Want to improve your writing skills? Here are the 7 best books on writing.
(according to me)
Except for the ones in the first section, not all the books on my list will be relevant to every kind of writing. Feel free to skim the headings to find books that are relevant to you.
General writing skills
1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
I expected On Writing Well to be a bit stuffy and conservative, since it’s a classic, first published in 1976. But it wasn’t at all.
Although I don't agree with everything he says (which is to be expected), I do agree generally with his advice. For example, he doesn't have a problem with breaking certain grammar rules, if doing so serves a greater purpose such as clarity. This is my favourite sentence in the whole book:
"I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of."
If you haven’t written anything more than a grocery list or a Facebook post since leaving school, definitely read this book first. If you're new to writing, you'll find tidbits like this helpful:
"[C]lear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering."
It’s true! None of us gets it right the first time! Give yourself permission to write The Ugly First Draft as Ann Handley describes it. And then edit until your fingers bleed. It’s the editing — a slow, gradual process — that turns an ugly, squishy lump of clay into a fine piece of work, satisfying in both form and function.
"There's not much to be said about the period except that most writers don't reach it soon enough."
Again, edit and edit some more. Despite Dickens, long and complicated sentences are generally a pain to read. I recommend Hemingway to help you spot them, shorten them, and clarify them. You don’t want all your sentences to be super-short. (Variety is spicy.) But you do want to eliminate the overly long and complicated ones.
Although Zinsser’s book is especially useful for beginners, even if you’re an experienced writer, you’ll enjoy it and find little gems. Here are a couple I found useful:
"The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don't assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it's not your version of the story until you write it."
On interviewing experts: "Trust your common sense to figure out what you need to know, and don't be afraid to ask a dumb question. If the expert thinks you're dumb, that's his problem."
I recommend this short, enjoyable, practical book for anyone who wants to improve their writing skills.
2. Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
In contrast to Zinsser’s book, Everybody Writes is more specific to writing for your business.
I love her attitude and completely agree with her that writing is not a special skill that only the ‘gifted’ have. So long as you enjoy the process enough to put the work in, you can become a skilled writer (if you’re not already):
“In our world, many hold a notion that the ability to write, or write well, is a gift bestowed on a chosen few. Writing well is considered a kind of art, linked murkily to muse and mysticism. That leaves us thinking there are two kinds of people: the writing haves — and the hapless, for whom writing is a hopeless struggle, like trying to carve marble with a butter knife.
But I don’t believe that, and neither should you. The truth is this: writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn. We are all capable of producing good writing. Or, at least, better writing. As David Carr of the New York Times says, “Writing is less about beckoning the muse than hanging in until the typing becomes writing.””
And Handley’s a great guide for helping you improve. I thought her steps for creating longer pieces of content (like blog posts and e-books) were spot on. I liked them so much I made an infographic (feel free to share):
If you’re at a later stage in your writing career, and you’re already used to doing many of the things Handley mentions, of course you’ll find her book less helpful. Nevertheless, I found things I like to be reminded of. For example, it’s always helpful to check if I’ve used an [adverb + ordinary verb] construction that can be replaced with a more interesting or exciting verb without an adverb. This by itself can jazz up a piece of writing.
It’s also good to be reminded that every blog article, every Facebook post, every tweet, “every bit of content you create should be to please the customer or prospect”:
“Make it clear. Don’t make the reader work hard to understand you. Develop pathological empathy for the reader.... And finally, make it useful. Readers will read what you write only if something is in it for them.”
Handley is also pretty much saving the world with her advice to avoid business buzzwords. More people should read her book just so that the rest of us can look forward to seeing fewer instances of words like leverage, incentivize, and value-added!
This Skeptical Marketer also appreciates that she emphasizes the importance of saying what is true and checking your facts. Yes, it’s ‘just’ a blog post; but, yes, it does matter whether or not what you’re saying is true. Fighting the battle against bullshit is one of my motivating reasons for doing what I do.
Handley also provides a fantastic lists of tools that will benefit pretty much every writer. There are so many useful tools out there that will help improve your writing, your productivity, or the visual side of a blog post, say. Even if you’re an experienced writer, get your hands on a copy of Everybody Writes and check out those lists at the end of the book. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find something helpful that’s new to you.
Handley is a pleasure to read. You can feel her lively personality through the page and luckily she has an email newsletter so you can get a dose of her liveliness in your inbox every fortnight. Her newsletter is mostly about writing and content marketing. It is always a great mix of entertaining, thought provoking, and useful. Subscribe here: Ann Handley’s newsletter. I’ll be amazed if you don’t love it.
This category has two books, one that’s best for complete beginners and one slightly more advanced.
3. The Everything Guide to Writing Copy by Steve Slaunwhite
Slaunwhite explains general copywriting techniques that are relevant to any type of copywriting. For example, as much as possible, create a multi-sensory experience for your reader. This is easier for some products than others. For example, if you sell cookies, it’s easier for your copy to involve all the senses than if you sell forklifts. (What does a forklift taste like?) But the general idea holds: Think of details for as many of the senses as you can.
The Everything Guide to Writing Copy is also a valuable introduction to copywriting tips for various specific purposes, such as writing headlines, advertising copy, websites, press releases, etc.
The author provides helpful examples, like this one showing the difference between some mediocre web copy and some good copy:
"Speed-Med Courier offers one-hour delivery of confidential patient documents."
"As an oncologist, you understand the importance of getting test results returned to your office quickly. That's why you'll be glad to learn that Speed-Med Courier offers one-hour delivery service — exclusively for confidential patient documents."
The second bit of copy above is better than the first because it speaks directly to the target audience (in this case, oncologists) and expresses the benefit the company provides for that audience. The first is a flat description about the company. You’ve got to speak to your audience and make them care about what you have to offer. (In my view, that second bit of copy could be improved further. But it works as an example to illustrate the point that it’s important to speak to your audience.)
4. How to Write Copy that Sells by Ray Edwards
This book is a good one to read after Slaunwhite’s. The Everything Guide to Writing Copy gives you the basics, and then How to Write Copy that Sells goes a bit deeper. But a theme that runs through both books (and the Terry O’Reilly book, which is number 5 on this list) is that writing effective copy requires a great deal of thought and preparation. It’s not something you can whip up in an hour or two. Edwards writes:
"We start with this: what are you selling, and how does it benefit the customer? You must distill this 'big idea' down to a single, clear sentence. Clarifying and articulating your 'big idea'... is a crucial step in the selling process."
Edwards recommends filling in the blanks in this sentence:
"Any [YOUR AUDIENCE] can [SOLVE THEIR PROBLEM] by using [YOUR PRODUCT], because [HOW IT SOLVES THEIR PROBLEM]."
For example: "Any BABY BOOMER can BUILD A BUSINESS FROM HOME by using THE PROFIT FROM WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW COURSE, because it SHOWS YOU HOW TO TURN YOUR KNOWLEDGE INTO PROFITS."
You need to get clear on your ‘big idea’ before you do any sort of copywriting — web copy, sales letters, marketing emails, guarantees, product launches, advertisements, etc.
When you get to the actual writing, Edwards provides a helpful framework, which he gives the acronym PASTOR. These are all the elements he thinks are essential to any piece of sales copy. Different projects will emphasize different elements, but these are all relevant to any copywriting project:
Person, Problem, Pain: Identify the person you are writing to, the problem that your product or service is intended to solve, and the pain your person is experiencing.
Amplify: Stress the consequences of what will happen if that problem isn’t solved.
Story and Solution: Tell the story of someone who has solved that problem, using your solution or even a solution like yours.
Transformation and Testimony: Articulate the results that your product or service will bring, providing real life testimonials to strengthen your case.
Offer: Describe exactly what you are offering for sale, focusing on the transformation, instead of the deliverables (the ‘stuff’).
Response: Ask the customer to buy, with step-by-step instructions telling them what to do next.
How to Write Copy that Sells goes into more detail than The Everything Guide to Writing Copy. For example, Edwards explains exactly what to write in each of the 15 sections of a sales letter. He lists the essential qualities of headlines and goes through different templates you can use to create them. He walks you through his 10-part formula for writing a guarantee that will dispel potential customers’ fears.
The copy on your website shouldn’t be an afterthought. If you’re going to write it yourself, it’s worth reading both these books as well as taking some online courses on how to make it effective. (Courses are a topic for a different blog post though.)
Sooner or later, of course you’ll need to advertise your business, whether in print, on TV or radio, or online. Whether your ad has few words or many, a lot of background preparation goes into creating effective ad copy. O’Reilly emphasizes this background work, just as Slaunwhite and Edwards do.
5. This I Know by Terry O’Reilly
Many Canadians will be familiar with long time CBC radio presenter, Terry O’Reilly. I hadn’t heard of him before coming across this book, but now I’m subscribed to the Under The Influence podcast and enjoy listening to his CBC radio episodes.
Although This I Know is officially about advertising, it helps with writing web copy too. For both, you need to get to the bottom of what you’re really selling. Coca Cola doesn’t sell just a sweet, carbonated drink; it sells happiness.
What do you really sell? Suppose you sell window coverings. Why do people want window coverings? They want a combination of style and function (e.g. reduce light at night or to help keep a sunny room cooler). But why do they want those things? Because they want comfort — both physical and emotional comfort. They want to feel at home in their home. In your copy, you need to tap into that deeper emotional desire.
As well as getting clear on the emotional appeal of your product or service, you need to figure out what makes your company special, before embarking on a copywriting project. Why should anyone buy from you rather than one of your competitors (or from nobody at all)? What's your company culture? What do you stand for? Who’s your target audience?
Clarity on these topics is just as essential for writing web copy as it is for writing ad copy. O’Reilly will get you thinking about them before you attempt putting words on the page.
The Advertising Concept Book by Pete Barry is fantastic. I didn’t include it in my list because it’s less relevant specifically to writing. It’s more about inspiring ideas (or ‘concepts’) for advertising. But I LOVE this book so much, I couldn’t resist mentioning it. If you write the occasional ad for your own business, it’s probably more than you want to get into. But if you work in advertising, or aspire to do so, you’ll love this book too, I promise. (If you don’t, then I bet advertising isn’t what you should be doing.)
Proposals aka RFP Responses
This is a very specific category that won’t apply to everyone reading this list. But if you ever need to write a proposal (or bid) in response to an RFP (request for proposals) you must read this book. Gibson will guide you through the entire process. You’ll feel much better — and do much better — having this wise and experienced guide by your side.
6. Proposals: Getting Started, Getting Better by Isabel Gibson
Read this book before you need to write your proposal, because you won't have time or mental energy to read it cover-to-cover when you're in the thick of things. As Gibson says, "Proposals are notorious for burning people out, and at a minimum can certainly be miserable". But keep Proposals: Getting Started, Getting Better to hand during the proposal writing process to dip into as a reference as questions arise.
What does Gibson see as the single biggest mistake on first-time bids? Having only marketers in the room. She says:
"Get some operators into the mix — people who provide this service or do this work for a living — to push back against the marketers' natural tendency to promise anything to get the contract."
But also remember that "Marketer input is essential: without it, you'll never win the Work." Marketers will have insight into how to present the proposal in a persuasive way.
An RFP response is a huge project with many moving parts. Once you’ve understood what the RFP is asking for, you have to figure out the substance of your offer and make sure it addresses all the potential client’s needs. And you need to present that in a way that’s clear, succinct, and engaging — meeting all the requirements stated in the RFP. Often with a close-to-impossible deadline.
Gibson walks you through the entire process from beginning to end. Specifically about the writing, some advice she gives is:
"Speak the client's language wherever you reasonably can."
"Avoid jargon to the extent feasible in a technical topic, and eliminate highfalutin words. Plain language gets to the point quickly, making it easy for evaluators to mark your answer. Certainly there's some risk in being clear — they might not like what you're proposing — but there's more risk in being obscure."
But remember to keep the project in perspective. Competition can be stiff for RFPs and there’s good chance you won’t win it, despite all the work you put in. Don’t make a hard job harder by doing more than you need to. Gibson says:
"Know the norms of your industry and match them. After that, do the minimum. You're submitting a sales proposal, not crafting an illuminated manuscript for the ages."
You might find it difficult to imagine that a book on how to write RFP responses can be enjoyable, but this one is. Gibson is a sharp and witty writer. If you need to write RFP responses, you’ll find this book not only helpful but also a pleasure to read.
How to make your writing — any kind of writing — more powerful and memorable
7. Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This book isn't about only writing. It's relevant to communicating ideas in any format — writing, podcasts, presentations, videos, etc.
How can you make your audience care about and remember what you have to say? How can you make your ideas ‘sticky’? How can you vanquish the Curse of Knowledge — the problem that you know your stuff inside out so it's hard to communicate with people who don't share that knowledge? You can't un-know what you know, so what can you do instead to communicate your ideas to people who don't share that knowledge? Made to Stick answers these questions.
Here are the authors’ six principles to use if you want to make your ideas more ‘sticky’. The acronym is SUCCESs:
1. Simplicity: "Proverbs are ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it."
2. Unexpectedness: "For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity."
3. Concreteness: "This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions — they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images... In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'"
4. Credibility: Authorities are a reliable source of credibility, and celebrities can make us care too. "Why do we care that Michael Jordan likes McDonald's? Certainly he is not a certified nutritionist or a wold-class gourmet. We care because we want to be like Mike, and if Mike likes McDonald's, so do we."
We trust customer testimonies rather than company claims. Vivid details and statistics also add credibility. But the numbers won't be remembered. "Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It's more important for people to remember the relationship that the number."
5. Emotions: "How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something."
6. Stories: The authors claim there are three basic plot structures: Challenge, Connection, and Creativity.
"Challenge plots inspire people to take on challenges and work harder."
"All Connection plots inspire us in social ways. They make us want to help other, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others."
"The Creativity plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a longstanding puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way."
"Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate and to inspire. And most of the time we don't even have to use much creativity to harness these powers — we just need to be ready to spot the good ones that life generates every day."
As you might imagine for a book on how to make ideas stick, Made to Stick is also full of engaging and memorable stories. It is a joy to read.
If you want to improve your writing skills for your business — whether that’s writing proposals, advertising copy, web copy, blog posts, or anything else — these seven books are an excellent place to start.
If you’ve read any of them, let me know what you think of them in the comments below. If you have any recommendations you’d like to share, that would be great too. (To get to the comments, scroll way down, down lower than that, that’s it, after the social share buttons.)
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