You don’t need all of the advice you think you need

There are many books about writing and all have advice about how to write better, create engaging characters, develop plot, build suspense, hook the reader, sell your novel to an agent, publisher or sell it independently. It goes on and on.

I’m going to boil down the list of mandatory books about writing to a solitary, thin volume, and two optional books; one “must have,” and two that are “nice to have.”

I am of the belief that every writer should own and reference Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

This small tome is the yard stick which all other books on the subject compare and come up short. Own it, use it, love it, hate it, need it. You handicap your writing by ignoring the instruction on the pages of EoS.


An optional book I recommend is because it helped me. It may not help you at all, but I’ll tell you about it anyway: Stephen King’s On Writing offers succinct, grounded guidance for the struggling writer. The first part of the book is an autobiography – a good read but not necessary. If you only want the nuts and bolts on writing, skip ahead to the chapter, What Writing Is and start there. Even if you don’t like Stephen King’s books, I think you can benefit from his advice on the art and business of writing, and liked or not, he has genuine experience. Papal, almost.

The second optional book I recommend is How Literature Works, 50 Key Concepts by John Sutherland. This bluntly-worded volume will pound you over the head with writing concepts you think you understand. It has helped me appreciate why I enjoy some stories and not others. It’s ostentatious, but move past that and you’ll find the guidance is academic and well-founded.

Please don’t misunderstand me about this – every person who aspires to write should also read. They should read a lot – more than the average person, and I think it’s good to read books that are outside of the genre you write, as well as everything you can in your genre. Read, even when the writing or story is bad. By seeing how it is done is the best way to learn, and I learn more from the badly written books than from the good ones.

I think it is an affliction to have the desire to write, and I am sick to the marrow. The likelihood of success in the field is on par with winning the lottery, and talent is essential but having talent is far from a guarantee of anything but obscurity. If you have this Writing Disease, and it exists in your bones to the point that you cannot separate yourself from it, the very best we can make of it is: try to do it well.

These three books may help ease your suffering.

© 2013, Mitch Lavender


12 thoughts on “You don’t need all of the advice you think you need

  1. I would like to learn writing techniques to help me articulate personal stories or thoughts in a clear and structured manner. Would you recommend Elements of Style for that purpose or is there any other book you would suggest?

    • Elements of Style is a book anyone who writes can benefit from, period. It is simple, nuts and bolts of how grammar works and what vigorous English looks like. I would also encourage you to read a lot – particularly authors who write in the same vein and genre you want to write in. In the process, you learn how it’s done by their example, rather than turning to a book to instruct you how to do so.

      Only my opinion, of course. Thanks for stopping by the blog.


  2. I have the first two (one, thanks to winning the ‘Hemingway Rules’ contest 🙂 ) so I feel I ought to get the third one as I totally agree about these. I have just had a look inside and it looks like it might hurt my brain a bit, but hey, no pain, no gain, eh!

    • Marion, that’s right. You won EoS in the Hemingway Rules contest. The third one, How Literature Works, takes a very academic approach to writing and I enjoyed the deep-think, but it’s a dry read and not as fun as SK’s On Writing. I’d be interested in hearing what you think of it.

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