Let me open by saying that I wasn't entirely sure how to ask this question and stay on topic. This is my best attempt. I do believe this question will help other writers.

As an author, I want to read a lot. I don't want to read just anything though. There's some content I don't want. Beyond that, I obviously don't want to read books that are poor examples of characterization, plotting, stakes, etc. Then there's the vague 'well written' requirement.

Aside from the obvious desire to not read poorly done works, I mimic what I read to a high degree. I can control my mimicry to a certain extent, but I don't want to have bad writing in the back of my mind while I am creating my future bestsellers. (What? Optimism is good.) It should be noted that I see my mimicry as a useful ability, and not something to be gotten rid of.

This mindset on reading has given rise to the situation I now find myself in: reading the same small collection of excellently written books over and over. I feel like I need to expand my horizons without damaging my writing.

Note: Do not confuse the question. I'm not looking for writing I can mimic. I'm simply looking for examples of good writing. The main goal is simply to not have bad writing in my head while I write.

The problem: Doing this is easier said than done. I've found plenty of passionate recommendations on this site alone, but they always seem to be followed by equally passionate criticisms of the same book. I've tried searching for the novel equivalent of the iMDB, and I've found a few results, but these websites usually have only half or fewer of the books I look up. Wikipedia gives the plot and isn't really the best place for discerning the level of writing of a particular novel. For a time I watched the NYT Bestsellers List, but I quickly discovered that a lot of what I considered 'low quality' writing was on that list.

The question: What can I do? How can I locate novels that are known for being well done?

P.S. Obviously a lot depends on my definition of 'well done,' so I'm mainly looking for a breakdown of novels, without revealing the plot.

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    A question, since Lauren and I seems to be interpreting your quest differently. Are you accepting that you are a mimic and trying to find better books to mimic, or are you trying to break your habit of mimicry by diversifying your reading? (It is worth noting that the first quarter million words or so that most aspiring writers produce tend to be pure pastiche. It is just part of how most of us learn.)
    – user16226
    Dec 16, 2016 at 14:01
  • @MarkBaker makes a good point, and depending on what your goal is, you're going to get very different answers. Dec 16, 2016 at 14:25
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    Then I think Lauren is right. You can't expect us to tell you who you want to mimic.
    – user16226
    Dec 16, 2016 at 16:44
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    Maybe I missed the point of the question but if I wanted to know what books to read I'd look at some publication of book reviews. If I liked a reviewer after a positive outcome I'd follow that reviewer. Dec 16, 2016 at 17:00
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    @ThomasMyron - Clearly, it's not on topic for this post, but if you'd be interested in swapping recommendations, I opened a conversation in chat... Dec 19, 2016 at 18:15

7 Answers 7


Reading broadly is one of the best things a writer can do, aside from writing a lot, but reading only what you consider good writing is somewhat limiting. Books that have issues have a lot to teach you, too. If you avoid issues you're shortchanging your education as a writer.

If you keep finding yourself writing in a pastiche of the styles you've read, perhaps the problem isn't that you need to tightly control your input but you need to become aware of why this is happening.

Understanding why you have the impulse to pay homage to writing you admire will allow you to use this talent (and it is a talent) in a way that services your own personal stylistic goals.

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    not to mention that what "you" consider good writing might not be considered so by others...
    – user96551
    Dec 16, 2016 at 19:09
  • I don't have an 'impulse to pay homage' to any particular style. I just find myself writing in that style, even if I didn't particularly like it. I mimic because what I read remains in my mind for a few days afterwards. The flavor of that content comes through in my own writing. This is why I want to limit what I read, though you do have a good point about the poorly written books. Dec 16, 2016 at 19:59
  • Let me give some input on this one. I have about 100 books that I'm currently "reading". I stopped after the first couple of pages. I suspect these are bad books or "not my books." I see it as part of my "education" to read and abandon books.
    – Erk
    Dec 17, 2016 at 18:16
  • @Erk It used to be a point of pride for me that I always finished a book. At age 20, I could count on one hand the number I had started but not completed. In the last five years I think I've abandoned over a dozen, including two or three in a row. Life is too short to read bad books. Dec 20, 2016 at 22:06

Your problem is not merely that you want "novels which are well-done." You want writing styles you feel safe reading because you would feel happy imitating them. You are asking someone else, someone who isn't you, to curate a list of source material for your creative output.

There's no way an anonymous or aggregate online source is going to be able to accomplish that for you. You need to sit down with a human being and present a list of novels and writers you appreciated, and why you liked them. Then that person might have a chance of assembling a list for you. We here can give you all manner of criteria (sales volume, age, notoriety, usage in schools) and they will all be useless if those particular works don't fit your personal vision.

Your best bet is to try a librarian, or several librarians. You want to find a human being who is really well-read over many genres and talk to that person or people to ask them "I like X and Y and Z because of 1 and 2 and 3. What other writers and novels of that caliber or with those qualities can you suggest?"

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    I suppose it depends on whether he is trying to feed or break his habit of mimicry. Mimicry, or pastiche, is a common problem for beginning writers and the cure is to diversify ones reading.
    – user16226
    Dec 16, 2016 at 13:58
  • @MarkBaker I don't see it as a problem. I can exercise a certain amount of control over my mimicry; my main concern is having bad writing in my head while I write. If I start looking for words/ways to say something, my head is the first place I go. writers.stackexchange.com/a/25495/10394 Dec 16, 2016 at 16:02
  • @ThomasMyron Everybody's head is the first place they go. It is the only place they can go. That is why it is essential to have a well stocked head. Having a diversity of voices in your head will mean that you have a variety of voices to mimic and you will not come out sounding like you are mimicking just one. Ask the greats in any field what they love and you will get a list a mile wide. Great headbangers listen to Mozart. Writing 101 is read widely.
    – user16226
    Dec 16, 2016 at 17:30
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    @MarkBaker I will put a pub called Well-Stocked Head in my current novel in your honor. Dec 16, 2016 at 17:38
  • I think too much attention is being given to the mimicry paragraph. Please read the note I added to the OP. It should clear things up. Dec 16, 2016 at 17:50

Probably the best filter of all is age. Any book that is still around 50 years after is was written is probably around because it is well written. Recent books get liked for all sorts of reasons other than being well written. They express a popular political or social prejudice. They ride on the coattails of a current craze. Their authors was once on a TV show. Oprah liked them. All this stuff fades away with time and you are left with the stuff that remains in circulation because it is good.

There are some anomalies, of course. Kipling is the biggest one that occurs to me at the moment. He is one of the greats of English literature and an writer can learn a huge amount from reading him. But he is branded as a voice of colonialism, though anyone who bothers to read Recessional or The White Man's Burden all the way to the end should see that some nuance should be applied to that interpretation. Anyway, todays particularly harsh political filters may diminish the stature of some of the greats of the past, but even they stand out from the forgotten masses of authors of their age.

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    I see only one problem with the age-approach. You risk reading books written for an audience that is now dead and will not buy any more books. Modern novels live in a world where they compete with TV and Movies and some things in 50+year-old books just won't work for a modern audience.
    – Erk
    Dec 16, 2016 at 2:29
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    @Erk Not really. We are talking about books that were published more than 50 years ago and are still in bookstores today, and are therefore still selling to people today. But the point of the question was to identify novel that are written well, as opposed, to novels that sell for other reasons. This approach will do a good job is isolating good writing from the other factors that can sell books.
    – user16226
    Dec 16, 2016 at 6:04
  • But if the OP is concerned about reading "good" books specifically because he wants to soak up good writing styles, age may not help. In fact, the older the book is, the more of a problem it could pose. Canterbury Tales is VERY old, and still appreciated, but mercy, nobody today can read Chaucer in the original without a lot of help. Dec 16, 2016 at 10:57
  • @LaurenIpsum Fine, anything written in modern english and more than 50 years old. Or anything you can buy in a modern commercial bookstore that is more than 50 years old.
    – user16226
    Dec 16, 2016 at 13:50
  • Ahem. Beowulf. At B&N. barnesandnoble.com/w/beowulf-seamus-heaney/… I realize I'm being pedantic, but "old and best-selling" is only one criterion, and I simply wouldn't prioritize it for this person's needs. Dec 16, 2016 at 14:22

You don't want well-written novels.

I have read many novels that are either classics or have gotten much praise in major newspapers (such as the New York Times), and when I read them I could appreciate that they were well-crafted and "good", yet they did not resonate with me. Their content held no interest for me or their language didn't please me or both. Or I enjoyed them but do not want to write in that style.

What you want, are novels that are well-written by your standards or taste. And to find those, you must read them.

Finding novels that have a language that you want to emulate is incredibly easy. Go to a library or book store, start at one end of the shelf, pick the first book, and start reading. If you like what you read, sit down and read a chapter. If it fits your style, buy it or lend it and read it. If you don't like it, put it back and look in the next book.

Also, you should probably let go of the idea that you will find one or a few books that you can "mimick" to create your own style. I have really read a lot, but my own writing is different from most everything that I have ever read. I don't mean to say that my writing is better or positively unique. It is idiosyncratic. Like the shape of my body.

So don't expect too much from your search, and don't go on an endless quest for the ideal example for you. Instead, find books that come close to where you aim and thus "encircle" your goal. Let other people's writing inspire you, maybe give you some ideas, and then write and write and write. Good examples shape and sharpen your linguistic sensibility, but you need to go beyond what exists and experiment to find your own voice.

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    Thank you for the answer. I feel there is some good advice here. However, I feel I must point out that I do not have the 'idea that I will find a book I can mimic.' That was never my goal, as I say in the OP. I don't want to copy anyone, and I'm certainly not looking for styles that I can copy. I already know my style, so I'm not looking for it. Dec 16, 2016 at 18:53

Forget looking for your list among the bookstores and libraries. They contain legions of pretty book covers, but within those covers hides the full spectrum of writing qualities.

Look instead within the books you have already read. Think back across your history of reading and try to remember the times when an author brought you to tears or made you laugh. Go find those books (even if you have to buy them again) and find the sections which touched you. Then read backwards through that work until you find the point where the author's spell began.

Very rarely does a single paragraph or phrase snare a reader's soul. When we think of the phrase "well written", we tend to think of good grammar, sympathetic characters and catchy dialogue as the necessary components. They are all important to one degree or another, but the real magic of great writing is more complicated than any of that. It is a process in which the author earns the reader's trust, then uses that trust to take them on a journey which is more than just words on a page.

If you have even one book in your reading history, which has demonstrated that kind of artistry, then your list is as long as it has to be. Go back to that great novel, and study it until you learn how the magic is done. With that knowledge properly understood, you will finally have something worth mimicking.

One trick that I have found helpful is to read with a pen nearby. When an author does something right during my nightly reading time, I make note of it. After I am done for the night, I go back and scribble some notes either in the appropriate page's margin or on a separate piece of paper. Then when I am done with a book, I add it to my reading journal. I make note of its strengths and weaknesses, focusing on its style and structure more than on its story line. I also leave some blank space after those notes so that as the memory of the book matures in my mind, I can come back and add further comments. It is amazing how a lousy read sometimes sticks my memory and slowly convinces me that I actually liked and enjoyed it. Whenever that happens, I always take notes on such special magic.

Finally, even garbage/pulp, genre-slop fiction can contain note-worthy gems. If you limit your reading list to only the highest quality material, you will miss out on the many wonderful lessons which are hidden in the dregs.


Only you know what books are good and not. Having someone else tell you will limit your experience of literature. (And obviously your ability as a writer!)

If you don't take a risk and pick up books you might not like, that too will limit your experience/ability.

If you do not like the book, you can always put it aside!

If you do not know today if a book you're reading is good or bad, that's probably a sign you need to read more. And more diverse literature.

Get a library card.

Pick up books that seems interesting. Start reading them. Abandon those you don't like. If you're not stuck in a "total hole" your local library should have (or be able to take home) more books than you can ever read, even if you abandon 90% of them!


Samuel Delany claims that it's nearly impossible to write a book better than the books you read, so from that point of view, I understand your question. On the other hand, no book is perfect, and sometimes an otherwise poorly written book can have some extraordinarily good feature that makes up the difference.

I've generally found the "great classics" to be a mixed bag, but they can be a good place to start, because when they're good, they are generally very good. The truly great ones tend to stay fresh and current, even when they are hundreds of years old. If you haven't read your way through a "great books" list, I would start there.

For more recent works, your best bet is to find a critic (or a few) whose tastes you respect. Many authors are passionate about promoting work that speaks to them. I've found many good books by following the recommendations of authors I like.

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