Selecting Books on Writing: Decisions, Decisions

Paul Vachon

Ever noticed that there’s more in your local book store on writing than on real estate? Or on the legal profession? Writers just love to write about writing!  An Amazon search using the keyword “writing” yields an eye-popping 261,000 results.

This bevy of guidance is a great resource–any writer can learn from a quality book on writing, regardless of what point they’re in their career.  Since I began writing I’ve acquired and benefited from at least a dozen of these tomes. But how does one choose? The overwhelming number can make deciding on one seem paralyzing, but a few simple rules can make the task easier.

First, assess your own needs based on your specific career goals, and where you think your skills need improvement.  Very often, just a quick scan of the titles can narrow your selection. But beware of a book that promises too much.  I’m usually wary of an author’s pledge to “Revolutionize your Writing Career in 30 Days.” Like anything else, the most impactful writing books are those that under promise and over deliver.

Next, do a Google search on the author and look at their credentials and their other published titles, paying particular attention to reviews on Amazon and other sites.  Try to read a good cross section of reader evaluations, taking all into consideration.  Remember, some of the overly positive ones might have been submitted by the author’s friends.

Lastly, read an excerpt of the book or books you’re seriously considering.  Besides being relevant and authoritative, you also want to purchase a book that is enjoyable to read.   Doing this sleuthing online is great, (consistent with how we perform most of our work) but there’s something to be said for spending an hour or two at your local bookstore, plopped down in a comfy chair—a good latte optional.

I’ve utilized these tools over the last few years and discovered both gems and duds. Titles I’ve found most helpful include Writer for Hire, by Kelly James-Enger, Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay—Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis and The First Fifty Pagesby Jeff Gerke.

A recent visit to my local bookstore produced two additional titles I found helpful: The Writer’s Idea Book 10th Anniversary Edition by Jack Heffron and The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, an excellent collection of essays by leading fiction authors, including Steven King, Sue Grafton and Jodi Picoult. This book offers readers guidance from the ultimate fiction pros, with the content categorized between inspiration, plot and character development and the writing process itself.

But in addition to the above tips, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the true writing classics that belong on any scribe’s shelf, such as On Writing by Steven King, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser and Ten Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard.  Their tide of timeless advice will lift any writer’s boat.

Photo from Susan Q Yin on Unsplash