The Five Best Books Ever Written About Writing

There are books like A Prayer For Owen Meany and The River Why that make it impossible to stop reading, books like Lord of the Rings that pick me up and drop me in the middle of places like Mordor and Lothlorien.

But there are other types of books: the kind that I can’t read more than a few paragraphs without wanting to write. Here are my favorite five books on writing:

5. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – the most difficult read of the five, Forster’s book (actually transcribed from lectures he gave at Cambridge) takes a scientific approach to breaking down the elements of the novel. Academic and deliberate, this one isn’t for the faint of heart.

“We shall all agree that the fundamental aspect of the novel is the story-telling aspect…”

4. John Steinbeck’s Journal of a NovelAny poker player who has read Gus Hansen’s book, Every Hand Revealed knows how intriguing it is when someone who is good at something walks you through the process step by step. Steinbeck’s book does exactly that: these are the journal entries he kept before each day’s writing session while working on East of Eden (the greatest novel ever written).

“So, we go into the last week and I may say I am very much frightened. I guess it would be hard to be otherwise – all of these months and years aimed in one direction and suddenly it is over and it seems that the thunder has produced a mouse.”

3. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life Barely bigger than a pamphlet, nearly every page of my copy has something underlined. A must read for any writer.

“Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs.; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.”

2. Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on WaterAn inspired book about the nature of art and the inherent difficulties (or impossibilities) of labeling good art as secular or sacred.

“I knew that if I felt anything while I was writing about Joshua’s death, the scene would end up in the wastepaper basket. Emotion can come before writing, and after writing, but it must not be present during writing.”

1. Anne Lamott’s Bird By BirdThis book changed my life. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s true. The best advice I’ve ever heard on writing comes in this simple quote:

“Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

Honorable Mentions – Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, Sol Stein’s books on writing (although his insistence on only ever quoting examples from his own books is rather annoying and egocentric).

Help! I need some good books on writing. What’s your favorite?


26 Replies to “The Five Best Books Ever Written About Writing”

    1. I’ve noticed that you have mentioned Herring many times before, so hers are some of the first I want to pick up. Thanks Andi.

  1. “The Artful Edit: On the practice of editing yourself,” by Susan Bell. It’s a fantastic book and great editing companion. She uses examples from Fitzgerald’s process of writing “The Great Gatsby” and the examples are fascinating while being instructive at the same time. Highly recommend it!

    “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers,” by John Gardner. It’s a classic and I continue to go back to it for deep learning about writing fiction.

    And while I’ve not yet read Ron Carlson’s new book “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” I did attend a seminar he gave in which he did the same thing he does in this book (dissects his story-writing process) and it was brilliant and enormously instructive. Can’t wait to read it. He’s a master writer, and teacher.

    Thanks for your list!

  2. The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, Oakley Hall

    I learned so much from him not just about novels but about writing in general. His own writing style is elegant and concise without being choppy.

  3. See, this is where I start thinking I’m not a real writer again, because I haven’t read ANY of those. And I’ve only heard of like 3 of them. Eek!

    More homework – I’ll add them to the pile!

    1. But that’s a good thing, because you ARE a writer and you haven’t read these. Imagine how your talents will soar after you DO read them?!

  4. Dude, HOW does “On Writing” by Stephen King get left out?

    But seriously, thanks for the Steinbeck recommendation. Haven’t read that one. I’ll check it out.

    1. Mr. Sneed, it didn’t get completely left out (see the honorable mentions – which is pretty good for a book that is 75% memoir).

      You’re right though – some of the most practical advice on writing you will find (in that last 25%).

  5. Totally agree with the Lamott, L’engle (Circle of Quiet has some great writing discussion in it also) and Dillard. Haven’t read the two by Forster and Steinbeck, though I will now be picking up the latter. I love him. I would add to my top 5 Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. I also think Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has some good thoughts though it’s a bit fussy at points. And I like Dear Theo by Vincent Van Gogh. It’s about painting, not writing, but much of it applies to any art form. Two compilations – Mystery and Manners and The Christian Imagination – have been very helpful to me as well.

    1. I was hoping you didn’t faint when I mentioned the underlining, David…

      Thanks for the recommendations.

  6. Darn, I better get reading … I’ve only read a few of them. So I have nothing to add. But I dream of writing fiction someday, so I want to read some/all of the books on your list.

    As I wrote my memoir, I took some classes and read lots of blogs on writing a memoir and I read a lot of other memoirs.

    Below is a list of all the memoirs I read … which I posted one day after reading a tweet from an agent Rachelle Gardner – “Please don’t submit your memoir until you’ve read 20 good memoirs and 5 books on writing memoir – and learned from them.”

  7. I haven’t read all of these–they’ll be added to my list!
    I would add William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He has several other genre-specific books. The one I’ve read–Writing About Your Life–is excellent; I’d like to read several others, too.

  8. I love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It does not instruct on how to write but it certainly gets a writer inspired and motivated to get more done.

  9. I haven’t read any on your list, though I’ve heard Bird by Bird is really good, and the two above that also sound like I would enjoy them. (Guess it’s time for me to get reading!)

    My favorite writing book is “A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves. It has a prompt for every day of the year, as well as tips, quotes, facts about authors/their writing habits, suggestions, and extra prompts. I use it several times a week, if not everyday. Sometimes I’ll reading a few pages at a time and other times I’ll read no farther than the prompt for the day.

  10. hmmm.. I’m slightly surprised that the good Puritan writing ethos of Strunk & White hasn’t received a mention.

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