We’ve selected some of the most helpful books on writing available. From advice on craft to process and the writing life, these respected authors deserve a spot on every writer’s bookshelf.
There are two ways writers can research through reading.
The first is by reading material similar to what we are creating. The second is by reading about writing. The market for books about writing can be overwhelming, and it’s difficult to know where to start. Handbooks, memoirs, and how-to manuals all have their place on your bookshelf (and, therefore, in your writer's toolbox). Here are five books can both teach and inspire, no matter where you are in your writing life.
1. On Writing, Stephen King
Stephen King’s memoir frames his life as a writer from within his roles as a son, brother, husband, parent, and teacher. The prolific author shines a light on the process that has earned him his tremendous success.
Easy, right? Somehow, King makes readers believe it may be just that simple. His success, the book leaves us feeling, is not in his bank account or the entire shelves of his paperbacks sold in bookstores. Stephen King is a successful writer because he likes getting up every day to write. He likes sitting down to read. His art makes him happy, and he’s full of suggestions for how it can make you happy, too.
2. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Part instructional manual and part guidebook, both grief-stricken and hysterical, Anne Lamott’s guide to writing is a phenomenal contribution to the world. Lamott understands self-loathing as well as any writer must, and she treats it with equal humor and tenderness. Full of thoughtful encouragement and sound advice, Anne Lamott leads writers of all levels toward their creative best. “I don't think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good at it,” she says, and of course, she is right. Using her own evolution as a writer as a guide, Lamott drives home an essential aspect of adopting writing into your life: you will do it poorly, and it must tackle it one burden at a time.
3. Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson teaches in the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. The number of writers influenced by his generous approach to teaching the craft is no doubt countless. In this book, Carlson takes the reader with him through the process of writing his short story, “The Governor's Ball.” He describes every moment he wanted to get up and refill his coffee mug but didn’t and explains the moments of ferocious creation, blindly fighting from one sentence to the next. Seldom does a guide to writing offer as much as Carlson does in this slim volume.
4. Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach
Thought it was written with memoirists in mind, Bill Roorbach’s craft-class-in-a-book holds value for writers of all genres. Roorbach asks a lot of his readers: to stop reading and make lists, draw maps, and create new work. He takes us into the nooks and crannies of writing with the hope that we might emerge with the confidence to tackle new projects inspired by events in our own lives. Don’t be fooled by the “For Beginners” feel of this handbook. “It’s certainly hard to turn the clock back, be a beginner again, a learner,” he tells readers. “I’m glad you’re willing to try.” And with that, serious, experienced, and gifted writers cast off what we think we know and follow Roorbach headfirst into everything we don’t.
5. The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
This is the only anthology on our list, but it’s actually two-in-one. Tin House has now published two volumes of The Writer’s Notebook, a collection of craft essays from one of the most highly-respected writer’s workshops in the nation and writers for the venerable literary journal. With contributions on all aspects of the writing life, from how to start to how to make it work when it just won’t, Aimee Bender, Denis Johnson, Ann Hood, Nick Flynn, and countless leading writers offer a balanced dose of help and inspiration to writers of all levels.
What are your favorite handbooks and books on writing? Let me know in the comments.