My favorite writing books


A reader spotted this photograph I’d posted of dictionaries and other references on my desk, and asked what books I think every writer should have. Besides Books, Crooks and Counselors, of course.

Language and style references:

A good dictionary and thesaurus, of course. In addition:

GarnerGarner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner (Oxford; 3d Ed, 2009) Many of us remember the old Fowler’s Modern English Usage. This is better—smart, American, and up-to-date, by a lexicographer who shies not away from opining.

Chicago Manual of Style, a recent edition. Most publishers rely on the CSM, and if you use it, you can’t be accused of serious stylistic errors, even if some publishers or individuals have other preferences.

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (various editions). The classic. Dated, maybe, but still a useful guide to many nuances of good writing.

The Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (2012) Readers read for emotion, but writers often use cliches and limited descriptions to show emotion in action. The lists of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and more will help you deepen your writing and show the internal and external signs of emotion in stronger, fresher ways.

I also love the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, in part for its essays on language and word meanings, but it isn’t an essential.

You should have a decent guide to grammar, as well. Contrary to your grade school recollections, they need not be dull. What’s most fun is to read not a prescriptive guide, but a volume or two by writers who clearly love the language and have strong opinions about it. I loved Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose; any of her books will be a fun read.

I was recently reminded of the late William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; it’s a classic, geared towards nonfiction, but helpful to all serious writers. I hear tell that there’s an audio version, read by Zinsser, perhaps abridged, that a friend enjoyed tremendously.

Writers should love words and cultivate an interest in them. My favorite sources won’t necessarily be yours, but I do think any serious writer needs to spend time simply playing with words and reading writers who play with them. Read poetry. Listen closely to song lyrics. Heck, do the crossword puzzle and play along with Will Shortz, NPR’s Puzzle Master. It’s all words.

Writing Craft:

Lately, I’ve been diving into James Scott Bell’s craft books for writers, and highly recommend them. Plot & Structure (Writers Digest, 2004) is a detailed guide to structure, with excellent sections on plot problems, how to generate ideas, and more. It’s a book to use over and over. Write Your Novel from the Middle (Compendium, 2014) explores Bell’s observation that the best stories have a “mirror moment” or midpoint shift in context; he shows how both plotters and pansters can find that moment, and write to and from it. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue (Compendium, 2014) is another winner, and I’m eager to dive into his new book on voice.

The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel, both by Donald Maass (Writers Digest, 2009 and 2001), are classics every writer should reread regularly. I’ve just started his Writing the 21st Century Novel (2012), and love, love, love his exercises and suggestions for diving deeper into character and emotion. If you like his columns on Writer Unboxed, you’ll recognize the approach—much of that material is here.

For something totally different: Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (2007) is a slim volume I love for its lessons on meter and rhythm, on finding the right word and the exact meaning, and on learning to love working a line. I also enjoyed The Art of Description by poet Mark Doty.

Other faves:



Write Away, by Elizabeth George. I took a week-long intensive writing workshop with her eons ago, and it changed my writing life.

Self-Editing for Writers, Renni Brown and Dave King

Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose

IMGP3435For Mystery Writers: 

Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure and Investigation  (Writers Digest, 2007)

DP Lyle, Murder & Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forenscis Questions for Mystery Writers The book that inspired me to write Books, Crooks & Counselors.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know (Linden/Quill Driver Books)


tnWritesOfPassageYou know the usual suspects: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. And Steven Pressfield’s War of Art and other titles. A wonderful new entry is Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, ed. by Hank Phillippi Ryan, with essays by 60 members of Sisters in Crime, including me.

I find inspiration in reading a good writer. I hope you do, too.

More suggestions? Tell me in the comments.

21 thoughts on “My favorite writing books

  1. Great list, Leslie. I have many of them. I’d also add John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which covers plot and character as connected to each other (it’s a screenwriting book) and Story Fix by Larry Brooks, second only to Chris Roerden’s Don’t Sabotage Your Submission for nuts and bolts revision.

  2. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne is one of my favorites. He teaches at Florida International University in their MFA Creative Writing program. I just had Plot and Structure home from the library but never cracked it open. I’ll have to get it again. Great list!

    • Thanks, Sherry. Just read an interview with Dufresne in an old Writer Mag floating around my car — I liked his approach a lot. And I’ll confess, I started and stopped Plot & Structure twice before deciding to “just read it,” before Bell’s SinC into Great Writing workshop. Worth the extra try!

  3. Great list, Leslie. One book I’ve liked is The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams. It focuses on crafting movie scripts but everything he says applies to books as well. It was recommended reading in one of the Guppy classes I took (can’t recall which one, though — maybe Emotional Intensity?) and was very useful in thinking about how to add conflict and a sense of personal journey to the story. I’ve also frequently turned to the Writer’s Digest Flip Dictionary, which is kind of like a thesaurus on steroids.

    Do you have any recommendations for books on the law that would be helpful for mystery writers to make sure we get the legal and judicial side of things right? (Realize that may be a tall order, but thought I’d ask!)

    Thanks! –Donna Gough

    • Shannon, good question. My impression is that for general procedures, and how a cop thinks, it’s still on the mark. I don’t remember if it discusses search and seizure law, esp re tech and cell phones; that area has changed quite a bit. So I think you can still rely on it for many things, but know that some areas of law and procedure might have changed, and if they’re important to your story, do a little more research. You may be able to find much of what you need from his blog, or the folks on the Crime Scene Writers Yahoo list.

  4. Great list. Thanks. Your readers may be interested in two of my books that drill down into the psychology of police officers and their families. I LOVE A COP: WHAT POLICE FAMILIES NEED TO KNOW and. COUNSELING COPS: WHAT CLINICIANS NEED TO KNOW.

    • Thanks, Ellen, and I’m glad you mentioned your books. I LOVE A COP was very useful to me in understanding the relationship between Pepper, the main character in my Spice Shop Mysteries, and her ex-husband, Tag, who’s a beat cop in the Seattle P.D., and the tensions and secrets that ultimately destroyed their marriage. I found myself wishing they’d both known you during their marriage — but if they’d stayed together, I wouldn’t be writing their story!

  5. For writers of historicals I always recommend Kathy Lynn Emerson’s books, and for writing YA, Cheryl B. Klein’s SECOND SIGHT. Also, there’s a little-known list of books written by Sisters in Crime members that is accessible by all writers. Go to, pull down the “Resources” tab, then go to the final tab in the list, “Reference books for writers.”

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