Career Advice

7 Books to Improve Your Writing Skills

By: Maria Olivia Nelson
Aug 3, 2020 • 10 min read

 Writing Well: 7 Books to Improve Your Writing Skills

Writing—and doing it well—is a skill every person should try their best to develop. Writing skills will be used in your academic career from grade school papers all the way up to doctoral dissertations. It is also an essential part of everyday communication with people both in professional and personal capacities. Being able to compose a formal email to a colleague, taking down notes for a big project, or sending out office-wide notices are good examples of ways in which writing can manifest itself as a part of everyday life. Even after finishing your education, writing will still be prevalent. Developing good qualities in your writing is extremely important. However, in some cases, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what those qualities are. This article will help you understand the finer points of good writing. It will also provide some resources for you to embark on your journey to literary greatness.

writing skills

The Qualities of Good Writing

To be able to improve your writing, you must first know what qualities go into making writing ‘good.’ People may have differing opinions on what makes a piece suitable, which particular parts of a novel or a speech make the whole thing achieve the desired end result. Still, most would agree on several fundamental qualities that the works of good writers have in common.


First amongst those qualities, is focus. The focus of a piece or essay is the main idea or point you are trying to make. For example, if you planned to write an essay on the difference between African and European swallows, you probably wouldn’t discuss the eating habits of a rabbit, since that isn’t relevant to the focus (although both topics are relevant to the characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). 


The next part of the equation is development. The development of your ideas is supposed to flow naturally to make your writing easy to read. A well-developed essay is much easier to understand, and the order of the paragraphs should be such that the argument or main point is clearly understood by the end of the paper. Returning to the previous example, if you wanted to discuss the different types of swallows systematically, start with the general and make your way to the specific. Maybe you begin by discussing the significant commonalities. Perhaps you discuss what the African and European swallows have in common in terms of shape, size, etc. You might then continue your discussion by describing the differences between the two: start big with things like where each type lives, and then narrow down into things like what kinds of food they eat, and what their respective airspeed velocities are. 


The next part is unity. The unity of the essay ensures each paragraph relates to the main idea. You should be using every paragraph and sentence of a piece to drive home the central point you are trying to make.


Coherence is about the way the piece comes together as a whole. The individual parts should flow into one another, and the end result should make sense to the reader. The first thing to emphasize is the main idea of your paper, but you should also pay close attention to the way the writing reads or sounds, as people are more likely to enjoy reading something with a clear and pleasant style. 


The final element, and my personal favorite, is correctness. This is, in essence, the grammar of a written piece. While some things, like emails or texts to friends, may not require adherence to rigid standards of writing, in many cases, your point will be made better if you use complete sentences, correct spelling, and make few (preferably no) mistakes. 

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White

One of the most useful books I have encountered for improving one’s writing skills is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. The book teaches proper grammar and syntax, and it also discusses the effective composition and style of writing. The book remains to be a straight-forward, easy-to-read guide for writers of all skill levels. It provides answers to simple questions like where to use a colon, how many commas to use in a list, and when to use the apostrophe. Still, it also has chapters that give advice on things such as using the active voice, choosing a tense, and the revision and rewriting process. 

writing skills

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

A similar book to The Elements of Style, The Sense of Style, was written by a Harvard professor to examine and analyze writing in a contemporary world. Pinker “applies science to the process of writing,” and discusses various studies and sources to differentiate the rules of writing. While Strunk and White cover grammar and syntax systematically and broadly, this book deals with the most nuanced parts of writing skills, such as developing one’s style. 

Revising Prose by Richard Lanham

This book is perfect for the writer who is comfortable creating but struggles with the revision process. It includes many memorable examples of revised works that emphasize the benefit of taking a second look at one’s writing. It also focuses on cutting out the unnecessary fluff that sometimes finds its way in. 

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Personal and witty, this book is as easy to read as it is helpful. Her advice frees you from the self-imposed belief that some people have that they must write perfectly or not at all. Bird by Bird helps relieve you of the stress of making something from nothing, and it helps you look at projects in pieces instead of as an overwhelming whole. 

Just One Approach 

These books and websites were created specifically to teach people to write better. However, I must emphasize that writing is a skill that can be improved in several ways. Improvements can be made in many ways, not just by studying sources like these. Reading is and always will be the most fun way to improve your writing skills. As you can read about topics that interest you and absorb what ‘good writing’ looks like at the same time. You should make sure that whatever books you choose to use as a base for your writing are well-written and edited. 

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