Ever wanted to know which books to read to improve your writing skills?
It’s probably the question I’ve been asked most often in recent years.
Well, it depends. What exactly do you want to improve?
Below, I’ve listed the books that have most influenced my writing. These books helped me become a more engaging blog writer and more persuasive copywriter. Plus these books inspired me and taught me how to get unstuck and streamline my writing process.
Don’t feel you need to read all the books.
Instead, select the two or three books that most appeal to you. To help you find your faves, I’ve categorized them below, and I’ve added my main lessons from each book plus some of my favorite quotes.
Click the orange links below to go to your preferred section or scroll down to read all book recommendations:
- 7 best books on writing (general)—learn how to become a better writer
- 5 best books on copywriting—learn how to sell with words
- 4 best books on storytelling—inspire your audience with business stories
- 5 best books on the writing process and habits—discover how to get unstuck and write more
- 5 best books on creativity—generate better ideas, embrace creativity, and feel inspired to write
- 5 best books on visual storytelling and learning to draw—learn to think in pictures, so you can write more vividly
7 best books on writing (general)
These books will help you become a better writer, no matter whether you write blog posts or sales copy:
1. Made to Stick
by Chip and Dan Heath
If you read only one book from this list, this must be it. This book helped me understand what good writing is. My favorite business book hands down.
Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.
~ Chip and Dan Heath
2. A Writer’s Coach. The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work
by Jack Hart
This is not a book to read in one go, but it’s perfect for “grazing”—reading a chapter now and then for inspiration.
One of the secrets of good writing, then, is to be both specific and general. You engage emotions and illustrate generalizations with concrete detail. You make your writing meaningful by including abstractions that connect your specifics with other examples drawn from different times or places.
~ Jack Hart
3. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Zinsser
If you’re a beginner, you may prefer this guide to Jack Hart’s book which is a little more dense. Both Hart and Zinsser are journalists but their advice applies to any style of non-fiction writing.
(…) every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.
~ William Zinsser
4. The Craft of Revision
by Donald Murray
Another book by a veteran journalist, Murray discusses the revision process and how to make your writing better. If you find revising your first drafts hard, then I recommend this book.
Writers should read their first drafts with diagnosis instead of despair. One way writers do this is to ask two questions:
What Works? What Needs Work?
The order of the questions is important. Effective revision begins not with error but accomplishment, not with weakness but with strength.
~ Donald Murray
5. The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
A short and practical book on the basics of good writing.
The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.
~ Strunk and White
6. The Art of Explanation: Making your Ideas, Products, and Services Easier to Understand
by Lee LeFever
Whether you’re writing sales copy or a blog post, you have to explain how something works. This book discusses the common pitfalls of explanation, and it teaches you how to really explain something so your audience understands.
At heart, explanations are about affecting confidence. Good ones build it, and poor ones diminish or even eliminate it—and there is no shortage of ways to lose confidence.
~ Lee LeFever
7. The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird
Good writing requires deep thinking, and this book helps you think better. This book taught me how to simplify complex ideas so I could communicate with more clarity.
Consider a subject you wish to understand, and clear the clutter until you have isolated one essential ingredient. Each complicated issue has several possible core ideas. You are not seeking “the” essential idea; you are seeking just one—consider a subject and pare it down to one theme.
~ Edward Burger and Michael Starbird
Blog to Win Business: How to Enchant Readers and Woo Clients
I wrote this book because I couldn’t find a book that explained how to write a blog post.
Recommended on Inc.com as one of the top 7 books that can make you a better writer:
Regardless of whether you have a blog or not, this e-book focuses on how to write in a way that compels readers and establishes authority within any industry.
~ Kaleigh Moore, Contributor Inc.com
5 best books on copywriting
These books will teach you how to write copy that sells:
8. The Adweek Copywriting Handbook
by Joseph Sugarman
If you read only one book on copywriting, this is what I’d recommend. I’ve probably highlighted more quotes in this book than in any other book on writing. It’s a comprehensive guide by a legendary direct response writer.
If the reader doesn’t read your very first sentence, chances are that he or she won’t read your second sentence. Now if the first sentence is so important, what can you do to make it so compelling to read, so simple, and so interesting that your readers-every one of them-will read it in its entirety? The answer: Make it short.
~ Joseph Sugarman
9. How to Write Sales Letters that Sell
by Drayton Bird
This was the first ever book I read about copywriting. While it focuses on direct mail, most tips apply to other types of copywriting, too.
Here’s Bird’s recipe for success (inspired by Bob Stone):
1. Promise a benefit in your headline or first paragraph—your most important benefit.
2. Immediately enlarge upon your most important benefit.
3. Tell the reader specifically what he is going to get.
4. Back up your statements with proof and endorsements.
5. Tell the reader what he might lose if he doesn’t act.
6. Rephrase your prominent benefits in your closing offer.
7. Incite action—now.
~ Drayton Bird
by Drew Eric Whitman
Despite the dreadful title, this is a useful book on the art of copywriting. It taught me the principle of directing mental movies in your reader’s mind:
(…) by using specific visual words, you can give your audience a sense of what it’s like to actually interact with your product or enjoy the benefits of your service—to demonstrate its use inside their minds—long before they actually buy it. This vicarious pleasure is where the persuasion begins, because the first use of any product is inside the consumers’ minds. (Stop. Read that last sentence again.) Imagining the use of something that appeals to you increases your desire for it.
~ Drew Eric Whitman
11. Don’t Make Me Think
by Steve Krug
This book taught me how to write for the web.
When we’re creating sites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading our finely crafted text, figuring out how we’ve organized things, and weighing their options before deciding which link to click. What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at. We’re thinking “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.”
~ Steve Krug
12. Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing
by Roger Dooley
This book summarizes what neuroscience can tell us about the art of persuasion. Section 9 on copywriting is my favorite; it influenced how I think about using adjectives and helped shape my voice.
Here’s how Dooley summarizes the work of Dr. Brian Wansink on the effect of descriptive menu labels:
(..) not only do vivid descriptors nudge patrons toward a purchase, they also increase satisfaction at the end of the meal compared with the same food without the labeling.
~ Roger Dooley
How to Write Seductive Web Copy
I wrote this book when I realized many of the classic copywriting books leave writers overwhelmed and befuzzled. So, this book breaks the copywriting process down into 6 doable steps.
This book just gained it 100th review on Amazon.com (thank you!) and was recommended on Express Writers as one of the 25 best books to help you learn copywriting:
Are you tripped up over what to write on your home page? What about your about us page? How to Write Seductive Web Copy gives new writers an edge on how to write copy for your own website like a pro. This how-to is dubbed as a practical guide that tells you how to write, as well as what to write about.
~ Julia McCoy, Express Writers
4 best books on storytelling
Want to tell stories? But unsure how? Start with these books:
by Nancy Duarte
This book discusses how to use storytelling principles in presentations, but the advice applies to writing, too. It includes an excellent explanation on how to use drama to engage your audience.
When a great story is told, we lean forward, and our hearts race as the story unfolds. Can that same power be leveraged for a presentation? Yes. The timeless structure of a story can contain information that persuades, entertains, and informs. Story serves as a perfect device to help and audience recall the main point and be moved to action.
~ Nancy Duarte
14. Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens
by Bobette Buster
Most non-fiction books waffle far too much, but not this book by Bobette Buster. I’m a fan of short books on specific topics, like this one.
Buster explains how to inspire your audience with a personal story. With great examples, you learn how to implement 10 storytelling principles.
We have all faced difficult circumstances, experienced triumphs, setbacks and disappointments. But it is how we have made our choices in the face of adversity – how we harnessed courage at our own thresholds – that makes each of us unique and exceptional. This is the story others want to hear. This is why you need to tell your story. And tell it well.
~ Bobette Buster
15. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen
by Donald Miller
This is more a marketing book than a storytelling guide. But, if you find writing marketing messages hard, then this is an excellent starter.
Your customer should be the hero of the story, not your brand. This is the secret every phenomenally successful business understands.
~ Donald Miller
16. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
by Les Edgerton
This is an entertaining guide exclusively dedicated to writing an opening scene that hooks your readers. The book is aimed at fiction writers, but roughly applies to other types of writing, too.
Once you’ve hooked readers with your opening, the remainder of your story unfolds naturally.
Writing education, by and large, consists of far too many exercises, in my experience. The teacher gives us a unit on description, then one on something called characterization, then one on … You get the picture. We learn pieces. This approach, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but what is perhaps terrible is that many times the teacher neglects to show her students the big picture. The story itself. How it’s shaped. It’s not just throwing a bunch of pieces together. It’s much more complicated than that.
~ Les Edgerton
5 best books on the writing process
Want to write more? Or need to get unstuck? These books will help you streamline your writing process:
17. Bird by Bird
by Anne Lamott
This is the book that taught me about the value of “shitty first drafts.” An engaging and encouraging read for anyone struggling with their writing. If you read only one book from a writer about writing, make it this one.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
~ Anne Lamott
18. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
King taught me that writing is hard work, and that it’s okay to find it hard.
(…) the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
~ Stephen King
19. The Now Habit
by Neil Fiore
This book is not specific to writing, but if you struggle with procrastination, then this is the best guide I’ve come across.
Fiore teaches us that procrastination is driven by our anxieties and we can beat procrastination by practicing to get started. One trick I learned was to stop telling myself “I have to” and start thinking “I choose to”—a surprisingly effective trick to help beat procrastination.
Procrastination, by enabling you to avoid what you fear, is a phobic response to work that is associated with worry, struggle, failure, and anxiety.
~ Neil Fiore
20. The Creative Habit
by Twyla Tharp
I’ve read a lot of books about habits but I found the books by Tharp and Fiore (above) most practical. Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but her advice on establishing creative habits work for writing, too.
The most productive artists I know have a plan in mind when they get down to work. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it, and what to do if the process falls of track. But there’s a fine line between good planning and overplanning. You never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.
~ Twyla Tharp
21. Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work
by Mason Currey
I must admit, I haven’t read this book from start to finish. However, I decided to still include it on this list because I found the different habits of writers (and other creatives) interesting and inspirational. The book isn’t really about rituals; it’s more about habits and routines. My main lesson? This:
For every cheerfully industrious Gibbon who worked nonstop and seemed free of the self-doubt and crises of confidence that dog us mere mortals, there is a William James or a Franz Kafka, great minds who wasted time, waited vainly for inspiration to strike, experienced torturous blocks and dry spells, were racked by doubt and insecurity. In reality, most of the people in this book are somewhere in the middle—committed to daily work but never entirely confident of their progress; always wary of the one off day that undoes the streak. All of them made the time to get their work done. But there is infinite variation in how they structured their lives to do so.
~ Mason Currey
5 best books on creativity
The books below will help you generate new ideas and give you a fresh injection of creativity and inspiration:
22. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
by Austin Kleon
This is the book that liberated me because it taught me that originality doesn’t have to come out of nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before, so it is okay to learn from our heroes and imitate their style. In the process of imitation, we find our own voice.
If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.
~ Austin Kleon
23. The Tall Lady With the Iceberg
by Anne Miller
This book taught me how to create and use metaphors; and it gave me the courage to include metaphors in my own writing.
Imagery—the core of metaphoric language—will surprise, grab, inform, and persuade your listeners as mere explanation will not. Vivid language will distinguish you from the swarm, will make you heard above the drone, will make you that rare person today: a communicator who gets results. And in our world of information overload, that gives you a tremendous competitive advantage.
~ Anne Miller
24. Picture This
by Lynda Barry
This book encourages me to be creative and to worry less about the end result of what I might produce. It’s about drawing, creativity and creative blocks, and finding a zen state of mind to enjoy your creative process more.
I probably should have included Barry’s “What It Is” on this list as it’s more about writing, but “Picture This” is my favorite book by Lynda Barry because it features the near-sighted monkey and because of this quote:
What if drawing was a way to get to a certain state of mind that was very good for us? And what if this certain state of mind was more important than the drawing itself?
~ Lynda Barry
25. A Mind For Numbers
by Barbara Oakley
This book may seem out of place on a list of recommended books for writers, but Oakley taught me the difference between focused and diffuse mode thinking and why it’s important to step away from our work so we can become more creative.
The harder you push your brain to come up with something creative, the less creative your ideas will be.
~ Barbara Oakley
26. Accidental Genius
by Mark Levy
Levy uses freewriting to come up with big ideas. He recommends you loosen up, start scribbling, take it easy, but write as fast as possible. This process can get me unstuck and can help me generate new ideas. I love Levy’s anecdote of athletes who ran faster when going at 90% than when they try to run at their maximum ability.
[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.
~ Mark Levy
5 best books on visual storytelling and learning to draw
Learning to draw has had a surprising impact on my writing. When I get stuck with writing or feel uninspired, I often start to draw.
Also, drawing helps me think in pictures so I can write more vividly and dream up metaphors with more ease.
27. Draw to Win
by Dan Roam
Dan Roam encourages us to use simple drawings to explain our ideas. In “Draw to Win,” he explains not only how to draw but also how to use drawings to communicate and sell our products or ideas (without turning ourselves into a Da Vinci).
Stop thinking about drawing as an artistic process. Drawing is a thinking process.
~ Dan Roam
28. The Sketchnote Handbook
by Mike Rohde
Rohde explains how to combine text and simple drawings to make notes so we can organize and reinforce our learning. This book includes guidance on making simple drawings.
Whether you believe you can or can’t draw, I’m here to tell you that anyone who can make marks on paper can benefit from this book. Sketchnotes are about hearing and capturing meaningful ideas, not how well you draw.
~ Mike Rohde
29. The Creative License
by Danny Gregory
If you struggle to give yourself permission to play with colored pencils or mess around with watercolors, read this book, so you can learn to embrace your inner child and rediscover the joy of drawing.
Creativity is fundamental to all living things but … we are able to block or mischannel it into stress, judgment and misery (…). So we need to reorient our gaze in a positive direction by seeing the beauty and value of all we have. By seeing and recording and acknowledging the evidence of our senses—celebrating every day what Buddhists call “the ten thousand things.”
~ Danny Gregory
30. Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice
by Ivan Brunetti
This tiny book presents 15 lessons to explore cartoon drawing. If you feel nervous about drawing, start with the above books first, then try this mini-course on cartoon drawing (although, I have to admit, I haven’t completed all the exercises yet).
I see cartooning as primarily verbal, and through the prism of language, a translation of how we experience, structure, and remember the world.
~ Ivan Brunetti
31. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
by Scott McCloud
Even if you’re not into comics, I recommend this book. It’ll teach you how to think in pictures—an important skill for writers.
If you can think in pictures, you can engage your readers by painting vivid pictures with your words.
McCloud’s book “Making Comics” is also excellent, but I recommend to start with “Understanding Comics.”
(…) words and pictures have great powers to tell stories when creators fully exploit them both.
~ Scott McCloud
Bonus Tip: Unflattening
by Nick Sousanis
I was blown away by this book recently. It’s not really a book about learning how to draw, but rather a philosophical exploration on seeing, language, visual thinking and combining words with images. A fascinating example of how to use drawings to teach.
Drawing, as Masaki Suwa and Barbara Tversky suggest, is a means of orchestrating a conversation with yourself. Putting thoughts down allows us to step out of ourselves, and tap into our visual system and our ability to see differently. We thus extend our thinking—distributing it between conception and perception—engaging both simultaneously. We draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads but to generate them in search of greater understanding.
~ Nick Sousanis
Don’t read only books about writing
As business writers, we have a lot to learn from fiction writers, too.
Good fiction teaches us about the concept of “show—don’t tell”. Good thrillers teach us the art of fast-paced writing. And a book like “The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway teaches us how to communicate profound wisdom using simple language.
So, follow your curiosity and read what you enjoy.
Thank you to everyone who recommended books to me over the years.
Recommended reading on how to become a better writer:
Learn copywriting: My 5-step system
Spot (and fix) these 8 weaknesses in your writing
5 best books on writing for the web (on Shepherd)
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