book reviews / writers resources

38 Essential Writer’s Books

In my office, I have my computer table, an oak roll top 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 which is when I realized I’d added some in the last few years. My must-have writing books have blossomed to 38, some new additions, some deleted from earlier lists. The links (where available) will take you to my review):

  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. Creating Character Emotions: Writing compelling fresh approaches that express your characters’ true feelings, by Ann Hood
  7. Elements of Style by EB White
  8. First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
  9. Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryon Garner
  10. How to Write A D*** Good Novel, by James Frey
  11. Humor That Works by Andrew Tavin
  12. Lexicon, by William F. Buckley Jr.
  13. Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing: The No-Stress Way to Sell Books Without Losing Your Mind by James Scott Bell
  14. Marshall Plan for Novel Writing: A 16-step program guaranteed to take you from idea to completed manuscript, by Evan Marshall
  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. The Rural Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
  27. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne
  28. Synonym Finder, by J. I. Rodale
  29. We are not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb
  30. Write on by Stephen King
  31. Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, by Jack Hart
  32. Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Linda Edelstein
  33. The Writer’s Lexicon Volume I and II by Kathy Steinemann
  34. Writing from A to Z, by Sally Ebest
  35. Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman
  36. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway
  37. Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level, by Donald Maass
  38. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block

What’s on your list.


More articles:

Are you a Writer?

Tricks of Being a Writer

11 Bits of Wisdom I Learned From a Computer

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, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Against All Odds, Summer 2020. 


106 thoughts on “38 Essential Writer’s Books

  1. Pingback: Top 2020 Book Reviews (and #Goodreads rundown) | WordDreams...

  2. It’s a great list, Jacqui! I need to check out some from your list. I have collected quite a few over the years starting from taking the children’s writing course, then writing poetry, and writing in general. I also belong to a couple online writing groups with resources. Like Diana Peach, I like to read something precise to the point with examples. One that I refer to quite often is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. I also bookmarked several websites for go-to resources.

    Thank you for sharing, Jacqui.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: #AuthorToolboxBlogHop: May–38 Essential Writer’s Books | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  4. Terrific list of books! There are some very important books on there for writers and some that have helped me massively with my writing. I’m not sure if you’d be interested in adding my own book on there – A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook? I’d be happy to send you a free copy in exchange for a review!

    I love your writing desk and bookshelves too. A fine workspace!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Richie. Your book looks great and has some excellent reviews. I don’t write fantasy but I’d love to take a guest post from you on fantasy writing. I don’t know if that appeals to you but if it does, let me know at my email.


  5. Writing guides are just as important as my laptop! I have a treasured few that I reach for over and over–some are in your list as well!–I will reach for a book on writing before Google in many cases. Don’t know why exactly. Just feels like the right thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That is quite a list. I’m also no stranger to the thesaurus series. I find lists of archetypes possibilities helpful as a springboard for my own ideas. Right now I’m working my way through A Writer’s Guide to Characterization, which is very Jungian.

    Past books on writing include The Anatomy of a Story, Creating Character Arcs, Scene & Structure, Save the Cat, Story Engineering, Hooked, Inciting Incident, Midpoint Magic, Trough of Hell, Story Climax, Story Stakes, and Story Structure Archetypes.

    I find it helpful to type up notes while I read a book on writing, and then reorganize and blend them (since many overlap). This helps me come to more of a concensus about what I agree with, and makes it easier for me to find something specific via the Commmand/Control F “find” function, though once in a while I still refer back to the source, get confirmation/clarification on what the author said, in contrast with what I wrote in my own words.

    I’ll definitely be checking out some of these titles.


      • Mmm. In my mind, Save the Cat is one of a couple that approach it from a much more “this is business” style, which is fine, and definitely had some insights.
        What I found really helpful was reading books that really zeroed in on a specific subtopic of storytelling (like Inciting Incident or Act 2/The Middle). I’m also perusing your list. I feel like the text on body language could be particularly useful, and one area I may not have as much coverage on. I feel like I have emotions themselves well covered, but subtle ways that characters can communicate those emotions, that may be a weak area for me (for now).
        Thanks again for sharing your insights.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Your desk is gorgeous, I’m a little bit jealous 😀

    Great list, some of these will be very handy as I work on my latest university assignment 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great list, Jacqui! I have a number of these. That marketing one is missing in my collection, though 🙂 I also have (of course haven’t read yet) Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story. Love Donald Maass’ books.


  9. Excellent list Jacqui. I have quite a few of those, among others on my bookshelve(s) 5. And let me tell you, your shelves are in a much more presentable state than mine, lol. Truly a scary sight, but I know where everything is – organized chaos. 🙂 Also, nice to see Kathy’s Lexicon books on the list. I’m soon going to be sinking my eyes into the upcoming book 3. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love the collection of Thesaurus collections Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have put together, I have used their emotional Thesaurus for reference, and these books really help to get your brain into the creative zone for capturing show don’t tell.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Like you, I’ve got writing/resource books for every occasion on my shelf and lots of bookmarks on my computer desktop (most of which are on my Pinterest Board “Writing/Blogging”… Added this one there too! 🙂 xo

    Liked by 1 person

  12. That looks like a fine list! No book case like that for me, in a 19ft camper. 🙂 I used to love books, especially non-fiction ones, but eventually had to get rid of almost all of them, being a nomad. I still have a couple of books about memoir writing and non-fiction proposals and a couple of travel guidebooks with me. That’s it.

    That desk looks very familiar to the one I’m working at, here at my in-laws. Very cool!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Okay, confession. I skipped the list – I have 2 newish craft books I still have to read, but I know there would be more I’d want if I read your list…not until I’ve read the two I have!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What a list! Some great resources here, Jacqui. I enjoy books on writing but I need them to be short, to the point, and full of examples (which is how I learn). One that I’ve been using a lot lately is The Emotional Thesaurus which translated emotions into body-language. I can get rid of some on my telling with showing. 🙂
    I hope you’re making great progress on Xhosa’s next book. I’m looking forward to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for sharing your suggestions. I’ve read some of them. If I ever get near to being published, I’ll have to check out the one by James Scott Bell on marketing without losing your mind. I’d be in serious danger of losing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m bookmarking this for…reference. 🙂

    I also love The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It comes in very handy when I’m stuck trying to come up with nonverbal cues that aren’t overused.

    Great list! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I love your roll top desk. I remember my grandfather had one, and as a kid I was enamored of it. I still love them.

    You have an impressive list of reference books. Like you, mine is a mix-up of books related to writing and books related to topics I write about.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Jacqui – excellent list for us … I only have Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable nearby … other reference books I’ll need to find – they’re nearby so not difficult to access. Lots of other books are out and about! Take care – and love the desk – that would be my letter writing desk … otherwise I need a computer desk and table next to it! I spread myself. Take care – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

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