Recommended books on essay writing

Books on Writing

General Guides to Writing

If you can only afford one book, we recommend The Craft of Research.  If you can afford two books, get this and The New Oxford Guide to Writing.  Both are inexpensive paperbacks useful for people at all levels but targeted to advanced writers.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
This is the best book available on how to research, plan, and write a graduate-level (or advanced undergraduate) research paper, thesis, or dissertation.  There is an entire section on how to construct an argument, called “making a claim and supporting it,” which is very useful for anyone writing a paper for a college or university course.  

This discussion is based partly on the rhetorical theory developed by philosopher Stephen E. Toulmin in The Uses of Argument and elsewhere (now widely followed, this approach holds that argumentation is more a matter of rhetoric than a formal or formalizable logic consisting of "mathematical" rules of inference, and which draws upon models from legal and literary scholarship).  The concise and lucid exposition in The Craft of Research of the practical applications of this theory to the writing of scholarly essays includes a very helpful discussion of "warrants," the usually unstated principles that authorize the link between a claim and the reasons or evidence that "support" it.  

Thomas Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994)
This is an excellent and well-written guide to writing style: how to craft an effective sentence, paragraph, and essay when writing non-fiction prose.  It is applicable to scholarly as well as literary essays.

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).  A good supplement to The New Oxford Guide to Writing, this short book discusses in detail the different kinds of sentences and considerations of style in writing an effective sentence — which is the basic unit of thought.  The enjoyment of reading this book is augmented by Fish's presenting himself as a connoisseur of the tastiness of the great sentence. 

Frederick Crews, The Random House Handbook, Sixth Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1991)
Basically written for students in freshman English courses, this is a useful elementary guide for undergraduates that covers all aspects of the writing process (such as how to distinguish a topic from a thesis statement, how to construct an outline, and many other topics).
Various earlier editions exist which may be found inexpensively in used copies on

William Strunk and E.B. White, Elements of Style, Fourth Edition (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000)
A classic, this is a very concise guide to writing simply and clearly.  Available in various editions.  

Long considered by many to be the bible on English prose writing, the book's strength is its fault: recognizing that non-fiction prose writing in English broadly favors the short, simple declarative sentence, they offer a set of "rules" for producing writing that is good at least in that sense.  Those familiar with other languages, such as the romance languages, that favor complex sentences incorporating syntactic complexity through subordinated clauses will recognize in these rules of common sense the pedestrian tendencies of the English language.  And even Anglophone scholars may recognize this book's tacit credo as at best journalistic; all the same, there is a virtue of simplicity; for which, start here.     

See also, under Guides to Writing in Specific Fields:

A.P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing: An Introduction
See below for discussion on why we recommend this book to everyone learning to write scholarly prose well.   

T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Argumentation

Style Manuals

MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Third Edition (New York: Modern Language Association of American, 2008)
Used generally in the humanities (such as English, Foreign Languages and Comparative Literature, History, Philosophy, Art History, Classics, Religious Studies, Music, Theater, Dance, and Film Studies). In addition to containing comprehensive information on how to format citations and bibliographies, it contains some general tips on the research and writing process.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009)
Used generally in quantitative social science. In addition to containing comprehensive information on how to format citations and bibliographies, it contains general tips on the research and writing process specific to quantitative empirical studies.   For qualitative and historical social science studies, see The Craft of Research for tips on the research and writing process.

Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
This comprehensive manual with numbered paragraphs, well-indexed and available both in print and by subscription on line, is the editor’s bible, and it is authoritative for all issues not covered by style guides specific to a set of disciplines such as the MLA and APA.

The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, Nineteenth Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law Review, 2010).
This is the guide to the formatting of legal citations.   Law reviews in the US follow the Bluebook, but publishing in other fields also tends to defer to the Bluebook on legal citations.
Legal formatting is complicated.  If you have a law review paper we are editing, you may wish to save money by learning how to do it yourself, or to save time by having us do it, because we have editors who know the Bluebook.

Guides to Writing in Specific Fields

(Recommended for students in all academic fields:)
A.P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing: An Introduction (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2005)
Of the numerous guides available to thinking out and writing a philosophy paper, this book, written by a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Austin, is the best we have found.  Its usefulness extends beyond the field of philosophy, just because the skills used in writing a philosophy paper apply broadly to most papers in both the sciences and humanities.  

The reason is that philosophy is almost unique among scholarly disciplines in lacking an empirical object, a quality it shares only with mathematics.  What it must substitute for this is a dense labor or thinking, and because nothing here is really true because of the way the world is, whatever is held to be true must be justified by the strength and tenability of the thought itself.   
For there are no observations or data, facts or experiences; and, especially, in the English and American tradition, where philosophy papers are usually not commentaries either, what they really do is just make arguments.  Here more than anywhere, writing is thinking.  Particularly useful is the discussion (pp. 69-72) of "successive elaboration" as a method of composition.  You start by saying something and then you ask yourself questions about what that statement seems to imply or call for, or how it can be questioned.  Learning to do this can help cure one of the most common writing mistakes in academia: the woven fabric of expert quotes or referenced data.  Writing is thinking, and thinking means doubting.     

Sylvan Barnet and William E. Cain, A Short Guide to Writing about Literature, Twelfth Edition(New York: Pearson Longman, 2011)
Covers all aspects of the writing process and provides a useful guide to the different types of literature and common elements of literary criticism.

Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing about Art, Tenth Edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2010)
Same as A Short Guide to Writing about Literature, but geared for writing about art.

Timothy J. Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing about Film, Seventh Edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009)
Same as A Short Guide to Writing about Literature, but geared for writing about film.

Other books in this series: The Short Guide to Writing about . . . series also includes: History, Science, Social Science, Psychology, Law, Music, Biology, Chemistry, and Criminal Justice.  It’s an excellent series.   These are all elementary guides geared to the person learning to write in this field, but like most elementary guides they are also handy references.

Bernard F. Dick, Anatomy of Film, Sixth Edition (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2009).
A useful guide for students analyzing film.   Covers the different elements of film in a bit more detail than A Short Guide to Writing about Film.

T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Argumentation, Sixth Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008)
Very useful for philosophy students, and anyone studying for the LSAT, but also of general value to anyone who has to construct an argument, which is everyone writing an academic paper.  A chapter on the elements of a good argument is followed by detailed discussion of 60 argumentative fallacies, more than we were able to find in standard texts on logic.

Dictionaries and Thesauruses

Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Available online by subscription, this is the authoritative unabridged dictionary of the English language (an unabridged dictionary theoretically contains all the meanings of all the words in the language; however, there are many scientific and technical terms that are not in the OED and that it is best to search for online).  It covers American as well as British English.  

The Concise Oxford English DictionaryEleventh Edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Our favorite everyday dictionary.   Excellent, clear, and straightforward definitions.

Barbara Ann Kipfer, Roget’s International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 2001)
There are many thesauruses available.  A good thesaurus is an invaluable aid to writing when you are searching for the right word or for different words in order to avoid repetition or in order to find a word that conveys the relevant meaning more precisely than a more general “base” word.  However, a thesaurus should be used only with a dictionary: since no synonym (a word with the same meaning) is an exact synonym, it is absolutely necessary that you know the precise meaning of the word you are using.


Betty Schrampfer Azar, Fundamentals of English Grammar, Third Edition (New York: Pearson, 2002)
Designed as a textbook for adults learning English as a foreign language, this book contains very handy and clear one-page summaries of various points of grammar in table format.

Resumes, CVs, and Cover Letters

Kate Wendleton, Packaging Yourself: The Targeted Resume (New York: The Five O’Clock Club, 2005)
Wendleton has a set of books on the job search process, possibly the best books on the market.  She shows you not just how to write a good resume, but more importantly how to compile the information that goes into it.

Richard H. Beatty, The Perfect Cover Letter (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2004)
This is a very useful guide to the elements of an effective cover letter.

William Heidbreder