Top Ten Books About Writing

I’m beginning another nonfiction writing class this week, so my mind is occupied with books about writing right now. Whether you read them cover to cover or simply flip through the pages in search of inspiration, the following books are very valuable tools for writers.

10. No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty

Chris Baty founded National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the premise of which is simple: write a novel in 30 days. It doesn’t have to be pretty and it certainly doesn’t have to be perfect, but you do have to sit your butt in a chair and write every day. This book is intended as a guide for that month-long writingpalooza, billing itself as a “results-oriented, quick-fix strategy” for writers on the go. If your writing stretches out longer than a month—and it almost certainly will—Baty’s advice is also useful as a stand-alone handbook, especially if you have writer’s block or trouble motivating yourself.

9. The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller

Technically, this book is about copyediting. But as I noted in my review, Carol Fisher Saller’s advice applies to all working relationships, especially those engaged in the creative professions of writing and publishing. Saller blends an irreverent sense of humor with years of experience as editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online‘s Q&A, offering very practical and sound advice for working with one’s colleagues–and one’s self.

8. Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors by Bill Bryson

Speaking of useful volumes for writers and editors alike… Bill Bryson’s accessible guide covers spelling, capitalization, plurals, hyphens, abbreviations, and foreign names and phrases—and much more. He guides writerly readers through the most commonly encountered problems of the English language toward precise, mistake-free usage. This is not a book you’ll want to read all the way through, but it is an indispensable resource. As Bryson notes, it will provide you with “the answers to all those points of written usage that you kind of know or ought to know but can’t quite remember.”

7. How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

Many writing books offer sound advice on how to write well. This is not one of those books. On the contrary, this is a collection of terrible, awkward, and laughably unreadable excerpts that will teach you what to avoid—at all costs—if you ever want your novel published.

Rather than tell aspiring writers what to do, Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman tell you what to avoid. With rousing good humor and tons of experience between the two of them, they identify the 200 most common mistakes made by writers–consciously or unconsciously–and teach them to recognize, avoid, and amend them. Did I mention it’s hilarious?

6. Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop edited by Daniel Slager

For years, Minneapolis’s Loft Literary Center has brought together a community of writers, and now the wisdom of its authors, students, and editors has been collected in Views from the Loft. Featuring tips, questions, essays, and interviews from and with Mark Doty, Kate DiCamillo, Rick Bass, Michael Cunningham, Grace Paley, Susan Power, Susan Straight, Marilyn Hacker, and many more, this workshop-in-a-book outfits any aspiring the tools and inspiration necessary to thrive in the writing life.

5. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

One of the best ways to learn about writing is to examine great works of literature. You don’t need a creative-writing workshop or degree to be a good writer (though that helps). All you need is a bookshelf and some time. Francine Prose, a well-known fiction writer, reads the work of the masters—Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov, and many others—to discover why their work has endured, and she looks at modern writers to prove that paying attention to words, the raw material out of which literature is crafted, pays off.

4. On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

Gardner’s book is a classic resource for writers, despite occasionally cumbersome prose and now-commonsense advice. He offers advice on the writing life—the pitfalls and joys of creating stories for a living—and he discusses common questions that beginning writers have: Should I enroll in a writer’s workshops? What do agents and editors actually do? Anne Tyler, one of my favorite novelists, called it “a miraculously detailed account of the creative process.”

3. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser

If you’ve ever considered writing a memoir, you’ve probably wondered how an author reaches into the tumult of her own memory–a cacophony of emotions, senses, places, and events long gone–and pull out a crisp, compelling storyline. Drawing from the wisdom of some of the greatest literary memoirists, Inventing the Truth explores their writing processes, the unexpected obstacles they faced, and the overwhelming joy they experienced in researching, writing, and publishing their pasts. The featured authors include Russell Baker (Growing Up); Jill Ker Conway (The Road from Coorain); Annie Dillard (An American Childhood); Ian Frazier (Family); Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Colored People); Alfred Kazin (A Walker in the City); Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes); Toni Morrison (Beloved); and Eileen Simpson (Poets in Their Youth).

2. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry

How does a writer go from a good idea to a career in writing? In The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (my review here), Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry present lucid, step-by-step advice to would-be authors, from inception to publicity. They walk budding authors through the many steps of publishing a book, including how to begin, what to expect once the process is underway, and how to maximize your book to achieve your goal—whether it be riches, fame, or simply the satisfaction of being a published author.

1. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Ever since Millie gave me this book a few years ago, it has popped up again and again as an indispensable guide for writers. (To be fair, it was considered such long before Millie gave it to me; I’m only just noticing it.) Zinsser, a professor at the New School and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, outlines the principles of nonfiction writing and offers lucid advice to anyone who wants to learn how to write, no matter the topic. This is one of those books that stays on my desk, right next to my dictionary and thesaurus.

Want more personal accounts on writing and reading? Check out these titles:

Interested in the intricacies of grammar? Let these reference works be your guide:

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

I receive a very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links to Indiebound. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

3 replies »

  1. Nice picks! My favorite is still Caroyln See’s Making a Literary Life, perhaps because it was the first book I consciously read on writing. I read it shortly after college, but it still resonates with me.


  2. Love your list! I think you chose well and not just the usual. I’m not a writer but I love to read books about writing anyway…especially if they are written well 🙂 Thanks for the great suggestions.


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