The 5 best books for writers

Jarrett came home from work the other day waving a new book, which one of the editors at his office said was essential reading for writers. Excuse me, I said, but we have that book already, and I could have told you all about it if I had known you wanted more reading assignments.

(I’m always telling Jarrett, “You really should read this book—you’d like it!” when I finish a book. I think his backlog of books I really, really think he should read is really, really long and really, really ignored.)

I was in such a huff that someone had beat me to recommending On Writing Well that I pulled out my yellowing copy from the shelf and forced on him a dramatic reading of my favorite quotes as we ate dinner. (I’ve learned that the best place to trap someone is at the dinner table, and I think this is a free and fair trade for all the cooking I do.)

Anyway, as Jarrett sat rapt, or maybe bored, I told him all about how, at my first job as an editorial assistant at a NYC publisher, one of the executive editors had called me into her corner office, handed me a stack of 10 books about writing, and told me to start there, but that I could come back for more soon.

I had been working as a paralegal at a law firm beforehand, so I thought it was the coolest thing ever that I got to read books about writing instead of police reports. But 10 books is no small stack, and I didn’t know where to start.

best books for writers

So consider this my starter stack for you—these are the 5 books I’d most recommend to any writer, whether an aspiring writer, an established writer, or anyone who has to write or blog for a living. These are the best books for writers; the best books to teach you how to get published; the best books to make you feel less alone and hair-pull-y all the time.

Maybe others have beat me to recommending some of these books on writing to you, but I promise not to get huffy about it, and I hope you’ll still find one or two new gems here:


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The Joy of Terrible First Drafts (Plus a Free Art Print!)

Anne Lamott quote on writing printable

Writing is hard. Writing well is even harder. And unfortunately, I think too many people forget that writing well is not a talent–it’s a process. It starts with one draft, usually a pretty bad one, and then evolves during editing to become not-so-bad, and hopefully, pretty darn good.

Yet we have this idea that we should write well the first time. That we have to start at the right spot, end at the right spot, and have all the right things in between. That if we don’t start with strong writing, it means we’re not any good and our words won’t ever get better.

But that’s just not the way creativity works in real life. Sometimes we have the words to start in the middle, sometimes we have to dump out all the not-right words before we can find the right ones, and sometimes we just need to flow each word out, one at a time, with no idea where they’ll lead.

Every single writer, blogger, and creative deals with this. No one is immune to the fear that comes with a blinking cursor on a blank page. I actually think there should be a 12-step program to overcome CBCA (Chronic Blinking Cursor Anxiety). Someone please invent this! Seriously.

Even though, as an editor and literary agent, I’ve seen firsthand how much editing it really takes to get to great writing, I still wish my own first drafts were better. Even this post you’re now reading started off with me feeling stumped about how to start. So I started in the middle, with what I had in my head right then, then I went back afterward and filled in things with the hope (fingers crossed!) that it would make a modicum of sense. But the first draft of this post was terrible. Truly bad. Like the disjointed ramblings of David After Dentist.

Luckily, the world’s terrible first drafts never need to see the light of day, and when we give ourselves permission to let them be terrible, we’ll have an easier time getting started at all. Hey, if a writer as talented as Anne Lamott needs to throw down some nonsense on her way to the good stuff, then we’re not in bad company.

So for your every day inspiration, I created an art print with Anne Lamott’s smart words (pictured above)! You can download it here for free, print it on standard (letter-sized) paper, frame it, and hang it near your work space.

I hope it serves as a helpful reminder that starting somewhere is always better than not starting at all!