Confession time: I hate these kinds of lists.
Let me back up. I am a lover of food and cooking. I am fortunate enough to have a mother who enjoys cooking, and she passed that on to me. Whenever I get the chance, I spend time in the kitchen, experimenting, whipping up delicious meals (preferably from scratch), and enjoying the literal fruits of my labor.
So whenever a new kitchen gadget is released and seems to be gaining traction, you can bet that I Google to learn more about it and whether or not it deserves a place in my kitchen cupboards.
The most recent of these is my air fryer/Instant Pot combo cooker. When my wife sit down to meal plan for the week, I’m opening up a web browser and searching for “weeknight air fryer recipes” or “easy Instant Pot dinners”.
But whenever I search for a list like this, 90% of the results are, “82 of the Best Instant Pot Recipes We Know You’ll Love” or “56 Air Fryer Dinners for Any Night of the Week”.
On the internet today, there’s this weird notion that you have to have the MOST LIST ENTRIES AS POSSIBLE when you are curating a bunch of stuff. More entries = more value = more clicks, right?
When Lists are Too Much of a Good Thing
The problem with such lists is that they don’t take the audience into consideration – a classic mistake.
Most often, I’m looking up these recipes on a weeknight, about an hour before I’m headed to bed. I’m meal planning, which isn’t an activity that I want to spend two hours doing. Why would I want to sift through 82 recipes just to find one or two that I’m going to enjoy?
So when I sat down to make this list of the books that every writer should read at least once, I asked myself one simple question: “What kind of list would I want to see if I searched for this?”
I came up with three criteria that pushed this effort forward:
I couldn’t have a ridiculous number of books.
We’ve all got things to do. You’re probably reading this instead of getting some writing done. I don’t want to encourage procrastination.
There had to be at least a few books on this list that I can’t find on other lists.
Yes, there are some of the usual suspects on here, because they are that good. I don’t mind admitting that.
But what’s the point of publishing one of these lists if I don’t bring something new to the table? We get it – everyone should read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. We all know why. But there are others out there. Let’s move on.
I had to have actually read these books myself.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that every writer who has ever published an article on the internet has read The Elements of Style. I went to college for creative writing and have that book on my bookshelf, and I haven’t read it.
Now, let’s drop the pretension and get into some fantastic books about writing. You won’t be sorry you read these, trust me. They’ve transformed my approach to writing and are each responsible for some form of my success at the keyboard for the last decade.
#1: On Writing by Stephen King
“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You've blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.
Yeah, you’re going to see On Writing show up on a lot of lists. I’m okay with including it here with a caveat: you can skip a lot of it.
Part-autobiographical and part-really-useful-stuff, King opens up on his career, how he became a bestselling author, and his approach to the writer’s life that’s worked for him.
Honestly, I’ve re-read it a few times and I skip a lot of the early chapters on his childhood. There are only so many times I can re-live his stories about his babysitter’s flatulence. But hey, if slice-of-life stories are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy it.
That said, there’s a lot of really good stuff in here. For one, you’ll discover the struggles that he went through on his way to becoming the worldwide brand name of horror writing. You’ll feel a lot closer to the guy who is cleaning high school locker rooms while he dreams of becoming a kajillionaire.
Most valuable, though, are his stories of how he has come up with some of his concepts. While cleaning a girls’ locker room, he noticed a wastebasket near the showers. This is where he learned about the sheer vulnerability that young women go through as they grow up and endure the physical changes associated with it.
As his mind drifted to the trauma of that, he imagined a scene where a young teenage girl is mocked by her ruthless peers for, frankly, suddenly having her period while in the shower. It’s rough, but also intensely relatable for many women.
This seed of an idea turned into Carrie, King’s first big hit.
There are plenty of other stories and tips on how to approach reading and writing as an author, and I highly recommend this one.
#2: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
"Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just start getting it down."
I’m in the middle of re-reading this one, and I never get tired of it.
Lamott teaches writing classes (or at least, she did at the time of this book), and she walks you through how she teaches students about writing – and the writing business. It’s a crash course on how to approach writing from a mental and emotional point of view.
It’s also an encouragement to take care of the craft of writing. If you’re a blogger or a self-published author, you are likely focused on page views, clicks, and sales. Lamott urges you to not preoccupy yourself with that stuff. The writing comes first.
It’s also, thanks to the title, a praise of the small building block of writing, and how you put together big works by focusing on one small section at a time. If you’re overwhelmed with the writing process, this book is a great start.
#3: Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
“Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”
That quote doesn’t offer that much value, especially out of context, but it made me laugh.
I don’t have a ton to say about this one. And confession: I haven’t read all of it. Rather, I keep it around as a reference guide for me.
When you’re in the throes of writing and you find yourself struggling to get words on a page, or you feel like everything is spinning out of control and you’ll never be a successful writer, it’s good to open up a random section of this book and read.
Daily Rituals is exactly what it sounds like. It’s just chapter after chapter of writers and other great minds detailing how they structure their days. Reading it cover-to-cover isn’t especially riveting, but it illustrates one great truth: there are a lot of ways to get the work done, and everybody works differently.
This is almost blasphemy to the Productivity World online today. One quick Google search and you’ll be inundated with various bloggers who say that the most successful people of all-time wake up at 4 a.m., skip breakfast, use the Pomodoro Method, write every day, and only eat red meat between the hours of 3:17 p.m. and midnight. Or whatever.
The truth is, there are many different pathways to success. Some people sleep until 1 p.m. and write when they feel like it. Others pound three cups of black coffee and go for a walk in the morning. Others write in the bathtub. Others lock themselves in their rooms and write a thousand words before breakfast.
If nothing else, use this book as your anti-advice source. If you think you aren’t measuring up to what you’re “supposed” to do, this book will help bring you back down to Earth so you can get back to work.
#4: The 7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig
"Grandiose fantasies are ... the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like."
This is my favorite on the entire list.
I keep coming back to it because no matter how many notes I take, there’s always something new to remember whenever I re-read it. This is as useful of a book as you’re going to get (other than one more that I’ll get to in a few minutes).
To be prolific, you have to fight off procrastination and perfectionism. Not only does Rettig explain why these things are so hard to fight, she gives you practical advice on how to deal with them both.
In short, prolific writers get their work done every day. They move quickly to address their struggles, and they don’t put undue burden on themselves.
Writers write. This book shows you how to get yourself there.
#5: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
"Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time. That’s how writing is, too."
I love that quote, because I am not just a writer, but a runner, and that analogy was the perfect, light bulb moment for me.
In the same vein as Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg speaks in praise of warding off perfectionism and just getting words on the page. She eloquently calls it the “sh * * *y first draft.”
At the heart of Goldberg’s message is that you can’t flesh out a story without getting the bones down first. You can’t fix up writing that doesn’t exist. Instead of trying to do it perfectly and painlessly the second you sit down, just close your eyes, open up a Word document, and start typing.
It’s the most important lesson you’ll learn as a writer.
#6: Accidental Genius by Mark Levy
"[Freewriting] pushes the brain to think longer, deeper, and more unconventionally than it normally would. By giving yourself a handful of liberating freewriting rules to follow, you back your mind into a corner where it can’t help but come up with new thoughts. You could call freewriting a form of forced creativity."
Did I say that another book was my favorite on this list? I lied, this one is my favorite. Really.
I’ve had this book in my library for over a decade, and unlike The Elements of Style, this is one I actually read regularly.
This isn’t just a book for writers. It’s a book for anyone. The power of freewriting is truly remarkable when you give it a chance. Because of this book, I’ve used freewriting for therapy, productivity, creativity, and problem solving.
Whenever any aspect of a writing piece or a project or, you know, my life has felt “stuck”, I’ve reviewed my notes from this book, opened up a Google Doc, and set a timer for 10–15 minutes. By working through a problem using stream-of-consciousness freewriting, I’ve been able to cut my stress levels down considerably, and can often blast through a problem and get back on track more quickly than others in my situation.
For example, if I can’t come up with a good angle for a sales letter I have to write for a client, I set a timer and try to write 100 angles instead. Yeah, almost all of them are going to be ridiculous garbage. But one or two might be good. Or there might be a seed of an idea in one or two of them that I can expand on.
Often, you have the right answers to your problems in your head somewhere. You just have to cut through the wrong answers first so that they get out of the way. That’s what this book is about, and if you only get one book from this list, get this one.
And The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. Oh heck, just get them all. You’ll be glad you did. It’s everything you need to build a writing practice and a career that fills you up – and has a chance at being successful to boot.