One of the most common questions I get from aspiring authors is, “Which books on writing should I read?”
Of course, I am always tempted to reply: Mine. After all, I’ve written three books on writing. (If you must know: Plot Perfect, Writing with Quiet Hands, and The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, all published by Writer’s Digest Books.)
But usually what I say is this: It’s a tough question. I have at least a thousand books on writing in my personal library, and I’ve read them all, and more. I suggest you do the same.
This is what I said just yesterday, when yet another writer asked me this question. But it reminded me that every book on writing that I’ve ever read gave me something I could apply to my own work—from huge epiphanies to lone snippets of wisdom—and that something alone proved worth the price of admission.
Some more than others. Which leads me to my favorite books on writing.
My favorite books on writing
I decided to define favorite as the books I return to most often, either to read or quote or recommend. The books that I credit with teaching me the most about my work, my process, and myself.
So here they are, in no particular order:
Draft No. 4, by John McPhee
This is the book I’m reading right now. John McPhee is a master of book-length nonfiction, and if that’s what you’re writing, this is an obligatory read. But fiction writers will learn much from it as well.
The Writer on Her Work, and The Writer on Her Work, Volume II, edited by Janet Sternburg
When I was a young single working mother trying to fit writing into an overcrowded and exhausting schedule, these are the essays that inspired and encouraged me to make the time for the writer in me. All of the essays are wonderful, but don’t miss the one by Elizabeth Jolley, in which she says:
The best time for me to write is when people are sleeping. I am not needed in their dreams.
A line that has haunted me—and pushed me—since I first read it in 1991.
This is the sweet little hardcover I most often give to writers as presents for birthdays and holidays and you-need-a-little-boost days. I have my own copy right on my desk, so I can pick it up to read from time to time and remind myself that writing is an honorable calling. It’s short, as it’s the commencement address Gaiman delivered to the graduating class of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in May 2012. But there’s a power in it that will pump you up when you need it most.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones
Two classics that if you haven’t read by now you should not admit it out loud. Just read them. They’ll keep you honest. And an honest writer is a good writer.
Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Stuart Voytilla’s Myth and the Movies
These two go together like love and marriage, horse and carriage, plot and character. Which is what they are all about, plot and character and the hero’s journey as applied to writing stories for print, stage, and screen. A dynamic duo for anyone wrestling with structure.
Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, edited by John Hill Wheelock
I own lots of collections of letters by authors and agents and editors, but this is my favorite. Max Perkins was the ingenious editor who mentored Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, among others. His letters to his authors are revelatory. Note: For those of you who say that editors don’t edit any more, you’re wrong. It’s just email these days.
The Craft of Crime: Conversations with Crime Writers, by John C. Carr
I love interviews with writers, and of course I have copies of everything from William Zinsser’s books Inventing the Truth and Going on Faith (must-haves if you’re writing memoir or spirituality) and most of The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series (I subscribe to The Paris Review as well) to lesser known titles like Annie Dillard’s Encounters with Chinese Writers. This collection of interviews with masters of the crime genre is long out of print, and my dog-eared copy is literally falling apart. But it’s the one book on writing that I’ve reread most often, over and over and over again. A rather obvious clue that I should have started writing mysteries long ago. (My first, A Borrowing of Bones, debuts from Minotaur in Fall 2018. Better late than never.)
More where these came from
This list is woefully short. There are so many good books on writing by such luminaries as Stephen King, Eudora Welty, Julia Cameron, Abigail Thomas, and more—and I own them all.
What about you? Which are your favorite books on writing? Let’s talk about it on facebook.
PS: I bought three new (to me) books on writing while looking these up to see which were still in print. Money well spent.