Perhaps I think of these as “the best” books on writing because they are my favorites. These books are the top picks from a longer list I give to my coaching clients and retreat participants and are the ones I always recommend first. They are the books I read early in my writing career, and I return to them again and again for inspiration and guidance in my writing and teaching.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
This was the first book on writing I ever read, and it catapulted me into my writing life. It was a groundbreaking book in which Goldberg gives writing advice drawn from her years as a writing teacher and her Buddist beliefs.
The chapters are short and easy to read, and each contains a gem that will get your pen moving. Goldberg is gentle, encouraging, and inspiring.
Writing Down The Bones is more focused on creating a writing practice than on the craft of writing and is perfect for beginning writers or seasoned writers who want to refresh their practice or see their work through a different lens.
The latest edition includes a new preface in which Goldberg reflects on the enduring quality of her teachings.
“What have I learned about writing over these thirty years? I’ve written fourteen books, and it’s the practice here in Bones that is the foundation, sustaining and building my writing voice, that keeps me honest, teaches me how to endure the hard times and how to drop below discursive thinking, to taste the real meat of our minds and the life around us.“
If you don’t already have this on your shelf, go out and buy the latest edition. It will take you deep and make you think.
What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
One of the first writing workshops I attended was with Anne and Pamela at Castle Hill on Cape Cod. The exercises they had us use in the workshop were designed to develop two basic skills: writing like a writer and (just as important) thinking like a writer, and these same tenets are at the core of What If?
This book provides over seventy-five exercises for both beginners and experienced writers that cover such topics as learning when to use dialogue vs. indirect discourse, where to begin and end stories, and finding language that conveys precisely what you want to say.
My copy is dog-eared from years of searching for clarification on topics such as journaling, point of view, plot, characterization, dialogue, and more. I think it’s an essential addition to every writer’s library—if you don’t have it, go get it.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by Anne Lamott
This was the first book I read on writing that was fun (and funny), which is not to say it doesn’t give excellent advice to writers. It is a wise, big-hearted, and often hilarious book on writing.
Lamott honestly explores the mental challenges of living the writer’s life and understands better than anyone that writers need help. It’s somehow reassuring that she who writes so well does, in fact, have trouble writing at times … just like the rest of us.
Her words are inspiring, and many of her writing exercises are more like lessons in understanding ourselves as writers and humans. It’s a wonderful shot in the arm, and you’ll be forever grateful to have this one on your bookshelf.
Writing from the Heart by Nancy Slonim Aronie
I picked up Aronie’s book in a bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard one summer, and I loved it so much that I returned the following summer to attend her writing workshop, The Chilmark Writers Workshop. Many years later, she accepted my invitation to guest teach at my own writing workshop on Nantucket Island and had us all laughing, crying, and writing deeply in no time.
In this book, with the same warmth and humor she brings to her workshops, Aronie provides advice and lessons on writing as a path to self-healing. By unlearning the damaging self-doubt taught in school, she inspires us to take the risk of writing from the heart.
“You mine for gold, and you find gold. This workshop is about honoring your own voice, writing in your own rhythms, using your own language, and writing your own stories. Here is where we stop the inner critic in his tracks. I know it’s possible because I have seen it happen over and over again.“
— Nancy Slonim Aronie
If you want to discover your truth and bring it to your writing, this is the book for you.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
This is my all-time favorite book on the craft of writing fiction. The copy on my shelf is fringed with curling post-it-note tabs leftover from the days of working on my MFA thesis … a million years ago. It was my bible then, and it still calls to me regularly.
Burroway is an excellent guide into the world of fiction writing, from first inspiration to final revision. She covers everything that goes into the architecture of a story and is a master at posing questions that help writers approach their work from an artist’s perspective.
This book is brilliantly organized and packed with solid instruction, entertaining stories, and inspiring exercises. If you are serious about writing fiction, it’s a must for your bookshelf.
The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
This book was published long after I’d discovered Cameron’s revolutionary book, The Artist’s Way, but it was no less illuminating. Cameron believes that it is human nature to write and that “Conventional writing wisdom would have you believe in a doctrine that is false and that stifles creativity.” As someone who named her business A Writer Within, you would be correct to imagine that I agree with her on the first count, and if you’ve worked with me, you know that my approach to teaching reflects the second.
The writing techniques and exercises she offers are practical and playful and, at the same time, make writing a profound experience. The illustrative stories she shares, both her own and those of other writers, are thoughtful, provocative, and inspiring.
If you are looking for a fresh approach to creating a writing practice and accessing your creative flow, this is one of the most important books to have on your shelf.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Last but certainly not least, this is one of my all-time favorite books on writing. This book was published when I was well along my writing path, but reading it was like discovering writing all over again. King gives us an irreverent, revealing, straightforward account of what it is to be a writer. He takes us from his childhood penchant for telling stories through adolescence and college and into the struggles of midlife with honesty and humor.
He offers practical and inspiring advice on elements of the craft, including character development, plot, setting, dialogue, work habits, and handling rejection, to name but a few.
You will definitely want King’s tools in your writing toolbox.
Other favorites include:
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy
Writing from the Body by John Lee
The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Creating Fiction by Julia Checkoway
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
I hope this list has been helpful. Let me know.