Writers need to build up a library of writing books and references, as there is no one book on writing you should buy. All of these are very helpful:
Arthur Quinn: Figures of Speech : Sixty Ways to Turn a Phrase, PB.
"We was robbed!" was Joe Jacobs' exclamation into the ring announcer's microphone when he learned the boxer he managed had not been awarded the win. This is the first example of a figure of speech in this slim, pithy little volume, and I was fascinated to learn that making a deliberate grammatical mistake to get your point across is done, legitimate, and even has a name -- enallage. But this book is not a mere catalogue, a terms-and-definitions kind of thing. The names are there, in bold, and what they are is explained, but then example upon example upon example of the thing being used in good writing is piled up until you get a feel for each one. This is a book designed for someone who intends to use different figures of speech, but it can also show you, when you've stumbled onto one, what it is and why it works. Or how to fix it if it doesn't quite. An enjoyable little book to read, as well. Don't try to memorize all the terms: just try the figures, and the ones you like best will eventually be the terms you remember.
Peter Mark Roget, Robert L. Chapman (Editor):
Roget's International Thesaurus, (HB).
Roget's International Thesaurus, Peter Roget, Robert L. Chapman, PB
The above thesaurus is not in dictionary form! Never, never, never buy or use a so-called thesaurus "in dictionary form": the thing is a contradiction in terms. There were dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms well before Roget: his revolutionary idea, the thing that was called a thesaurus was an organization of words by concept, instead of alphabetically in some arbitrary synonym-antonym structure.
If the original structure was so good, then why did people change it? The real thesaurus requires a moment to learn how to use it: you look up the word in the huge index in the back, pick the closest shading of meaning you can find, then look up the section, by number, in the main body of the book at the front. That's it. My daughter has been using a real thesaurus since early elementary school. But if you are used to a dictionary, and want to look something up in one stage instead of two, then you opt for the "dictionary" forms, put up with endless repetitions, and the fact that, most of the time, you can't find anything at all.
But a real, thesaurus, now! The structures of Roget are like the dichotomies of Aristotle, down to finer and ever finer distinctions. If you have ever "used" an alphabetical "thesaurus" (which does not deserve the name), and gone away frustrated, take heed: at the peak of frenzy, writing and searching for a word that I don't even know if it exists -- especially when writing poetry, when every word counts! -- I have always turned to Roget (a real Roget), and he has never let me down! I feel so passionately about it, I even wrote a poem about it, which you might find amusing: A Hymn to Roget.
J. A. Cuddon:
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (HB)
I got this book as a gift, and it has been one of the few times someone has gotten me a book in an area of my interests that it has been really useful and successful. People often have a dictionary and thesaurus, and a few books on writings, but seldom think to get a book like this. If you are puzzled over the difference between a novel and a novella and a novelette, want to know what a bluestocking is, or want to delve into the intricacies of different forms of writing, this book is fantastic. I pick it up from time to time, and just read it, then read the next article it references...I can go on this way for hours. It is amazing how the most obscure terms and ideas can be found in these pages. It is unlike many reference books, in that it is readable. You don't need to add ice and soda: you can take this straight. Wherever you pick it up, it's a good read. Also available in PB.
The following books are most useful for people writing prose.
William Strunk, E. B. White: Elements of Style, (HB)
This is a deliberately short summation of the rules of English composition, originally written by William Strunk, Jr., and later amended and revised by his student, E. B. White, writer of "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little". The overall tone is short, sharp and commanding. Boldness is the key. To write this way is to write without timorousness and avoid jargon or barbaric constructions.
As Arthur Plotnik, the accomplished editor says, "You don't refer to this quintessential little book of grammar, usage and writing tips; you re-read it, twice a year."
Get to know The Elements of Style first, then spend time on The Practical Stylist and Figures of Speech, but come back to The Elements of Style again to cut out the deadwood. After the dictionary, the next book for a writer. Also in
The Practical Stylist, with Readings and Handbook, (PB)
or, The Practical Stylist, (PB)
The Practical Stylist is the best all-around book on writing style I have seen, and is so readable, I couldn't put it down. It wasn't like taking my medicine, but sneaking another round of ice cream. The two most memorable bits (though all of it are good) are these: [on two commas used to close off a parenthetical statement ] "if you do not tie off both ends, your sentence will die on the table," a phrase that has stuck with me, and ensured I've had no further problems omitting one comma from a parenthetical statement; and, [on the difference between the colon and the semicolon]: "A colon...is a green light; a semicolon...is a stop sign," which has become my mantra whenever I get confused between the two.
This book taught me everything my grammar-hating teachers never taught me (you've heard of kids learning the facts of life on the street? I had to learn my English grammar surreptitiously the same way, in French and German class, so when the teacher said "the French, unlike the English grammar, does this..." I said to myself, "Aha! So English does this!") The Practical Stylist made clear and memorable what I wasn't taught in school.
The following books are most useful for people writing poetry.
Clement Wood (Editor), John Duff, Ronald Bogus (Editors):
The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, (HB): this is the edition I have used for years, and swear by. Not only does it have the rhyming dictionary, but an introductory section that describes what rhyme is, as opposed to identity (the same word does not "rhyme" with itself: rhyme requires difference as much as similarity) or partial rhyme, and elucidates a number of kinds of verse forms. It also contains a one-page "instant rhyming dictionary" you can copy (or remember) for those times when you cannot bring your complete rhyming dictionary with you.
You may prefer The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, PB edition, Clement Wood, Ronald J. Bogus
Rhyme's Reason : A Guide to English Verse, (HB)
Why are all the best practical guides under 100 pages long? This is a slim little book, like Figures of Speech and Elements of Style (and How to Lie with Statistics). There is something about these succinct, no-nonsense little volumes that brings you back again and again. This book is about formal verse, and the author describes each form from within the form itself. He describes the sonnet in sonnet form, talks about alliteration while alliterating, and uses each kind of rhythm in the sentences explaining the rhythm. This book is almost as much fun to read as Roald Dahl's "Dirty Beasts," and that's saying something: it is supposed to be a reference book, after all. It is the best introduction to formal verse I could imagine, and since it shows you as it tells you, what's not to get? I think even kids interested in verse forms could find this enjoyable. For a further discussion and example of Hollander's unusual style, see my article on the Sestina.
Or if you prefer, see Rhyme's Reason : A Guide to English Verse, (PB)
Inspiration & General Insight
Useful for any writer, depending on their interests.
Carolyn G. Heilbrun: Writing a Woman's Life, (PB)
Mystery writer Amanda Cross tackles the idea of autobiography in general, and in particular women's struggle with their stories. While this book deals with a particular aspect of feminism, that is, the "stories" individual women feel they can or cannot live out, it is also a very incisive book on biography in general, and autobiography, in particular. I believe anyone contemplating writing a biography or autobiography should read this, regardless of the sex of their subject. If you like biographies, this will also give you food for thought. I came to the conclusion, after reading this book, that autobiography is a particular form of fiction in which the details happen to be factual. How well you write the story is the main thing. You will probably walk away from this book with other insights. Also, if you like the Amanda Cross mysteries, you will get to meet the real woman behind them, and share her experiences of being an academic who decided one day to write mysteries. This book is enjoyable on many levels, and one you'll want to read more than once.