Below are my seven favorites. The first four are wonderfully useful, if you happen to be suffering from the problem that they solve. The final three are pure enjoyment.
This list is personal and biased. Your own favorite may be missing. But I hope my picks will help you discover at least one new book to love.
Most useful books about writing nonfiction:
1 // On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Who’s it for? Anyone writing nonfiction.
Why I love it: The canonical guide to writing clear and beautiful nonfiction. This book is essential.
In many ways, I consider On Writing Well to be the unofficial companion to Write Useful Books. Zinsser covers the prose itself, whereas I cover the process and product.
And as might be expected, Zinsser’s writing is an absolute joy to read.
2 // The Artist’s Way Workbook by Julia Cameron
Who’s it for? People having trouble getting started.
Why I love it: Cameron has taught and unblocked more writers than anyone in the world, and she’s got a lesson plan that works.
The workbook involves a series of daily tasks, requiring 10-30 minutes each day. That may feel like a too-high price, but will pay quickly pay dividends in both the quality and quantity of your output.
Some of the tasks lean heavily toward the fiction/creative side and may feel a bit “fluffy” to the pragmatic-minded, but the impact it had on my work was undeniable.
3 // The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Who’s it for? People having trouble getting finished.
Why I love it: After failing to finish a book for nearly a decade in his 20s (and blowing up his marriage and career along the way), Pressfield eventually returned from the creative depths, clutching an armload of profoundly useful insights.
If you’ve put down at least some of the words but can’t bring yourself to finish, ship, or share it with the world, then this is the book for you.
I strongly recommend the audiobook if possible. Pressfield’s grizzled soldier’s voice offers a powerful counterpoint to his at-times lofty take on creativity.
If the advice resonates, you can continue through his tough-love quadrilogy with Do the Work, Going Pro, and Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit. (Again, go audiobook if possible.)
4 // Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon
Who’s it for? Authors without a platform wondering how to get noticed.
Why I love it: A common-sense approach to marketing for people who don’t like marketing.
Career-creative Kleon reframes the task as “sharing your work,” complete with helpful examples across a range of industries. Like all of Kleon’s books, this Show Your Work is quick, breezy, enjoyable, and understatedly useful.
Highly recommended as a starting point for folks who are worried about how to get started building their seed audience pre-launch.
Most enjoyable books about books:
5 // Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Live, and Lost by Paul Hendrickson
Why I love it: I adore this book. A perfect portrait of a brilliant, broken man and the creative compulsion that pushed him forward and broke him down.
In some ways, this book feels like the narrative version of The War of Art. Hendrickson’s Hemingway battles through Resistance with a warrior’s resolve, but not without personal injury or collateral damage.
The book also reveals rare moments in the history of Cuba, Paris, and Key West, and I’m a sucker for reading about history through the life of oner person. (My other favorite in that genre is The Greatest Knight, which humanizes the chaotic 1400s of England and France via the career of William Marshall, who rose to be the right-hand-man to three kings).
Anyway, I can’t say enough good about this one.
6 // The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
Why I love it: An unexpected, smile-cracking delight for any lover of words. I find myself reopening this book whenever I’m becoming burned out by editing and invariably find myself refreshed.
This is a coffee table book that you’ll find yourself reading cover-to-cover while loving every minute.
In fact, you well have already read an excerpt from this book, which seems to be permanently making the rounds on social media:
7 // Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
Why I love it: An endearing collective of brief anecdotes about the working habits of many of history’s greatest creatives.
I was reassured to discover that plenty of prolific writers have been able to remain so in spite of—or perhaps because of—fairly leisurely lives and working days that maxed out at three or four hours.
If there’s a holiday or bithday approaching, both Daily Rituals and Elements of Eloquence stand tall as foolproof gifts for the writer in your life.