“You can be cautious or you can be creative, but there’s no such thing as a cautious creative..” -George Lois

I assume you’ve read Bird-by-BirdThe Elements of Style, and Stephen King’s On Writing, (all of which are incredible) so they aren’t on this list.

Here are seven unsung gems that have made me a better writer.

Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!) by George Lois

Lois was one of the founders of advertising’s creative revolution in the 1960s and has been called “the real Don Draper” a comparison he hates.

Some of his advice is ad-industry and copywriting specific, but much of it applies to artists in any medium:

“If you want to do something sharp and innovative, you have to know what went on before. Museums are custodians of epiphanies, and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and deep recesses of the mind.”

He then gives the example of one of his own epiphanies that led to an Esquire cover featuring Mohamed Ali posing as St. Sebastian.

Cassavettes on Cassavettes by John Cassavettes and Ray Carney
Director John Cassavettes looks back on his career and creates a rambling, brilliant, and occasionally self-contradictory creative ethos. Cassavettes is the patron saint of anyone who dreams of creative freedom, following your vision unmolested by “suits” and critics.

One passage that stuck with me:

“I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter. I’ve never seen anybody go and blow somebody’s head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest way, I’ve seen people withdraw, I’ve seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I’ve myself done all these things. So I can understand them. What we are saying is so gentle. It’s gentleness. We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems.”

The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing By Norman Mailer
It’s full of Mailer’s trademark braggadocio and posturing, but if you can stomach that, he has some excellent advice, particularly for young writers.

He suggests treating writing like a 9–to-5 job. Mailer being Mailer, he also recommends a lot of obsolete drugs like seconal and benzedrine (the former to help you come down from the latter) and boasts of his own tolerance and the good ideas he had on said drugs.

Then, occasionally, he knocks you on your ass with stuff like this:

“Characters in novels sometimes radiate more energy, therefore, when we don’t enter their mind. It is one of the techniques a novelist acquires instinctively — don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts until you have something to say about his or her inner life that is more interesting than the reader’s suppositions.”

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith
Lessons on the mechanics and theory of thriller writing by the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt, which was adapted into the movie Carol. One of her most helpful suggestions is to ask of each scene, “what happens?” and “why should we care??

“Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself.”

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young
If you’ve worked in advertising, this one is not underrated or unsung.

No matter who you are, this slim volume (something like 30 pages) will improve your thinking and make it possible to have good ideas on command. He emphasizes the importance of a drawdown period where you step away from the problem to make room for the solution.

Young defines an idea thus:

“An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements”

Write to Sell by Andy Maslan
A new classic in the world of copywriting, this is where I got the 5-draft method for everything I write from fiction to emails. Put simply, it goes like this:
Draft 1 — Rough as rough can be. Just write it, nobody but you has to see it.
Draft 2 — Check your draft against the outline and intended theme.
Draft 3 — Edit for structural issues and paragraph order (this is where I add links in blog posts.)
Draft 4 — Edit for tone and flow. Read it aloud.
Draft 5 — Print and proofread.

Draft no. 4 by John McFee
Speaking of drafts… This one points out the good news/bad news that the first draft takes about as long to write as all the other drafts combined.

The take-home message of every book on this list is basically: get to work! Or, as McPhee writes:

“It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”


This post originally appeared in The Startup.

Subscribe for monthly reading recommendations!

No Description