The 10 Books Every Content Writer Must Read
By Dominic Vaiana, Freelance Writer
Reading to Write
The author Samuel Johnson once said that “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading.” More than 200 years later, that’s still the case – or at least it should be.
I didn’t know any writers growing up and didn’t have any mentors to teach me the craft once I decided this was my path. So, I took Johnson’s advice and turned to books.
I freely admit that you can’t become a great writer by reading about writing any more than you can win at Wimbledon by reading about tennis. However, books nudged me to be more self-critical, expand my imagination, and refine my craft. Even if a book improves writing by .01%, I consider it a win.
Below is a list (in no particular order) of what I think are the best books to inspire you to write more intriguing prose – emails, e-books, or otherwise. These books have shaped my career, helped me find my voice, and most importantly, kept my ego in check. I hope you find them as valuable as I have.
On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
“Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired. Be confused and tired … Good writing is lean and confident … every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust.”
This book changed my writing style overnight. My work used to be wordy and pretentious (probably because I was insecure and trying to prove myself). Fortunately, Zinsser’s lessons on clarity and brevity taught me that less is more. The best part about this book is that it isn’t tailored only to articles, books, or ad copy – its lessons are as universally applicable as they are essential.
“Nothing has sunk more creators and caused more unhappiness than this: our inherently human tendency to pursue a strategy aimed at accomplishing one goal while simultaneously expecting to achieve other goals entirely unrelated.”
What goes through your head when you plan a piece of content? Could this go viral? Will this convert? Is this optimized for SEO? How about asking this: Will it stand the test of time? This is the premise of Perennial Seller, which helped me understand that the main goal of writing (or any creative work) is to craft something that can endure and add value for the long haul.
Mastery by Robert Greene
“The very desire to find shortcuts makes you eminently unsuited for any kind of mastery.”
If you’re looking for a trendy book with quick hacks to master your craft, don’t bother with Robert Greene. At the core of Mastery is what I call an “anti-viral” message: getting really good at something (in our case, writing) demands rigorous work and keen self-awareness. This book was a wake-up call for me, in addition to showing me how to use stories to make a compelling argument.
Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
“If I ask you to think about something, you can decide not to. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention.”
I had never read a book that used neuroscience to back up its claims about writing prior to this. Naturally, I was curious, but also skeptical (isn’t writing art, not science?) Nevertheless, Cron exceeded my expectations with her infusion of data into otherwise subjective claims about writing. Learning how the brain responds to curiosity gaps, or cliffhangers, has permanently changed the way I incorporate storytelling into my writing, so much so that I wrote an entire blog post dedicated to it. If you want to write addicting copy, read this book.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
As a kid, I imagined writing could never be frustrating or discouraging – words used to flow effortlessly from my fingertips in English class. That all changed as soon as I began ghostwriting and developing content about foreign concepts. I finally faced what Pressfield calls “The Resistance,” that voice we all know that tells us to throw in the towel and find something easier. That’s where The War of Art came in: to help me understand that voice, and march forward in spite of it.
“A friend once told me that I find my stories because I never learned to drive. It’s true. I take the bus. I walk around. By being out there … I have the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise see.”
What better way to learn about writing than immersing yourself in firsthand accounts of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists? When I picked up this book, I knew I didn’t want to be a traditional journalist – I wanted to be a brand journalist. That is, telling a brand’s story in a way that resonates with its audience. Fortunately, I found plenty of crossover, such as weaving emotion into stories, finding compelling angles, and interviewing people (without babbling like an idiot).
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
I call this book a therapy session for writers. Lamott exudes confidence and comfort when she guides readers through common obstacles like impostor syndrome, finding your voice, and conquering writer’s block. Her most valuable advice is to write as if it’s a letter to a friend (and edit accordingly afterward.) Concepts tend to become much clearer when you explain them to a familiar face than trying to explain them to a million strangers — or a blank page.
“Language is like fire: Depending on how you use it, it can either heat your house or burn it to the ground.”
Frank Luntz is an expert in influencing public perception on politics, making him inherently controversial. However, I found his advice equally applicable to branded content, namely his emphasis on framing. For example: would you call Slack a communication tool or a collaboration hub? The latter seems more appealing. If there’s one thing I took away from this book, it’s that a single word can differentiate a meaningful connection from indifference.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
“Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
I thought I’d do myself a disservice by not reading this seminal writing style guide (atop best-seller lists for 101 years), so when I saw it on sale for a dollar at a book fair, buying it was a no-brainer. Some authors who write about writing tend to ramble and fall in love with their own voice. Not here. You can turn to any page and find advice that will make your writing clean, accurate, and concise—that’s why I keep it next to my desk at all times.
“Assume the reader knows nothing. But don't assume the reader is stupid.”
Great writing is great marketing and vice versa. Ann Handley understands that and created a thorough, engaging guide to how those two things relate. I read this book right before I started my full-time job as a copywriter and felt instantly more prepared. But even if you’re well into your career, I guarantee you’ll walk away with new insights on how to leverage writing to achieve business goals.
Study Your Craft
Reading is no substitute for typing at the keyboard. But it is an important step toward holding yourself to a higher standard. Not to mention, you’ll give yourself an advantage over the writers who don’t bother to study their own craft.