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These Five Books Will Make You a Better Writer

Here are five books that can help anyone become a better writer.

Writing is something that most people learn on the hoof. While you can take writing courses, such as an MFA in Creative Writing or a journalism course, most writers are just born wordsmiths. As such, we can all benefit from books that help us hone our craft. There are hundreds of books about writing, some of which offer formulae for creating best sellers, others that focus on specific elements of writing (such as plot, dialog, or description), and some more general books that provide inspiration.

In this article, I look at a five books about writing that can help every writer.

On Writing, Stephen King

Stephen King's 2000 On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is probably the most interesting book for writers. Even if you don't like his novels, the combination of the memoir of his becoming a best-selling author, and the writing tips he gives, is invaluable.

King discusses how he became a writer, how he sold his first short stories, then his first novel Carrie, and is very open about his drug and alcohol abuse in his early years. While he pulls no punches, this is no misery memoir, but more a cautionary tale to writers.

In two sections, Toolbox and On Writing, King discusses the craft of writing, giving valuable tips on dialogue, plot, and the use of adverbs. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs," he says, and this is something worth remembering.

Finally, in a section called On Living, King recounts how he was hit by a van when out walking on June 19, 1999 (King fans will note the significant number 19), and spent months in recovery. On Writing was the first book he completed after the accident (though he started it a couple of years earlier), and his tale of overcoming the damage from the accident is inspiring.

Dialogue, Robert McKee

Best known for his book Story, which looks at the archetypal hero's journey and how it is presented in fiction, his 2106 book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen is a forensic look at one of the key elements of fiction and screenwriting, and one of the most difficult to get right. Good dialogue is nothing like the way we speak in real life, and it has to be crafted to not sound artificial. There is rhythm, counterpoint, and subtext in all good dialogue that is very hard to master.

McKee says, "Once spoken, dialogue carries us on waves of sensation and substance that reverberate through the said to the unsaid and the unsayable." When you read dialogue in fiction, it's part of a broader canvas, but in movies and plays, dialogue is everything. McKee's book is a graduate course in writing dialogue, and will help you improve your writing so your dialogue becomes powerful.

Screenplay, Sid Field

In many fields (no pun intended), there are books that stand out, that become references over time. Sid Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is one of those. First published in 1979, it remains that essential book for those wanting to write for the screen.

Field looks at the various elements of screenplays: characters, scenes, plot points, and the formal elements of the screenplay. While this book is more than 40 years old, little has changed, other than the way people write screenplays (on computers, rather than with typewriters). Field has since written many other books on screenwriting, and even published an interesting book where he analyses four screenplays: Thelma & Louise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Silence of the Lambs, and Dances with Wolves. If you want to write for the screen, this is the best book to get you started.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King

After the draft comes the editing. Writers can find it particularly difficult to edit their own work, especially if they are self-publishing. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print gives you the toolkit you need to tighten up your work and get it ready for sending off to an agent, or for publishing.

The book is full of examples, checklists, and exercises, and it can help any writer become familiar with the type of edits they need to make. It looks at characterization, point of view, interior monologue, dialogue, and more. It helps keep writers honest and humble, and it's a good book to read every year or so to remind yourself of the many useful edits you can make to your work.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, first published more than 30 years ago, is the classic book about freeing the writer within you that is stunted by fear and doubt. In several dozen short chapters, she discusses writing exercises, syntax, dialogue, and character, but most of the book looks at the writing process and mindset.

Goldberg is a big believer in first thoughts, in writing without a filter, and not worrying about grammar and punctuation; you can always come back to them later. For her, writing is a daily practice: "Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it." This essential book offers bite-size chapters that you can read and reread to remind you why you write.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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