People often ask which books I recommend about writing. There aren’t many – and I’ll get to why further down – but these ones have changed the way I do everything.
A note about these books: I’m all for e-readers, but when it comes to these books, I strongly suggest getting hard copies. You’ll want to underline them, bookmark them, love them, curl up with them, store them in your library, and then get new copies to give to friends. They’ll become a part of your work, and their physical presence will become important.
Okay! Without further ado…
1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
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. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott
If you love stories that make you feel like less of a weirdo and give you more hope about humanity, you need to read every non-fiction thing Anne Lamott has ever written. Her writing is a magnificent combination of raw, funny and straight-to-the-bone and it makes me weak in the knees. Saint Anne (as Glennon Doyle calls her) will make you feel less alone.
This particular book is a writing bible for many. I mention the Shitty First Draft in our copywriting downloadable (link) – this is a concept that has changed the way I do everything. Long live Saint Anne! (Seriously Anne, please never stop writing. I don’t know what I’d do without you.)
2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The scariest moment is always just before you start.
Stephen King – On Writing
Yup, that Stephen King. This book had me laughing out loud, gasping audibly and in tears on public transport, often on the same ride. It’s a brilliant mashup of writing advice and King’s life story, including his drug addiction, how close he came to chucking Carrie in the trash (while living in poverty in a trailer) and the accident that changed his life. Yeah, a lot of life-changing happening in the post. I like life-changing. Life’s too short to stay the same.
3. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Progress, not perfection, is what we should be asking of ourselves.
Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
This book is actually a 12-week program, and every time I’ve done it (3 times so far) it has – say it with me – changed my life. Really.The Artist’s Way takes you on a journey through time and your own psyche, revisiting all the creative enemies that have housed themselves in your subconscious and all the dormant and beautiful ideas hiding out in the Hobbit holes of your mind. Even if you only do the morning pages, an exercise Cameron has you do throughout the whole program – you’ll get in touch with the magic that lies within you in ways you had no idea were possible.
4. A Thesaurus (a real one)
This giant brick of a book is one of the first things I bought with one of my first professional writing paychecks, and it’s paid for itself many times over. It contains multitudes more than you’ll find at thesaurus.com (which is great in a pinch and I use all the time), plus this particular one has contributions from Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, among other writers.
Copywriting often consists of trying to say the same thing in many different ways. Sometimes that means using words or concepts that you would never have thought to associate together, and others you’d forgotten about entirely. I love my thesaurus. I keep it around at all times. It also serves as an excellent postcard flattener.
5. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.
William Zinsser – On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
While most of what I’ve recommended so far is about the art of “throwing up on the page”, you must, as Hemingway put it, write drunk and edit sober. Zinsser is like your ice cold shower, helping you to cut down all your rambling, superfluous words and the other flowery shit we think makes us sound smart but actually distracts from the power of our story or message.
6. <insert your favorite book ever here>
There’s only so much reading about writing you should do before you start actually writing. But you always need inspiration. Just like a marathon runner wouldn’t run without eating, a writer shouldn’t write without reading the stuff that nourishes them.
I’ve read BJD (and the sequels) so many times that I sometimes recite lines in conversation and forget that no one else knows what I’m talking about. My point is, when you’re feeling stuck, picking up the stories that speak to you are key to reigniting your creative flame… which is in there, dancing away, but probably buried under a mountain of To Do lists and ridiculous ideas about life you got from Instagram. Even if what you need to write has nothing to do with what you love to read, it’ll be like food for your inner child, or inner teen, or inner 22-year old who feels so much better about being a Big Time Weirdo when she reads about an (imaginary) person who fumbles and makes social faux pas and gets insecure.
There is a reason we still tell stories. They unite us and make us feel like part of something bigger. So even if your favorite book is about elves and fairies, get it out and become friends with it again… and become friends with yourself again, too.
Bonus one I didn’t mention because it’s already on another Flauk blog post: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. AND her Magic Lessons podcast. Let’s end with a quote from her:
“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”
Here’s to practice!
With love and synonyms,
Chief Executive Copywriter / Other Token Canadian
Natalie is Flauk’s storyteller and punctuation nerd. She’s also an author, podcaster, and award-winning scriptwriter.