“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

~Gustave Flaubert

Have you ever wondered if most writers would agree on the best writing books on the market? I went to a virtual writing conference over the summer hosted by Chandler Bolt. During this conference, he interviewed 43 best-selling authors. He asked them each the same questions about time management, content production, marketing, focus and distraction, but he mostly focused on where they were before they published their first book. I appreciate the consistency and thought he was one of the better interviewers I’ve seen.

When you ask that many people to take you back to the beginning, you are bound to discover the influences and thinkers that really shaped who they are. Each writer mentioned one or two books that helped them change their habits and face their fears early on. I’m here to share with you the nine most often mentioned books from the conference.

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Author: Stephen King

Best Writing Books - On Writing by Stephen King
Stephen King is prolific AND respected. How is that possible? He attempts to answer that in his memoir on writing. It comes as no surprise that this writing memoir is the most frequently referenced book by both writers and professors.

It’s packed full of tips that are sure to help your craft, but what is most interesting is how he takes you back to the beginning. How did Stephen King grow up? Who did he read? What did he do for fun? After he lays a foundation, he then talks about maintaining that foundation. Establishing a regular routine is one of the biggest lessons I learned in this book. Simply put, writers show up to work. every. single. day.

Stephen King expands on how critical this consistency is: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” And it’s this same sense of discipline that Stephen King applies to reading: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” If you are an aspiring writer, either fiction or non-fiction, this should be your first stop. I have no doubt you’ll devour this work.

The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books

Author: Eviatar Zerubavel

Best Writing Books - The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar ZerubavelI definitely appreciate the academic emphasis of this book. It’s primary concern is organization and time management. If your writing is research-heavy, I suspect you will find this book helpful. I strongly recommend it for non-fiction authors and graduate students. 

According to the author, “Democratizing the writing process is therefore the utmost importance to any writer in the making, and it basically challenges the way we traditionally associate creativity with structurelessness and spontaneity.” 

In other words, if you set an appointment with your muse, he’s going to show up. Writing is not about waiting for that moment of inspiration to hit you over the head to start. If you consider yourself a writer, this book encourages you to schedule time to write and stick to it like clockwork. For that reason, the book encourages writers to set priorities, pace themselves, and stick to it by creating a writing schedule.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Author: Anne Lammott

Best Writing Books - Bird by Bird by Anne LammottThis book is close to my heart and one I devoured over a decade ago for the first time. My mind was open during my undergraduate education to how powerful language is, but Anne Lammot definitely taught me about how precious language is. It is no surprise that this book in particular was mentioned over and over again during the writing summit. Writers are notoriously aware of how powerful the written word is. As a general rule, they respect language in a way that I find rare among most people.  

Anne Lammott attributes the source of this power to the worlds we discover in bound books: “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

Metaphors We Live By

Authors: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Best Writing Books - Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark JohnsonI ordered this book on the spot when it was mentioned at the conference. I find most of my students, and if I’m honest–people in general, tend to struggle with figurative language. We often use or interpret metaphors literally.

People know how to abuse language but they really don’t understand its power to create new realities, as the authors of this book argue. If you want to know how we think and how we express our thoughts in language, definitely check out this book. If you are a writer, you will learn to make the process accessible to your reader.

The authors carefully consider how important figurative language is to understanding the world: “New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities. This should be obvious in the case of poetic metaphor, where language is the medium through which new conceptual metaphors are created.”

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Author: Steven Pressfield

Best Writing Books - The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

This book is sure to help challenge you to face your fears. We all have them. That’s why a writing conference like the one I attended is so successful; I want to see how 43 other authors were able to overcome their fears and actually publish their work. Not surprisingly, they do it scared.

Almost every single writer made the same joke over and over: “they don’t call it best-writing author; it’s a best-selling author.” If we’re waiting for perfection, it will never come, and Steven Pressfield’s book champions that same sentiment.

Steven Pressfield doesn’t want to stifle your fear but help you channel it into your art: “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World

Author: Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal NewportThe single theme that runs through my composition course is the power of attention. From explicitly reading about hyper and deep attention as articulated by N. Katherine Hayles to embracing Plato’s message in the cave allegory, it is the most championed aspect of both the ancient and modern world. One of the best writing books recommended has everything to do with how to harness your attention. 

Cal Newport’s book presents a counter cultural approach to accomplishing deep work. He was actually one of the authors interviewed at the summit, and you can tell his thoughts on this subject are not just lip service. From limiting his social networks to sustaining disciplined habits, he really does champion the rare power of deep focus. 

Cal Newport suggests cultivating this deep attention will improve your life and separate your work from others: “Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

7 Habits of Highly Successful People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Author: Stephen Covey

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This book has been around forever! It was definitely one of the staple books the older generation attending the writing conference mentioned. You’ve probably heard it referenced and most likely have heard the ideas here championed at some point. It’s worth reading it for yourself because almost every book written on productivity stems from one or more of Covey’s seven habits.

Here is a quick list:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin With the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Stephen Covey lays the foundation for what we know about productivity, goal setting, and skill building: “But until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

Author: Gary Keller

The One Thing by Gary Keller

This book was the new hotness and mentioned by one writer after another at the conference. It seemed to be on everyone’s nightstand. I ordered it on the spot and found it was similar to Covey’s third habit: put first things first or Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog!The idea in Tracy’s book is that you focus on your biggest, hardest, most important task first thing in the morning. The catch, though, is that your purpose is crystal clear and this frog, this task, this morning habit is the number one way you will achieve your goal. Keller takes it one step farther by encouraging you to find the one thing separating you from success and focusing all of your attention on that. 

Gary Keller explains how detrimental it is to divide your focus among so many tasks, which is what entrepreneurs are so accustom to: “To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Author: Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is learning about the role of triggers in creating habits and changing routines. A trigger is a reminder of some kind that convinces your brain to fall into automatic mode before your will has the power to resist. Your phone buzzing is a trigger–the habit is checking to see who is texting.

So what do triggers have to do with writing habits? 

If you want to wake up every morning and write, you could turn on the same instrumental music every time you sit down at your computer. Call it your writing music and be consistent.

If you want to wake up in the morning and read, you could keep your phone on airplane mode while you sleep and reach for the book on your nightstand instead of your phone. You only get out of bed after reading for 20 minutes, 30 pages, or whatever unit of measurement you decide.

Charles Duhigg breaks down the way a habit is formed so that his readers might construct healthy, consistent habits: “This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP.”

Some of these books might be on your radar already, but if not, check them out and let me know what you think. The common theme you’ve probably already noticed is that they are considered the best writing books, not because they talk about writing at all, but because they articulate how critical it is to establish good habits, regular routines, and an ability to focus deeply on your work. So there you have it- the nine best writing books mentioned over and over by 43 best-selling authors. What would you add to the list? 

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The Best Writing Books According to Best-Selling Authors