What are the most helpful books about writing and publishing?

jost amman card of booksThe most popular pages on this website, in terms of sheer volume of visitors, are those in my guide to getting a book published. (They account for the site’s top eight pages by volume; my rendering of the Daode jing comes in at no. 9.) Compared to this blog, the guide is more oriented to people without a lot of experience in publishing. For them — but for others as well — I would like to offer some suggestions for further reading. I’ve begun a page — hosted by Powell’s Books — of books for writers that can be recommended in good conscience. (Disclosure: as a Powell’s affiliate, I get, in theory, a small percentage on sales generated through this site.)

The list focuses on the kind of extended prose writing that is the main commodity of publishing, so I haven’t included books about translation or poetry, although I would be interested in hearing what people would recommend. I have also left off a few often-recommended titles that seem to me overrated, as well as books I haven’t read. In the latter category, some possibilities include the John Gardner books, On Becoming a Novelist and Art of Fiction; Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life; Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Winning the Creative Battle; William Stafford’s books on poetry; and Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. Can anyone vouch for these?

So far I’ve listed the following (in no special order):

  1. Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst
  2. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach
  3. Six Memos for the Next Millennium, by Italo Calvino
  4. ABC of Reading, by Ezra Pound
  5. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by University of Chicago Press
  6. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
  8. The First Five Pages : a Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah T. Lukeman
  9. Steering the Craft : Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator Or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K. Le Guin

But that’s just a start, and I’m sure there are many excellent books that I’m forgetting that should be on the list. So, when it comes to the craft of writing and the art and business of publishing, which books would you nominate? What are your favorites?

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  1. Daniel Deronda is my current fav—I’ll finish it up tomorrow. Any book that thrills you would work as well. Self-help for writers is nonsense—pablum for neurotics. Just find a some prose you love and go and do likewise.

  2. My wife is currently loving /Bird by Bird/ (though she accidentally dropped the library’s copy in the toilet yesterday).

    I can vouch for Stafford’s /Writing The Australian Crawl/. It shakes up a lot of tired poetical notions. Another excellent book on contemporary poetry is Hoagland’s /Real Sofistikashun/. [sic]

  3. ABC of reading by Ezra Pound
    The First Five Pages by Noah T. Lukeman

  4. The Writers Chapbook (edited by George Plimpton from the Paris Review series of interviews) is indespensible IMHO (http://www.parisreview.com/viewbook.php/prmMID/5389) — currently out of print, alas.

    The collected volumes of Paris Review interviews are also superb. The original collections are also OOP, but there are now two new selections from the interviews available: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780312361754-0 and http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780312363147-0

  5. Raymond Chandler Speaking (selected letters, 1977), esp. sections “Chandler on the Craft of Writing” and “Chandler on Publishing.”

  6. robin j

    Annie Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” (which I recommend to anyone who engages in the creative process, science, art, teaching, being alive on the planet…)

    Steve Kowit’s “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop”

    Mary Oliver’s “A Poetry Handbook” (especially the chapter on sound, where she has you really listen to Frost’s “Stopping by Woods…”!)

    Robin Behn and Chace Twitchell, eds.: “The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach” (good for getting you unstuck — even if you just write dreck, you’re writing; I’ve gotten an actual poem or two from pointing at a random page)

    Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio’s “The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry”

    John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers”

    Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s “What if?:Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers”

    Donald Hall’s “Writing Well” (a general book on writing — “Verbs act. Verbs move. Verbs do. Verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal.” — find an edition from before they added a co-author)

    And a couple I’ve glanced through but not really read:

    Richard Hugo: Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing

    Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

    For extra credit:

    Frederick Franck’s “The Zen of Seeing” (a book about drawing — useful material for seeing no matter what you’re doing; this may be old hat at this point, but he was a groundbreaker).

    There are more on my shelf, again not all of them books on writing per se, but ones that spark (art, drama, movement, being in the moment…). Will send along titles if I remember to.

    Oh yeah, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Steering the Craft.” If anyone wants to feel good about taking a while to learn craft, s/he should look at LeGuin’s earlier books, which are much stronger on content (genius) than on craft — as she herself will readily cop to.

  7. I would agree that if you can read past some of the biases, Mary Oliver’s book is quite a good little primer. She covers a lot of basics, but frankly, there’s not much more to poetry than the basics. Like the martial arts, there are only really a few moves — but a wide discrepancy between a white-belt and a master. Oliver is worth revisiting.

  8. This is my list for fiction writers:


    Edgerton, Les. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go
    LeGuin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
    Sellers, Heather. Chapter by Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams

    Craft- and Exercise-Based

    Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
    Baxter, Charles & Peter Turchi. Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life
    Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design
    Benedict, Elizabeth. The Joy of Writing Sex
    Carlson, Ron. Ron Carlson Writes a Story
    Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction
    Checkoway, Julie. Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs
    Conroy, Frank, ed. The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
    Gornick, Vivian, The End of the Novel of Love
    Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
    Koch, Stephen. The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction
    Leebron, Fred & Andrew Levy. Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion
    Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction
    Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages
    McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively
    O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story
    Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction
    Turchi, Peter. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer
    Turchi, Peter & Andrea Barrett. The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work


    Collier, Frances Spatz Leighton. How to Write and Sell Your First Novel
    Curtis, Richard. How to Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published
    Gross, Gerald C., ed. Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do
    Hill, Brian & Dee Power. The Making of a Best Seller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them
    Lerner, Betsy. The Forest For the Trees
    Levasseur, Jennifer & Kevin Rabalais. Novel Voices: 17 Award-Winning Novelists on How to Write, Edit, and Get Published


    Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead
    Blythe, Will, ed. Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction
    Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way
    Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write
    Cameron, Julia, The Vein of Gold
    Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life
    Goldberg, Natalie, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
    Goldberg, Natalie. The Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life
    Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
    Hagberg, Janet. Wrestling With Your Angels: A Spiritual Journey to Great Writing
    Hansen, Ron. A Stay Against Confusion Essays on Faith and Fiction
    King, Stephen. On Writing
    Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird
    L’Engle, Madeleine. Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life
    Lott, Bret. Before We Begin: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life
    Maso, Carole. Break Every Rule
    Matthiessen, Peter. Zen and the Writing Life
    McClanahan, Rebecca. Write Your Heart Out
    Oates, Joyce Carol. The Faith of a Writer
    Rico, Gabriele. Writing the Natural Way: Using Right-Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers
    See, Carolyn. Making a Literary Life
    Smith, James V. You Can Write a Novel


    Bradbury, Ray. Zen and the Art of Writing
    Brooks, Cleanth & Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction
    Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel
    Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction
    Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist
    Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction
    O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
    Stegner, Wallace. On Teaching and Writing Fiction
    Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit
    Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings
    Wharton, Edith. The Writing of Fiction
    Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own

    Language and Syntax

    Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose
    Strunk, William Jr. & E. B. White. The Elements of Style
    Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax As Style
    Williams, Joseph P. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

  9. robin j

    Calling self-help for writers “nonsense–pablum for neurotics” seems a little extreme. Inspiration and information are wherever we each find them and in whatever form. That’s different for everyone, and to make pronouncements about one method or another being worthless just brings more judgment into what is already too judgmental a forum. If people have the potential, they probably also have the smarts to take what’s useful and leave the rest. As our mothers always posed in asking us to think for ourselves, “If So-and-So told you to jump off a cliff, would you just do it?” And yet there can be some use in listening to others if you temper it with listening to yourself. When asked how it was done, Bradbury once replied, “You just jump off a cliff and madly construct your wings on the way down.” Indeed.

  10. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

  11. Good discussion. Thanks to everyone who has participated.

    While I largely agree with Howard about the place of “self-help” books for writers — in general the best way to write better is to read better — I also agree with Robin that labeling all such books “nonsense–pablum for neurotics” is a bit extreme. The reality is that people are going to read such books, and it makes sense to point them to useful examples rather than leave them to them slog at random through the genre.

  12. in art “extreme” is all that really matters.

    in real life i don’t have time for amateurs.

    i want art not self-expression.

    if you want to nurture the duffers of the litworld, godspeed. i’ll tune into the PGA, the Opens, and the Masters.

    see you at the driving range.

  13. Howard, I was never much of a golfer (though I once made a little money as a caddy), so go ahead and play through if I’m going too slow for you.

    I don’t think there’s too much pablum on my list, but I no longer care that much about making grandiose distinctions between true artists and duffers. I just write the best I can and try to read mostly good books.

  14. I’m occasionally asked for recommendations of writing books, when people find out I’m a scribbler (fiction). Currently, my answer is:

    The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    Story by Robert McKee

    Gardner is rigorous, tough, guilt-inducing. Lamott is also tough, but supportive and gentle too. They make a nice, complementary pair.

    The McKee book is aimed at screenwriters, but it’s the only book about how story (in the abstract) works that has made total sense to me.

    There are many, many other good books about writing, though. I like the Ezra Pound recommendation. And anything you can lay your hands on in the Paris Review Writers at Work series is gold. Gosh, Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Conner. Etc., etc.

  15. robin j

    And wouldn’t life be boring if no one ever disagreed with anyone? Doris Lessing and Al Gore win the Nobel, Robert Hass is nominated for the National Book Award. It’s been a great week for “the good guys.” Go in peace.

  16. I love the idea that writers don’t need to learn anything about craft – that they can simply absorb it by reading the right literature (as if they knew from the cradle what the right stuff was). I wish this concept applied to medicine: health care would certainly cost less if I didn’t have to chip in to pay for all my doctors’ time in med school.

    Seriously, why is it that people expect writers to be unschooled geniuses, but they don’t expect that of anyone else, not even other artists, such as dancers or musicians or painters? My professors in my MFA program had this expectation, more or less … so I left their program without knowing jack about how point of view or characterization really worked. My students at the time sure would’ve appreciated it if I’d known more about basic story mechanics, or even how to teach (another craft that people seem to think, not incidentally, is blighted if taught).

    Yes, I learned by doing. But inspiration and imitation weren’t enough. Janet Burroway’s *Writing Fiction* filled in most of the gaps in my self-education, and another how-to writer helped me out with plot. True, most how-to books irritate me because their explanations of technique are facile, non-specific, or they make too much of the results of Lilliputian feats of creativity, but reading over these different lists (and non-lists) only underscores the main point: in the matter of how you learn and from whom, you have to go with what works for you.

    If Howard’s not into how-to books, that’s fine; nor am I going to be turning to Natalie Goldberg for inspiration any time soon. But I won’t rule it out. After all, the book you despise may, when you pick it up again three years later, turn out to be something that transforms your work. The biggest barrier any of us faces is being unwilling to learn.

  17. Benjamin

    I think the idea that writers “don’t need to learn anything about craft – that they can simply absorb it by reading the right literature” is a legacy of Romanticism. Prior to its cult of the writer as devine vehicle of self-inspired genius, it was taken for granted that writers would be schooled by other writers. This is true of the East Asian tradition as well, where novices apprenticed by imitating the works of others.

    I was ambivalent about Goldberg.

  18. Glad to see Janet Burroway get a mention. I also like sections in all of these books: Bird by Bird (especially the chapter on s—-y first drafts), King’s On Writing, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (especially where she talks about not facing a view), Gardner’s Art of Fiction, and most introductions to the “Best American Essays” series.

    I wasn’t always a big fan of Bird by Bird, but there came a time in my life when it struck me as true and necessary education (at least the chapter I mentioned). Usually I’m not looking for instruction so much as encouragement and commiseration.

  19. I recently offered suggestions for writing books, just four: Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard, Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, The Observation Deck, and Anatomy of Story. See them here: http://www.literarylotus.com/2007/09/on-writing-fiction.html

  20. “How to” writing books can be useful, and I have found good things in them over the years. I confess though that I lean toward books that stress basics and mechanics: ELEMENTS OF STYLE for instance, or Karen Gordon’s THE TRANSITIVE VAMPIRE. At the other, creative end of the pole I favor publications that inspire writing through reading. In ROSEBUD MAGAZINE for example, which I publish and edit, we take some effort to steer readers backstage and give them some insight into what writers are thinking/doing in a particular piece. We Why? Because it takes people closer to the action. In ROSEBUD we try and create little windows into the minds of authors– try and put the reader at the writer’s elbow. It’s like the difference between reading about bird behavior in a book and going out into a field with binoculars. Is reading the bird book helpful? Sure. Hang gliding off the barn? Probably. But watching how birds do the bird thing can be the most valuable lesson of all.

    J. Roderick Clark

  21. Nion McEvoy

    Some left field suggestions, mostly about poetry: “Rose, Where Did you Get That Red: Teaching Great Poetry to Schoolchildren,” by Kenneth Koch, a great New York poet who offers a surprisingly useful child’s eye view of poetry; “Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence,” by Geoff Dyer, a hilarious excursion into severe writer’s block; “Mischief, Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies,” by Terry Wolverton, a list of silly prompts and an anthology of almost credible poems built out of them; “Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice,” which proposes a useful exercise that doesn’t purport to teach you anything about writing per se; and “Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey,” by Clark Strand, another not-exactly-about-writing book that if nothing else will get you out of the house. A couple of people have mentioned “The Triggering Town”. I’ve only read the essay, not the book, but Hugo’s ideas about initial inspiration and subsequent poetic responsibility are very useful. Useful too is “The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms,” by poets Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, especially if you forget, for example, the rhyme scheme in a sestina. Closing, I want to put in a word for Gertrude Stein, whose elliptical lectures seemed useful when I read them in college.

  22. Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town

    This is it, the Bible, the text for poets. Yes.

  23. Clearly I need to check out The Triggering Town. Thanks, all.

  24. Bob Kaven

    Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town is the single best book about writing poetry ever written by anyone, anywhere, at any time. The essays teach you to think like a poet; you pick up the habit by osmosis. The prose is more like a series of parachute drops than an intellectual experience. Over the years your fascination will drag you back to these essays again and again. They never grow stale. And you will walk away shaking with energy each time. These essays pretty much appeared one at a time in The American Poetry Review. They earned their way in by getting their hands dirty and working overtime.

  25. Iulian

    The following are just great:

    – H. W. Leggett – The Idea in Fiction
    – C. Gordon – How to Read a Novel
    – Flannery O’Connor – Understanding Fiction
    – Walker Percy – Signposts in a strange land
    – Wayne C. Booth – The Rhetoric of Fiction
    – Conrad’s prefaces to his works; with an introductory essay by Edward Garnett

  26. It is so wonderfull to see so many people chatting about writing books.

    Of course, judging by the sheer volume of writing guides available from publishers it would seem that the enthusiasm of this blog page is only a small sampling of the enthusiasm for the genre.

    Here are my top ten books about writing: http://www.squidoo.com/writeguide

    Well I’m off to take a look at The Triggering Town 😉