10 Surprising Books That Will Transform Your Writing

10 Surprising Books That Will Transform Your Writing

Reader Comments (110)

  1. My eight grade english teacher and a old ex-girlfriend are luvin you right now..lol

    I luv to read, but seems that with so much tech around me and a nice big TV that I don’t read as much as I like.

    Even when I do read it is ussually a motivational, or business learning book.

    But great list, from em to 50 to old english reading,,lol your the best.

  2. Thank you, Demian

    I’m guilty of reading too much copywriting books. This is exactly what I needed. A new way to improve writing. Again, thanks a million.



    PS For all you holiday shoppers, is this a good list or what?

  3. Great list Demien. It’s nice to give the world a little knock on the noggin’ every now and then. We all need to get out a read more and I really appreciate the importance of reading outside your comfort zone when writing to others.

    I would like to add one to the list for anyone that wants to be really uncomfortable. Learn how to perform “cut-ups” in the style of William Burroughs. Start with “Junkie” and then work your way to “Naked Lunch.” If that doesn’t mess with your ideas of right and wrong in writing, then nothing will.

  4. Outliers helped me through the worst of the six month blogging slog. The idea of doing my time through my 10,000 hours was validating and filled with hope. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not read any of the others and only heard of two of them, but I appreciate the list. Thanks!

  5. Great list. The timing of this post is almost serendipitous. Last week on my blog I started ReBooWee (Read a Book a Week) in order to do what you said, “expand my mind,” and because I know how important it is for me as a writer, to read as much as I can. I went outside my usual fiction rut and read an inspirational true story called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind– a must read for everyone.

    Thanks for the reminder that we should read as much as we can and for your intriguing list of books.

  6. Wonderful. Add Virgil’s Georgics in the Great Books edition, and a really good translation of the Aeneid. You won’t have to read them through – one page will give you the flavor of what great writing for the Web should do. “Arms and the man I sing…”

  7. Another favorite of mine is How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but you can find it used on Amazon. It’s one of my all-time favorites!

  8. Great list Demian, i tend to look for a lot of books to improve my writing and in the past one year its improved a lot. This is a pretty good list, I don’t think i can afford all of them, maybe i’ll go ahead with one. I truly don’t think the books i read thought me to right, i learnt to right by visiting blogs in my niche and reading a lot.

  9. It’s nice to see the Bible get some credit here! I’d also like to add The Odyssey (yes, from your old high school literature class – but read it again now that you’re older — you’ll appreciate the language soooo much more!)

    Fantastic list! You might also want to go over to bookins.com to see if they have any of these available. You can get them just for the cost of shipping. I love buying books that way.

  10. i like reading books that are written in different styles for stimulating my brain. chuck palahniuk is good for this. it is amazing what happens when you have to start engaging the book again because it isnt setup in the standard novel format.

  11. Thanks for the kind comments, all–and the great recommendations! I’m looking forward to seeing other suggestions.

    Sean: Gladwell is dead on. And his magic number did wonders for me, too. Talk about giving an old guy some hope. 🙂

  12. Thank you for the list. Analyzing the survey responses for my book Tales of People Who Get It revealed that the very accomplished people who I interviewed, read broadly and that’s part of the reason they are so successful. I am an avid reader and I read very broadly. I am trying to read science fiction because I hate that genre, and I think perhaps by doing so will take my mind in a different direction, and also expand my thinking.

    Here is another list that I found while researching http://www.against-the-grain.com/TOCFiles/v20-1_GeneWaddell.pdf. Please let me know what you think. Avil Beckford

  13. Great list – love the shifted-perspective thinking.
    I’ll also recommend Truman Capote’s novel, IN COLD BLOOD for the way he tells a story and for the poetry in his descriptive writing. The first ten pages take my breath away for the sheer beauty of the language, the author’s considerable craft taking a back seat to the story.
    Thanks for the gift of this list.

  14. Hey Demian,

    The more you expand the possibilities in your mind the more remarkable, higher-quality, and creative your creation can become.

    While it’s essential to read books on writing well to learn to, er, write well, by opening your mind to new ideas and ways of writing (through reading wildly varying books, such as your reading list here), you can become more remarkable in your writing, not just technically proficient.

    And besides, it’s a lot of fun to learn from unlikely sources. You get seriously entertained while gaining valuable lessons.

    Like how Fight Club is an AMAZING personal development book (and film), but it’s crazy-fun to read/watch too. And those that do consume it without knowing that there’s life lessons to be found end up gaining some valuable insight on not letting societal labels and possessions define your life.

    Thanks for the unconventional list. Once I’m done with the “regular” books, I’ll move onto this bookmarked list.

    Here’s to nonconformist learning,

  15. A friend bought me 100 Years of Solitude from the Shakespeare bookshop in Paris – and ever since I’ve always thought of it like the literary equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes. At some point, somebody’s going to point out that it’s all a load of tripe and all the thousands of people who’ve raved about it will be exposed as the literary sheep they really are.

  16. “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” – Sir Francis Bacon

    Only the words of The Bible redeem, and few craft stories and sentences like Gabriel Garcis Marquez.

  17. EnlightenNext magazine is the best I know of for expanding your mind and opening up new dimensions of thought. And the writing is skillfully crafted (disclosure, I volunteer for the magazine and am good friends with the editorial team… but they still kick @$$ :))

  18. I had not heard of any of these (except the Bible, of course), so thanks for the great list. The Kindle I just bought can’t get to the house fast enough!

  19. Garcia Marquez knocks me out, although it’s Love in the Time of Cholera that gets my vote. Baaaaaaaa.

  20. Thank you, Michael, I’ve moved onto the New American Standard for my devotions…but the King James, a writer’s friend.

    Sonia: Now that you mention it, Love in the Time of Cholera is my favorite love story! Marital dissolution over a bar of soap. Biting.

  21. What a list! Thank you for reminding me that it was the romance with stories and imagination that lured me into wanting to be a writer in the first place.

  22. I doubt I’m the only one who will be placing a chunky Amazon order in the next day or two.

  23. What a nice list! I must admit I don’t have any clue with all the books except Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ I can’t wait to read the other ones on your list…

  24. @Sonia, me too! all over amazon right now!
    For another warp-your-mind experience, try SHAKE-SPEARE BY ANOTHER NAME (Anderson)… well-written, too. Get the paperback instead of HB because it includes newer research.

  25. A great book that celebrates reading is Education of a Wandering Man (http://www.amazon.com/Education-Wandering-Man-Louis-LAmour/dp/0553286528/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260208501&sr=8-1), a memoir by Louis L’Amour. He dropped out of high school, started traveling the world and read everything and anything he could find before starting his writing career. I’ve never read his westerns but his memoir is a fascinating story of how reading can change your life.

  26. @Markley, thanks, can’t believe I didn’t see that. Apparently I had a major brain freeze.

  27. Nice list! There’s too many on here I haven’t read. One Hundred Years of Solitude is amazing. I would add House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (for a dash of passion in one’s writing.)

    But yes, gentle reader: read and read widely. That is great advice. Thanks as always for good stuff to think about.

  28. Thanks for the list. I think i’ll start with the first five pages. I like that you added some fiction as well.
    We usually don’t pay attention to it, but sometimes we learn more from those books than boring instructionals that we more than often don’t follow anyway.

  29. Last year, I read all of the REAL Victorian authors, ‘discovering’ Trollope. I like Jack London for simple and poetic. Reading Bruce Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army aloud to my husband when we drive. (I only have the Army of the Potomac)

  30. Those are great suggestions. For books writers should read, I’d add the Ira Glass-edited “New Kings of Nonfiction.”

    If you need a suggestion for a book on writing, every writer worth their salt already has a worn copy (or two) of “The Elements of Style.” What they might not have is Vivian Gornick’s awe-inspiring “The Situation and the Story.”

    Gornick’s book suggests a wide array of tactics for making writing about your thinking compelling.

  31. one more reading recomendation for you all if you want something that will blow you mind and yet be suprisingly readable. Relativity by Albert Einstein

  32. A very good list, to be sure…

    The mind expanding part is easy for me.

    I need specific, practical exercises to get past my current plateau. I’m considering taking a creative writing class. Since I’m in the San Francisco Bay area, it should be easy to find something appropriate… now to find the time.

  33. “. . . read things way out of your subject zone” reminds me of the time I was in a bookshop and picked up ‘Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre’, by Keith Johnstone. I have no interest in live theatre nor in acting, but I bought it just the same. It became one of my favorite books and I found in it a metaphor for life.

  34. @Dave,

    Slam poets give each other 10 random words. Each poet must tie these words together into a cohesive, creative short story.

    Give it a try.

    1. X-Factor
    2. Townhall
    3. Parrot
    4. Cracker Jacks
    5. Unions
    6. Google
    7. Napkins
    8. The 10 Commandments
    9. San Francisco
    10. Cold Season

    I bet if copyblogger had these contests in the comments, they would be smash hits.

  35. @Damian, why yes it is:

    (I didn’t do this ahead of time mind you. This is new)

    Beware the X-factor of parrot watching during cold season in San Fransisco’s town hall. Parrots get colds too, and when people feed them cracker jacks like unions siphon from pension funds, you’ll need a google of crap-napkins and the 10 commandments to avoid the urge to kill you some Pollys.

  36. The King James Bible.

    I like that.

    Never would have thought of it in terms of being a book that can transform one’s writing…but with words like “derision, rage, smitten, asunder, wrath, vex, begotten, uttermost, [and] vessel,” I can definitely see your point.

    Using those lesser-known but intense words can add power to your writing and set you apart from most other writers who rarely use them.

    My recommendation: the best book, by far, I’ve ever read on writing is Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams.

    Williams writes, “Telling me to ‘Be clear,’ is like telling me to ‘Hit the ball squarely.’ I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it.”

    In that book, Williams does just that, but goes beyond clarity toward grace, giving techniques that really work. He also adopts a more nuanced, wiser stance on many of the so-called grammar “rules” that other writing books regard as gospel.

  37. LOVE this post – also good suggestions for gifts. My brother got me reading Chuck Palahniuk and he uses descriptions that I would have never thought of using. And I second the comment about Capote’s In Cold Blood. I also like reading books on topics that I have limited knowledge about (i.e., war memoirs and stuff about the human genome project). That way I know it’s good writing if I can understand the subject.

    Also, this may sound odd, but sometimes I get a lot out of books where I don’t like how the author writes. That’s because it helps me pick out what type of writing annoys me. And then I avoid doing it. Thanks again for the reading suggestions.

  38. Since I am always seeking for new and unconventional ideas, I am going to have to check those books out!

    Currently I am reading an OUTSTANDING book called the Evolution of God. A MUST read for a broader picture of things.

    I love learning and reading unique things. They challenge your current perspective and make you question yourself. Either way it is a good thing.

    Actually, I discovered an unconventional way of learning about life – by watching anime. Naruto is one of my favorite shows right now and I have about 220 episodes to go through 🙂 LOVE IT!

    Best of luck and thank you for a unique list.


  39. Wow! This is an interesting list of books! I especially like that you have The King James Bible at the top. Most of these books are first of all, ones that I’ve never heard of. Secondly, are books that I wouldn’t have picked out for myself to read. I like the challenge to get out of my comfort zone which happens to be Christian non-fiction, primarily self-help, counseling books on addiction recovery and such. I’ll revisit your list and put some of them on my Amazon wish list. Thanks for helping me widen my literary horizons and hopefully improve my vocabulary and writing skills all at the same time!

  40. Hi Demian,

    Any blog post about writing that includes in a list of must-read books One Hundred Years of Solitude gets my attention. The opening line is my all-time favorite opening line for any novel. (Sabatini’s Scaramouche is pretty good too: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”)

    Interesting list! I’m going to have to check out Gravity’s Arc.


  41. We are quickly coming to the point where everyone specializes so much that nobody understands the big picture about how everything works together.

    The renaissance was the result of not specializing, but wanting to learn and explore all subject areas.

    Those are some of my favorite books. I haven’t read a couple, but plan to based on your list.


  42. Very intriguing list. Marquez certainly does have a way with first lines. If people are looking to expand their minds, I would definitely recommend Push: by Sapphire, the book the movie Precious is based on. It’s stunning in terms of an original distinctive voice and an ability to bring levity to an unbelievable situation. There is no book like it, which is exactly what we’d all love everyone to say about our copy right:)

  43. ooh, ooh, and Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor. It’s about fiction writing but good stuff.

    A modern bible paraphrase with a great poetic sensibility is Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

    This is fun!

  44. Good list–AND you avoided including that awful _The Elements of Style_, the book that everyone seems to feel obligated to include in EVERY list of “books that writers must have.”

    Thank you for omitting Strunk and White! For that ALONE your list should get major kudos.

  45. @ulyssesmsu In my humble opinion, you’re out of your mind. 🙂 Any time E.B. White wants to give me writing advice, my policy is to listen carefully.

    But different stuff works for different people, of course.

  46. Reading is one of the most important parts of writing, so thanks for this post! Great reminder.

    Now, I have to add one of my favorites: Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisionwood Bible. The way she uses perspective in that book is incredible. I absolutely adore her aphorism and sense of play in the way she writes each character.

    It reminds me that there are so many different yet powerful ways to tell the same story – such an important lesson we need to learn over and over again as writers!

  47. @ulyssesmsu, don’t want to completely trash Elements of Style, do we? After all, it was great for its time, those golden days when all pronouns were masculine and to-day and to-morrow were hyphenated… yawn. Best bet is ADIOS, STRUNK & WHITE (Hoffman) to break some of those habits.

  48. “My point is that you read — and read widely.” – This is the key. Most of read stuff on the same topics. The way to increase vocabulary and expand our minds is to broaden our reading horizons. Great list! I’m going to pick some of those up myself.

  49. I love the conclusion. It’s not a matter of what you read, but that you are read. My oldest daughter is very much like this. Now, I need to shut the tv off and spend more time reading.

  50. Looks like I’m gonna have to broaden my reading.

    Methinks I’ll start with ‘Advanced Accountancy Procedures for Beginners’ and ‘Knit Yourself a Pair of Carpet Slippers in Ten Easy Lessons’.

  51. I thought this was a great post. It is important to constantly challenge your comfort zone by expanding into different styles and genres of reading. The more of an overview of literature you have, the better you will be at writing yourself. Also, reading books that affect culture and literature as we know it help you understand the context of a great number of books out there. I will have to take you up on your suggestions!

  52. @Deminan
    King James Bible???
    Courageous – dude (I like that).

    Let me add two more to the list – “A Stone for Danny Fisher” by Harold Robbins. This book is a entertaining clinic on how to write simple sentences that pack a wallop.

    Second – “The Game” by Neil Strauss. Weirdly fascinating and a great expose on a hypnotic subculture. Can’t help but pick up some great tips from this book.

  53. Interesting list, Demian. I thought I read everything but this list floors me. Besides G.G. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and the King James’ Bible, I’m drawing a blank.
    My shelf: I have Sidney Poitier’s Measure of a Man, a dog-eared Stephen King’s On Writing, Origami Crafts and Henry Bergson’s Dreams.
    I see I need to expand my mind by reading widely.
    After this post, Gordon Rowland’s suggestion (comment #70 above) seems like a good idea.
    Aye, carpet slippers it will be…

  54. Thanks Demian.
    Thats a quite good list and I would start reading.
    I was actually thinking how to improve my writing skills and improve my vocab as well.

  55. A beautifully written Celebration of Reading.

    Years ago I got a business card-sized magnet as a freebie in a book order from Amazon: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” -Cicero

  56. @David W and Demian F, you’re scholars and gentlemen. And yes David, I’m full of good ideas; my problem is turning them into income. Maybe we should start a carpet slippers knitting blog together? 🙂

    As you say Demian, different stuff for different folks. On second thoughts, I’ll stay with Tom Wolfe’s ‘The New Journalism’ and Quentin Crisp’s ‘Doing It With Style’.
    (On my desktop I keep ‘The Red Letter New Testament’, with the words of wisdom spoken by Jesus shown in Red.)

    I shall also shortlist several of your interesting recommendations guys, especially Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ and Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.

    Re readers comments on Strunk & White’s ‘Elements of Style’: IMO, it helps to learn the ‘rules’ of writing, as this book teaches, before knowing how and when to break them.

  57. @ Gordon Rowland, now that’s one niche that hasn’t been explored yet; let me go and get my pair of needles… 😉

    Not a scholar; well not me anyway, just someone who reads every written word, and does a lot of crosswords and sudokus too. If I don’t read something, I go crazy.

  58. Roland: If you’d like, I’d be happy to send you my copy of “Letters to a Young Poet.” See my bio on this page for ways to get a hold of me.

    David Walker: Not reading, me too go crazy.

  59. Red Smith’s For Absent Friends. The precious art of saying much with few words, bestowed on the people he loved. Otherwise E.B. White’s Stuart Little, if for nothing else than the last page.

  60. I like this! It also gives me some insight the wildness I call my brain. As a kid ( out of sheer boredom) I read nearly every book in our small town library.

    I never get writer’s block or fail to come up with an ideal…..now I know why. I used to think I was weird ( okay that is still true) So from personal experience I know there is power in this post. Reading a lot and outside of natural interest will definitely give you a boost to your creativity!

  61. Wow- You went there. The King James. I’ve been telling friends for years and they just didn’t recognize. Now here it is in plain view of all to see. Forwarding this blog post to all the doubters. – Lisa

  62. Michael & Demian,

    I read the New Revised Standard Version now, but a few years ago, have to be at least 16 years by now, I spent the summer reading the entire Bible. At that the did not understand a lot. I have read the new testament twice and I took a class on the Book of Genesis.


  63. @Demian, Rilke was the subject of a recent Sydney Morning Herald ‘Spectrum’ essay, that my wife Marie and I discussed. I have a sneaky feeling she may already have bought ‘Letters . . .’ for me for Christmas. So, I truly appreciate your kind offer, and trust you’ll understand that Marie may have preempted you. 🙂

    @David W, We’ll grab the URL http://www.knityourowncarpetslippersinteneasylessons.com, before anyone else gets it.

    What about our Unique Selling Proposition?

    PS @Lisa and others: The trouble with the King James version is that accuracy is sacrificed for poetry.

  64. @ Gordon, “Carpet slippers knitted by two grown men” That should pique their interest and bring in the hordes 😉
    It’s no fun knowing what you’re getting for Christmas, unless you ‘hinted’ heavily..

    @ Demian, have you tried copying a crossword puzzle from an old, greasy and creased newspaper because you can’t pass it up?

  65. such a great post! I love the idea of reading beyond our normal/traditional boundaries. did you ever consider how the flu relates to writing? neither did I until I read The Great Influenza by John Barry which was a fantastic book. it’s so easy to get stuck reading those top 10-ish books about our subject (like writing for example) but then we run out of things to say about them because it’s all been said. it’s powerful when we can take something seemingly unrelated and make it mean something.

  66. Dear Demian,

    Don’t you want to make a tutorial how I can customize the Thesis Theme like you did? Or may be you can suggest me a tutorial on the Net. Thank you and may God bless you!

  67. Interesting list Demian,
    I’ve managed to read 3 out of the 10.
    I’d never thought of going back to old style english like the King James Version of the bible, BUT having read it in the past there’s no doubt you’d find a few old phrases and idioms that have been lost in our modern language

  68. Thanks, Demian, for some new suggestions. Looking forward to the absorption. Plus a few from the comments as well.

    The KJV has some decent words and poetics about it, indeed. I still prefer the easier-to-understand ESV, NAS, or NIV today. For clarity’s sake.

    I’ll take factual and frank over flowery. Pride and Prejudice was one of the floweriest I’ve yet found. I know it was the style of the time, but, jeezowmama. By the time I finished it, I was glad I read it. I just prefer a more journalistic style.

    I read Defoe’s original, but then read ‘Robinson Crusoe–In Words of One Syllable.’ Anyone care to try re-writing Pride and Prejudice like that? 😉

    Still, your point was made, about stretching oneself. Thanks.

    @Shane —

    This amateur accepts your 10-word challenge, gladly,
    And so now with a rhyme goes public – badly…

    They gathered in the Town hall,
    In San Francisco’s Cold Season,
    Whiny parrots squawking,
    Tiny unions balking,
    Cracker Jacks–self-proclaimed,
    The 10 Commandments wholly abstained,
    No X-Factor, sadly, seemed present,
    And Google Netted the obscene event,
    Old insanity seeded,
    New napkins needed,
    As a tear was shed–
    at our country’s rapid descent.

    Strive On!

  69. I’ll throw in another book, one that strikes me as a particularly engaging novel from the first line: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler. Tyler weaves diverse complex themes and approaches family relationships from the inside perspective of its members.

    First sentence: “When Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occured to her.”

  70. i have to admit the only book listed here that i have read cover to cover was the king james bible it took me nearly a year to do. i wish i would have picked up some copywriting skills when i did it. although maybe i have and just never stopped to think about it.

  71. A few good books, a few not so good, and some garbage. I guess this list depends on your tastes. It certainly doesn’t appeal to mine.

  72. I like Barbarians at the Gate all the suspense of a first-rate thriller – one of the finest, most compelling accounts of what happened to corporate America and Wall Street in the 1980s.’

This article's comments are closed.