it when: Anytime, but it’s an especially great pick-me-up if you’ve just gotten a rejection letter.
In Big Magic, Gilbert gives her take on what creativity is, how to bring more of it into your life, and how fear of rejection stands in the way. It’s obvious how much Gilbert enjoys writing and putting her work out there—and that’s what makes it so fun to read. I just didn’t want this book to end.
My personal takeaway here is learning how to cope with my own feelings of failure as a writer. Hearing her stories of rejection and success is inspiring, and makes me want to rewire my own reactions to criticism I get at work.
“I decided to play the game of rejection letters as if it were a great cosmic tennis match: Somebody would send me a rejection, and I would knock it right back over the net, sending out another query that same afternoon.”
Speaking of cosmic tennis matches—if you’ve read other books by Gilbert, you may already be familiar with the way she plays with anthropomorphism. It’s one of my favorite things about her writing style. In Big Magic, she gives ideas (artistic, scientific, religious, etc.) their own persona, turning abstract concepts into concrete companions that can go a long way helping writers.
“Ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners…When an idea thinks it has found somebody—say, you—who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit...The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention. And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, 'Do you want to work with me?'”
Advice from the experts
These are my top four picks for general writing tips from the pros. If you only have time to read one book in this category, I’d go for On Writing Well by William Zinsser because it touches on many different aspects of writing that’s relevant to most writers—or Stein on Writing, if you want to improve your storytelling skills.
04. On Writing, by Stephen King
Best for: (Mostly) fiction writers.
Read it when: You want quality advice from a writer, but also want to read a memoir.
Stephen King’s On Writing is a classic, and was highly recommended to me by other writers. He starts off by telling us about how he got to be a writer, his early struggles, and how he eventually found success.
Personally, I didn’t LOVE the memoir-ish first half of the book. I included it because so many others have enjoyed it, and, you know—classic and all that. If I wasn’t writing an article about writing books, I’m not sure I would have finished it—but I’m glad I did, because the good stuff really comes towards the end.
His advice focuses mostly on how to build a story and develop characters, as well as some more technical, grammar-related tips. I especially enjoyed his passion for grammar: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
Two lessons I’m taking with me into my writing life are to not show anyone my work until after my first draft (so that I have space to come up with my own feelings about it), and a formula for cutting words: Second draft = First draft - 10%. I already try to remove any unnecessary fluff from my writing when I revise, but I never thought about it in such a structured way. King suggests moving onto other projects before going in for a second draft—the time away helps distance you from the words, making it less “yours”—and that’s what makes it easier to cut.
No one said writing was easy—so it’s comforting to know that even best-selling authors struggle with it.
“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”
05. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lammott
Best for: Fiction writers, memoir writers.
Read it when: You feel stuck or frustrated with your writing, and want to know you’re not alone.
As with King’s On Writing, this one came highly recommended by both Google and other writers. And just like King’s book, it was hard for me to get into it—but the rest of the book made it worth it.
Reading this book was like sitting down with an accomplished writer and hearing the real deal about the writing process—the failures, the hopes, that letter from her editor that made her cry, and everything in between. It felt nice to know that even “real” writers don’t get it right the first time.
My favorite advice from Lammot is her wise words about getting feedback on your work from people you trust, before you show it to editors. She compares it to when you’re getting ready for a party: If there’s someone there to gently let you know that maybe that specific dress isn’t so flattering, you might be disappointed for a minute, but then you’re relieved that at least you’re still at home and have a chance to change before showing up in public.
This advice is very timely for me, because I’ve just been thinking about why it’s so easy for me to take criticism from specific colleagues, while the same feedback from others makes me question my decision to even be a writer.
Lammot’s encouraging words throughout the book are here to remind that you’re not alone in your struggle, that many writers struggle with self-doubt, and the importance of not giving up.
“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t - and in fact, you’re not supposed to - know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”
06. Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein
Best for: All writers (fiction and nonfiction) who want to engage readers with a captivating narrative.
Read it when: You want to improve your storytelling.
The art of storytelling isn’t just for fiction—it’s what makes people interested enough to keep reading, whether you’re writing a novel or reporting on local politics. The key to engaging readers and providing them with an emotional experience is to show, not tell.
Using his experience as an editor and publisher, Stein provides a guide in sharpening your storytelling skills, from creating suspense, developing compelling characters, writing good dialogue, coming up with a title that intrigues readers—and offers a new approach to revising your first draft. He calls it “triage” and advocates for looking at major parts of your story (like characters, scenes, and actions) before doing a thorough revision. Even nonfiction writers can apply this to their work—the idea being that you should find and fix major issues in your work before you start going line by line.
By the time your project is done, you want each word to have a purpose. My professional writing life usually consists of trying to cut words wherever possible—I’m always looking for ways to make sentences shorter, tighter, simpler. But sometimes extra words are necessary to make your writing memorable and give your readers a clear visual. Here’s an example Stein gives:
“Vernon was a heavy smoker” vs. “When a waitress heard Vernon’s voice she always guided him to the smoking section without asking.”
The second version gives you a tactile experience of what Vernon sounds like, and is more interesting to read. Even though it adds quite a few more words, it engages readers more and brings them into the story. Which is really the whole purpose of writing, isn’t it?
“You wouldn’t feed cardboard meals to guests. Don’t feed cardboard meals to your characters. Make your reader’s taste buds pop, even if he's from outer space.”
07. On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition), by William Zinsser
Best for: Everyone, especially nonfiction writers.
Read it when: You’re looking for a straightforward guide to improving your writing.
Zinsser is a writer, editor, and teacher - and he has great advice for anyone looking to sharpen their writing skills. You’ll learn how to start and end your writing piece, how to revise, and how to write clearly and concisely. Some parts of the book are geared towards nonfictions writers—like the chapters dedicated to specific types of writing (e.g., culture, sports, and travel), but a lot of his advice is helpful to all writers, like his philosophy of revisions:
“I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color...With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.”
Two tips from Zinsser that I’m already putting into practice: not visualizing the end result, and removing qualifiers from my writing. The first one resonates with me right now because I’m three years into working on a family memoir, and visualizing the final result has kept me paddling in the “research” and “interviewing” phase—now I put my focus back on the writing itself. As for the second one, I always scan my work now to check for qualifiers that make my words seem less confident, like: a bit, sort of, rather, quite, pretty much, etc. These phrases take away from the impact your words can have on the reader.
“Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”
Grammar and style
Your idea of fun probably isn’t to spend your weekends cozying up with tea and a stack of grammar books. Most grammar books are dry and not what I’d describe as light, fun reading. That’s why my goal was to find ones that are educational, but not boring. Only have time to read one book in this category? I’d go for It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences.—it’s entertaining, and the author makes grammar fun.
08. It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences., by June Casagrande
Who is this book for: Anyone looking to write better sentences or brush up on their grammar.
Read it when: You want a quick guide to grammar that gets you back to basics.
A journalist and editor, Casagrande breaks down the basics of grammar in a way that’s easy to understand, and explains how to use it to improve each sentence you write. And with a touch of humor and wit, she makes it fun to read, too. For example, as writers we may instinctively know that these sentences are bad, but Casagrande digs into the grammar to explain why:
“Running down the street in high heels, my dog was too fast for me to catch.” (Dangling participle—sounds like your dog was wearing the heels!)
“She was awarded a national book award in fiction as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.” (Faulty parallelism—award and finalist don’t match.)
This book changed how I looked at grammar. Until now, I mostly got my words down and then made sure everything was grammatically correct. Now I think about how I use the principles of grammar as I work, rather than something to just check off my list.
“Yet, all great writing has one thing in common. It starts with a sentence. The sentence is a microcosm of any written work, and understanding it means understanding writing itself - how to structure ideas, how to emphasize what’s important, how to make practical use of grammar, how to cut the bull, and, above all, how to serve the almighty Reader.”
09. Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer
Best for: Writers from all backgrounds, genres and levels.
Read it when: You want to indulge in some grammar-snobbery and read about common writing mistakes.
As a copyeditor, Dreyer has seen it all, and he’s sharing the most common writing mistakes even experienced writers have made. I started reading for the grammar and style advice, and I kept reading for the author’s wit and pop-culture references:
“At some point in your life, perhaps now, it may occur to you that the phrase ‘aren’t I’ is a grammatical trainwreck. You can, at that point, either spend the rest of your life saying ‘am I not?’ or ‘amn’t I?’ or embrace yet another of those oddball constructions that sneak into the English language and achieve widespread acceptance, all the while giggling to themselves at having gotten away with something.”
Insights like that made this book both informative and fun to read. A warning, though: At times his cleverness does get the better of him. His elitist tone can get a bit grating, and sometimes I had to reread sentences multiple times to understand what he was saying (which I felt was ironic for a book about improving your writing skills).
My favorite part of this book was his section on phrases with redundant words. I tend to overexplain and that probably means I use redundant phrases more often than I should. Here’s what he says about “fetch back”:
“To fetch something is not merely to go get it but to go get it and return with it to the starting place. Ask a dog.”
This book doesn’t have the same cult status as The Elements of Style (the next one in the list), but its humor made it a lot more enjoyable to read.
10. The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
Best for: Writers from all backgrounds, genres and levels.
Read this book when: Anytime, but mostly just so you can say you’ve read it.
This book is a classic, and appears on almost any list of “books that writers should read”. Strunk published the first edition of this guide in 1918, and it’s been a must-have for writers ever since. More recent editions have been edited and updated by White, a student of Strunk.
In a straightforward, no-nonsense style, Strunk and White lay out the basics to grammar and good writing—everything from using hyphens properly to writing concise sentences. Just note that some rules outlined in the book might not apply to writing that’s more informal.
The parts of this book I enjoyed most was when a bit of humor peeked through:
“The hyphen can play tricks on the unwary, as it did in Chattanooga when two newspapers merged - the News and the Free Press. Someone introduced a hyphen into the merger, and the paper became The Chattanooga News-Free Press, which sounds as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news.”
Tip: If you’re planning to read this one, I recommend getting the version that’s illustrated by Maira Kalman—the beautiful paintings add a nice touch.
After reading all of these great books (and a few others that didn’t make it to this list), I noticed one thing that came up over and over again: Learn the rules before you decide whether you want to follow them. Read as much as you can about the art of writing. Once you’ve got the basics down, once you know all the “writing rules”, that’s when you can have fun and start breaking them—with confidence.
What’s your favorite book on writing? Share your top picks in the comments below.
Lana Raykin, UX Writer at Wix
From New York, now lives in Tel Aviv. Loves good food, good books, and her golden retriever.