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 Hope in the Query Pile


We’ve all heard the hilarious stories about crazy query letters—the ones written from jail, the ones that start “Dear Sirs or Madams,” the ones that include nothing but 3 pictures of purses made from jeans and an assurance that “this book will sell millions.” (My personal favorite of the year.)

But I think sometimes agents don’t talk enough about the encouraging query letters. Not necessarily the queries that get a request for more material, or the ones that are ultimately picked up by an agent and sold to a publisher. I don’t mean the successful queries, but the encouraging ones—the ones that give us back a little faith in humanity.

Because I work in nonfiction, I see a lot of sad stories in my query pile, mostly from the memoir queries. There are stories of cancer, sexual abuse, drug addiction, human trafficking, divorce, death of children, infertility, homelessness—every horrible thing that can happen to us humans. But, without fail, at the end of every one of these query letters, there’s one word: hope. These memoirs are always about hope.

The very fact that these writers have suffered through all the crappy stuff life can throw at you, and then come out on the other side able to write about it, says a lot about the therapeutic power of writing.

That’s one thing I wish I could tell more writers: sometimes writing can be just for you. For the therapy, for the catharsis, and for the energy it provides. Getting all those words and emotions and memories out of your head can be its own reward, and chasing a book deal can be secondary.

Publishing is a crazy world, and it can be a full-time job to build the sort of platform necessary to successfully launch a book. But writing is, and will always be, just for the writer.

[Writers: I’m caught up on all queries through August 1, 2014. If you sent me a query prior to that date and did not receive a response, please re-send!]