Don't Waste Your Money On Creative Writing Guides

I've lost count of the number of people who contact me asking which writing guides I recommend. The answer is always the same: I generally don't recommend any.

I'll explain the "generally" in a moment. First up, here's why I encourage folks to save their money (or at least spend it on something else instead, like a good novel!)...

The whole point of Novel Writing Help is to provide you with such a comprehensive training in the art and craft of writing fiction that you have no need to study any other writing guides.


I'm a complete geek when it comes to the theory of writing fiction, meaning I've spent a significant chunk of my life reading "How To..." books (hundreds and hundreds of 'em).

This website is the result. And it's all yours for free. And even though there's a heck of a lot of information here, there's a heck of a lot less than there is in hundreds of novel writing guides.

So not only can you save yourself a lot of dollars by training to be a writer right here... you can save yourself a lot of time, too!

Not only have I already done all the reading for you, I've separated the good advice from the bad (yup, there's a lot of that around) and I've presented it all as clearly and as logically as I can (I hope!).

That said, some of you reading this will want to do some wider reading. So the rest of this page is for you...

Which Writing Guides Do I Recommend?

Guides for writers fall into three broad categories...

1) General Guides

These cover everything from finding writing ideas right through to crossing the final t's (just like Novel Writing Help does). They are excellent starting points for novelists, though they are light on detail.

For example, a typical chapter on point of view in one of these guides might run to 8 or 10 pages (or 3,000 words) max – my material on viewpoint runs to over 25,000 words.

(And, yes, that takes a lot longer to read than the mini-version. But it's the level of detail you need if you want to become an accomplished writer.)

2) Specialized Guides

These focus on specific sub-topics like "writing a plot" or "creating characters" – though you will find that they tend to be broader than the cover makes out...

A lot of books on plotting also stray into characterization, for example, and vice versa. And for every great one, there is another which, er, isn't so great. (I once read a guide to writing dialogue written purely in the form of dialogue... p.a.i.n.f.u.l.)

Now, I have read virtually every one of these specialized writing guides over the last 25 years, and all of the useful ideas and advice in them you will find right here at Novel Writing Help (in my own words, of course!).

3) Classic Writing Guides

Like I said at the top, it's not essential to read any other books. But if you want to take a break from me (!) and check out some writing advice from someone else, the classics are where you should turn.

Here are some of the best ones...

The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White

First published way back in 1935, The Elements Of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.

Put simply, style in novel writing (or in writing of any kind) is timeless.

It's only a small book (about 100 pages) but it is packed with page after page of nuts-and-bolts advice on how to write great prose. Here is a tiny sample of the things that this "Bible" or writing style will teach you:

  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat
  • Omit needless words
  • Write with nouns and verbs
  • Avoid fancy words
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end

Millions of writers have grown up on this writing guide, and millions more will in the future. But don't just take my word for it; take a look at a couple of the reviews on the back cover of my own copy...

"No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume."
~ The Boston Globe

"Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It's as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility."
- The New York Times

And here is a brief extract from the book itself. Hopefully, it gives you an idea of the no-nonsense advice you will find inside the covers...

"The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can't be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight."

Because The Elements Of Style has been around for so long, in countless editions, you can probably pick up a second-hand edition for pennies. But it is worth its weight in gold.

(Incidentally, the "White" of Strunk and White is E. B. White, famous for the children's classics Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.)

On Writing by Stephen King

Don't be put off this book if you are not a fan of horror fiction. Horror isn't my #1 choice of novel but I loved On Writing when it first came out in 2001. In a sense, it is two books in one...

  • First, it is an autobiography of Stephen King – well, not an autobiography, exactly, more an account of those experiences in his life that have helped to shape the novel writer he has become (including the crash that almost killed him a few years back).
  • Second, and more importantly for our purposes, it is packed with novel writing advice from a true master of the craft...

I don't mean just the usual nuts-and-bolts advice (though there is plenty of that). But you will also find much broader words of wisdom on issues such as the value of experience and the need to question everything.

On the one hand, this guide pulls no punches. Novel writing is tough, King says (I liked the part where he admits to writing even on Christmas Day). But despite these heavy doses of realism, the book is also motivational.

If you are at all lacking in self-belief (and novel writing requires plenty of that), buy this book. I love King's unique brand of no-nonsense motivation...

"Don't wait for the muse... This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic."

Seriously, buy this book and read it twice. It really is that good.

Aspects Of the Novel by E. M. Forster

First published in 1927, this book is based on a course of lectures E. M. Forster delivered at Cambridge University (England).

Half of the lectures are devoted to plot and character - arguably the two most important parts of the novel. The others explore areas such as pattern and rhythm in novel writing, stylistic effect, and the role of truth in fiction.

What I love about this guide isn't just the help and advice Forster offers (practical and inspirational though it is), but the witty and somewhat eccentric way in which he delivers it.

Yes, the language is archaic in places (this was the 1920s, after all – and we will probably all sound a little odd in a hundred years' time). But the book is, in my opinion, all the more charming because of it. Here are a couple of extracts to get you in the mood...

"Having discussed the story – that simple and fundamental aspect of the novel – we can turn to a more interesting topic: the actors. We need not ask what happened next, but to whom did it happen; the novelist will be appealing to our intelligence and imagination, not merely to our curiosity."

"The idea running through these lectures is by now plain enough: that there are in the novel two forces: human beings and a bundle of various things not human beings, and that it is the novelist's business to adjust these two forces and conciliate their claims."

If you are just starting out in novel writing, you should give this one a miss. You'll have your hands full trying to get to grips with the fundamentals.

But Aspects of the Novel is definitely one to bear in mind for the future, when you are more confident of the fiction writing basics and are ready to take your knowledge to a whole new level.

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

These fifty articles were originally published in the Independent on Sunday and the Washington Post newspapers in the early 1990s. They have now been expanded, revised and collected in book form.

Each article takes the form of an extract from a well-known literary work, followed by commentary on the extract. The comments talk about the extract itself and about a particular issue more broadly. Some of these fiction writing issues are familiar...

  • Mystery
  • The Comic Novel
  • Narrative Structure

Others are a lot more abstract...

  • Intertextuality
  • Teenage Skaz
  • Aporia

(No, I'd never heard of the last one, either.)

To give you a taste of what to expect, here is an extract from Lodge's book. It is taken from the article called "Coincidence"...

"There is always a trade-off in the writing of fiction between the achievement of structure, pattern and closure on the one hand, and the imitation of life's randomness, inconsequentiality and openness on the other. Coincidence, which surprises us in real life with symmetries we don't expect to find there, is all too obviously a structural device in fiction, and an excessive reliance on it can jeopardize the verisimilitude of a narrative."

This writing guide can be safely ignored until you are farther along in your novel writing career and feel you are ready to be stretched. Once you are, it will provide you with plenty of food for thought... even if you don't agree with everything the author says.


Here are some other classic writing guides worth checking out...

  • Solutions For Writers by Sol Stein
  • Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
  • If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Enjoy. But remember... no single writing guide is a "must read." Your job is to simply learn your craft (which you can do at this site). Beyond that, the best way to get better is to practice, practice, practice.