book reviews / writers resources / writing

36 Essential Books for Every Writer

writers booksIn my office, I have my computer table, an oak rolltop desk close enough my left elbow bumps it when I really get going on the keyboard and behind me, about two feet away, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf of reference books. Those books are constantly in motion. I pull them out by piles, stack them on my desk and riffle through them to augment particular parts of my stories. Sometimes, I’m looking for facts on nature, animals, buildings. Other times, I’m working through some prickly syntax. Either way, there are those books I can’t write without.

Every writer I know has a bookshelf like this, full of books to inspire the writing process. A reader asked what books I thought most important, so I pulled out my short list of words I can’t write without.

That’s when I realized I’d added some in the last few years. These five are my new favorites and reflect my growth as a writer and the-times-they-are-a-changing for authors:

Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker

“Every crime is a mystery with a motive at its heart.” Read how to make that happen in your thriller and mystery novels.

Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

How to make your writing vibrant, engaging, and marketable-the type that ‘breaks out’ of the crowd and makes you stand out

Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not by John Vorhaus

Humor always catches a readers attention–well, effective humor. Find out how to do this and then try it in some of your blogs, tweets, FB posts. Experiment before putting it into your novel.

My Evernote by Katherine Murray

Evernote is the most popular on-line note-taking program, used by adults and students alike. And it’s free. If you aren’t using this to collect your writing research, you eed to read this book.

We are not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb

Basic social media–what all writers must do whether you have a publisher or not.

My must-have writing books have blossomed to 36, thanks to these new additions:

  1. Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
  2. Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, by Bill Bryson
  3. Blockbuster Plots: Pure and Simple, by Martha Alderson
  4. Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass
  5. Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, by Theodore Bernstein
  6. Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not by John Vorhaus
  7. Creating Character Emotions: Writing compelling fresh approaches that express your characters’ true feelings, by Ann Hood
  8. Elements of Style by EB White
  9. First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
  10. Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryon Garner
  11. How to Write A D*** Good Novel, by James Frey
  12. Lexicon, by William F. Buckley Jr.
  13. Marshall Plan for Novel Writing: A 16-step program guaranteed to take you from idea to completed manuscript, by Evan Marshall
  14. My Evernote by Katherine Murray
  15. National Audubon Society Field Guide
  16. New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything
  17. New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge
  18. Novel Writer’s Toolkit: A guide to writing great fiction and getting it published, by Bob Mayer
  19. Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
  20. Oxford Book of Aphorisms, by John Gross
  21. Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology
  22. Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words
  23. Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams, by MJ Cohen
  24. Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, by David Keirsey
  25. Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus
  26. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne
  27. Synonym Finder, by J. I. Rodale
  28. We are not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb
  29. Webster Dictionary–or any excellent dictionary, even online is fine
  30. Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, by Jack Hart
  31. Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Linda Edelstein
  32. Writing from A to Z, by Sally Ebest
  33. Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman
  34. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway
  35. Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level, by Donald Maass
  36. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block

The links are to book reviews I’ve done. It’ll be a while before I complete the entire list.

I’d love to hear your list.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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38 thoughts on “36 Essential Books for Every Writer

  1. Pingback: 9 Breakout Tips from Donald Maass – Today's Author

  2. Pingback: 13 Ways and 3 Books to Build Blockbuster Plots | WordDreams...

  3. Pingback: 15 Tips From Writing From A to Z | WordDreams...

  4. Over the years I have learned the value of keeping certain references books on-hand. This is a wonderfully comprehensive list. I am printing it out to make sure I pick a few of these up. The first one I want is “We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.”


  5. Wow thats an impressive list Jacqui I haveseveral books so far and I will check out a few on your list to maybe add to my collection. As a beginner I am also aware I may get caught up reading too many and then I notice my writing goes a bit lopsided. Too much information can be damaging for me too, so I take my time and soak in one here one there.


  6. I like NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms, Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch. It provides concise definitions of nearly anything you’d ever want to ask. Not complete descriptions but sufficient to get you started. Omniscient point of view? There’s an entry for that. Dead metaphor – also an entry. Zeitgeist – the last entry of the book.
    Also, The Truth That Tells a Lie by John Dufresne. And then the title is repeated with each word in a different place, ending with The Lie That Tells a Truth. A terrific and often funny series of articles about writing that appear to be based on his lectures at university. He includes many pithy quotes from famous writers and creators. Lots of useful advice in an elegant presentation.


  7. Nice helpful post. It is great when writers can share great ideas with others. I use King’s “On Writing” as my writing bible. I am currently looking forward to getting into , “It was the Best of Sentences, it was the Worst of Sentences”, by June Casagrande.


  8. Thank you for looking at my book list. Now I have some motivation to add the 3 books I’ve been meaning to add, including those by Jackie Bouchard. I’m off to look at your “published” page.


  9. Read many books on writing but am going to search your list. I too like Stephen King’s On Writing. I enjoyed relaxing Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott and the simple but to me valuable Editing made easy, Bruce Kaplan (revised edition). Thank you for sharing your tips and information. You put a lot of work into it.


  10. Beautiful blog. The list is intriguing, and some of the titles look familiar, but advancing MS has robbed my memory, so not sure which ones I have read before. A lot of my books didn’t move with me during my divorce, more painful than losing the guy actually. At least I can truthfully say I’ll never have Alzheimer’s because MS got there first. Well, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll have to cry, and I would rather laugh.


  11. Jacqui, I wish you started this blog ten years ago and I started writing a decade earlier. I would have been a good writer by now, thus. Yes, a great list of books and unfortunately I’ve only two american books[Elements on Style and On Writing] on my wall-to-ceiling shelf. Thanks for the post.

    While on writing ideas, can you/any of your followers give me a little advice? How do I write about crude historical facts through the voice of a nine year old refugee girl? All her predicaments were caused by these events : Independence and Partition of India by the British.


    • I have the same feeling, Arun. But I was busy raising children and yo were busy working in corporate India. It provided us topics to write about.

      I’ll try first–do you know any 9 year olds? I’d pose the questions and see how their brains sort it to start with.


  12. I’ve read several writing craft books, still do. I wouldn’t consider any of them must haves, so I’ll steal your list.


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