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.
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:
(By the way, I only recommend books I’ve read or that I’m genuinely excited about reading myself. Life’s too short to read mediocre books. But if you do feel like picking up one of these, it’d be great if you bought them through one of the Amazon Associate links below. It supports the many hours of work this team of two [me and Jarrett] put into this little corner of the web!)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott
This should be your writing home–the book you pick up to feel centered and whole again. I think of a few writers like safe shores, and Anne Lamott is one of them. I could read her writing about clipping her toenails and still get a laugh and feel a little better about life.
If this is an old favorite in your library of books for writers, you should try the audiobook next. Here’s what I would do: you have a long day and you’re a little worn down by the entire prospect of books, and you know, trying to make them successful. You close your laptop, set the Bird by Bird audiobook to play on your countertop speaker (I’m very attached to the one the Audible team gave as holiday gifts this year, which is most similar to this one), and then let Anne Lamott’s words pat you on the back you as you start chopping vegetables for dinner. That’s how you keep the magic alive.
My favorite quotes from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:
“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” (I love this Anne Lamott quote so much I turned it into an art print! Get it for free here.)
“Maybe all we can do is make our remaining time here full of gentleness and good humor.” (Here’s another one I love so much it became an art print. Hang it by your desk, and download it for free here!)
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Zinsser
I know the subtitle says nonfiction, but even fiction writers need this book.
This is a book that will untangle you from bad habits quickly. It cuts through all the clunky, sloppy, imprecise, pompous, vacuous, and plain old shriek-y words we’re fogged by every day, and it sets your inner ear to the right tune again.
I first read this book in a journalism class in college, and I practically tripped over myself to tell Jarrett about how my professor would give us instant Fs on our editing assignments if we left in garbage words like “facilitate” “individual” or “utilize.” We all need our war stories, right? (Here are more of Professor Spear’s journalism rules, which proves you can find anything on the internet these days.)
Even if you write fiction, On Writing Well will bring clarity and muscle to your prose so that it’s less flabby and more real. Think of it as spring cleaning your writing brain or decluttering your story–it’s the best way to make your manuscript feel fresh and sharp again.
Best quotes from On Writing Well by William Zinsser:
“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.”
I know this isn’t a book, but I think every writer should be reading The New Yorker. If you want a steady flow of the best writing in America, by some of the most brilliant and respected thinkers alive, tap into the brain vein of The New Yorker.
The beauty of The New Yorker is that you can flip through it in a minute or two, earmark the pieces you want to read, and not feel that you have to make a month-long commitment to any one writer or topic. And the truth is: it’s much more portable and pliable than a book, so you have no excuse not to jam it into your purse, briefcase, or pocket and read it during lulls, rather than mindlessly consuming junk food reading on your phone. Think of it like kale, but the kind you actually want to eat, and not just to feel virtuous.
I grew up with copies of The New Yorker scattered and stacked around the house, and sometimes I wonder if I would have become so interested in nonfiction without it. Yes, it always has short fiction in there, but there’s something about real events turned into stories that has always floored me. I distinctly remember reading this piece 12 years ago, which is about the most god-awful boring thing on the planet—UPS shipping—and feeling faint I loved it so much.
So if you want to find writing that makes you out of breath it’s so good, get The New Yorker.
The Elements of Style: Illustrated
by Willian Strunk, Jr., E. B. White, and Maira Kalman
Has anyone ever started a conversation about the best books for writers without saving a breath for Strunk and White? I know you own this; I know you’ve read or skimmed it; but have you seen the gorgeous illustrated edition by Maira Kalman?
It’s funny, I never pick up my ragged old Strunk and White, bought secondhand in college, anymore. But I love to sit with this illustrated edition and see how the art shifts the way you understand the advice. You’ll be surprised how Kalman’s illustrations add a dimension to a book you’ve known forever, and how much more you’ll pick it up when you know there’s something bright and textured inside.
Best quotes from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White:
“The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.”
“Many references have been made in this book to ‘the reader,’ who has been much in the news. It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.”
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected
by Jessica Page Morrell
I’m a big believer that to find what you want you have to identify the things you don’t want, and in writing this means staring into the tornado of mistakes, gaffes, clichés, traps, and not-so-endearing quirks that mark most writing today. I like this book because it’s sharp and precise—there are already kingpin books out there on the writing life, and Morrell skips all the angst and gets right to what writers are doing wrong, and how they can stop.
This was one of the books in the stack given to me by that executive editor, and it was the first one I pulled out and read. It was perfect timing, since I was manning the submission pile and starting to acquire and edit my own list of authors. I could tell almost right away whether I liked a manuscript or proposal and whether it was “for us,” but I despised drafting rejection letters. I just felt so bad about it. And I knew that telling an author that their book “wasn’t for us” was as helpful as mailing them back a gum wrapper.
But as Morrell writes on the back cover: “All good writing is unique, but it has a lot in common–it engages our senses, stirs our imagination, and lingers in our memory. Bad writing, especially bad novels, stories, and memoirs, has a whole lot in common, too. From dull dialogue to contrived characters, these deadly but common mistakes drive agents and editors to their stock rejection letter, telling aspiring writers, “Thanks, but this isn’t for us, and leaving many to wonder what, exactly, they’re doing wrong.”
So, for anyone who’s ever received a rejection letter from an editor or an agent, imagine me handing this book to you with a little hug. I hope it helps; I hope everything gets sorted out; and I hope you keep trying!
Best quotes from Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us:
“It also puzzles me how seemingly bright people write stuff so overwrought, anemic, pointless, or just plain crappy that I have longed to tack on extra charges for pain and suffering. While I’ve read manuscripts that prove the writer is brilliant, steeped in craft, I’ve also read manuscripts by writers who can barely manage to string together sentences, and some who are clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”
“Like stories, scenes have a beginning, middle, and end. Scenes have many purposes: to enrich or reveal characters, to dramatize key moments, to provide information, to contribute to the theme, to push the plot forward, and to connect to what has come before, or will come after. Scenes are the parts of fiction that are direct and dramatic and stage happenings in “real” time. Scenes are mini-containers for drama, the events where your characters go to work just as actors show up on a stage.”
And a bonus recommendation, just in case you need one more book for your stack:
The Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century
by John B. Thompson
This book is about publishing, not writing, but you can’t have one without the other. It would be like lathering without rinsing or chewing without swallowing. Once you’ve conscripted yourself to the thing, you might as well plod through the rest.
I love this book because it takes you to the start of the major publishing houses and helps you catch up on the decades of history and change that have shaped the industry. If you’ve ever wondered why books are returnable, or how the industry became consolidated into the Big 5, or what, exactly is “a big book,” it’s all here.
Best quotes from The Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson:
“Few industries had had their death foretold more frequently than the book publishing industry, and yet somehow, miraculously, it seems to have survived them all—at least till now.”
“But the first professional literary agent is a designation usually reserved for A. P. Watt, a Scotsman from Glasgow who began his career as a bookseller in Edinburgh before marrying the sister of publisher Alexandra Strahan and moving to London to work as a manuscript reader and advertising manager in Strahan’s publishing firm. … His work as a literary agent appears to have begun around 1878, when he was asked by a friend, the poet and novelist George MacDonald to sell his stories for him. He did so initially as a friendly favour—something that others had done before him—but he soon saw the commercial possibilities. … For two decades Watt had the field pretty much to himself, and by the end of the nineteenth century he was representing some of the leading writers of the time, including Walter Besant, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle.”
What I’m Reading This Week
Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell (Jane Friedman): This is tough love for memoirists, so brace yourselves. But once you’re clear-eyed about the challenges of memoir, pick up On Writing Well, which has a chapter dedicated to the genre, and Bird by Bird, which will help you laugh it off.
Do You Make This Mistake in Your Writing? (Chad R. Allen): “What would you say is your first job as a writer? Do you write to serve people? To make money? To express yourself? This is an important question because the wrong answer will lead you to fall short of your best work.”
9 Books to Give Your Dad This Father’s Day (Modern Mrs. Darcy): If you’re still stumped about what to get dad, pick up one of these books for him! Or maybe a Kindle travel bundle would make him happy? My dad is the picky sort, so I might play it safe with a gift card and a list of books and movies he might like, then let him have the fun of choosing for himself.
A Simple Question to Help You Figure Out What to Write (Dave Ursillo on The Write Life): “While one intention I had for the group was to help members write more and better, I also wanted to help writers enjoy their writing journeys, rather than feel locked in a constant creative struggle. As the years unfolded, I noticed a pattern: The most significant growth for my writers happened when skill-building practice intersected with personal topics that guided writers into better knowing their true selves.”
Food Critic Now Halfway Through Taco-A-Day Quest. Will He Fold? (Kelly McEvers for NPR): It’s Friday. Eat some tacos.
What We’re Eating This Week
Operation Detox-from-Vacation continues, so we’re cooking and eating a lot from Skinnytaste: Fast and Slow. Here’s what that looks like!
Monday: Egg Roll Bowls. I love these–so healthy, delicious, and fun. They may replace our usual Salad Mondays when we want something hot in the winter!
Tuesday: That franken-pesto I made last week turned out great, so we use the other half with spaghetti and roast some broccoli. #ItsSimplyTuesday
Wednesday: Out! Jarrett has an annual dinner to attend for work, and I tag along and eat all of this gooey chocolate cake, which is totally fine, because it’s Wednesday. #ItsSimpyNOMday
Thursday: We’re making the Indian chicken (aka, kheema) recipe from SkinnyTaste, with snow peas and basmati rice. Pepper foments a riot because she’s had turkey and sweet potato kibble every night this week and for the 132 days before that. (Thanks, Costco-size dog food.)
Friday: Fork-and-knife burgers, again from SkinnyTaste, which turn into dribble-food-all-over-your-face burgers, with a side of Chungah’s asparagus fries. Classy/healthyish/TGIF.