Jerri’s “Top 25” Writing Books
I started collecting books about writing in 1994, when I audited an undergraduate creative writing class at Old Dominion University. One day I realized that I was reading about writing more than I was actually writing. So I limited the books on writing to three small shelves. If something new comes in, something old that I’m not getting enough use from has to go out. The twenty-five books listed below have survived many shelf clean-outs.
You may find different books on writing that work better for you.
I’ve included links to most of these books on Amazon for your convenience – but if you have a local independent bookstore, please consider supporting them by buying your books there or asking if the staff can order them for you.
Craft of Writing
Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.
The instructor in the class at Old Dominion used this as our basic craft of writing textbook. In twenty-one years I have never found one that’s more comprehensive or useful.
Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly.
Levine is the author of Ella Enchanted – the book is different than the movie and well worth reading, even for adults. I picked it up when I was working with elementary school students, but found her discussion of craft and her writing exercises to be good for adults as well.
Sandra Scofield, The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.
Scenes are the building blocks of all stories, novels, and memoirs. This book is a close look at narrative structure and how it works.
Ron Capps, Writing War.
This is the textbook that Capps uses in the Veterans Writing Project seminars. What makes it stand out from other books on craft is that he draws examples of every aspect of craft from writing by veterans – from Leo Tolstoy to Tobias Wolff.
William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style.
The classic reference guide. The tone, wit and advice make it worth a read even if you find grammar and style guides that you like better.
Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation.
I love this book. Truss makes punctuation funny.
Roy Peter Clark. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.
This is another easy-to-read book that explains not just what grammar is correct, but how to use grammar to enhance meaning.
Noah Lukeman. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.
Lukeman is a literary agent with a list of prize-winning clients. He explains how to use punctuation to enhance meaning in a surprising readable way.
The Writing Life
Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.
This is my go-to book when I feel like the writing life is just too hard, when I need to know that I’m not alone. One of my “writing life” goals is to attend one of the retreats that Shapiro hosts.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.
Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, and she comes across as what I think of as a “Type A” personality. I’ll never have her physical or mental energy. But what she says about habit and the creative process is as sound for writers as it is for dancers, and I’ve taken several of her lessons to heart with good results.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
This is one of the classics, and I go back to it so much that I’m on my second copy.
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
It is no hardship to spend a few hundred pages with Stephen King when he’s talking about craft and the writing life.
Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.
This is the other book that has been on my writing-book shelf since 1994 – I don’t have either the second or third edition! I use writing prompts when I’m stuck or don’t feel like working on the piece I’ve assigned myself for the day. This book is arranged along the elements of craft, so it’s especially good to knock things loose if you’re feeling stuck with something specific like dialogue or point of view.
Judy Reeves, A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life.
This book has meditations on writing and the writing life, accompanied by a short prompt for each day of the year (many seasonal). The prompts are short and can work equally well for writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. My copy was produced with some pages in the middle upside down and reversed, which keeps things interesting. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t deliberate.
Sherry Ellis, ed., Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers.
The Now Write! series collects writing exercises from famous and lesser-known writers and teachers for both literary and genre writing. They’re arranged according to elements of craft.
Sherry Ellis, ed., Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writers.
This book covers a lot of ground: memoir, journalism, and creative nonfiction. The writing exercises could also be adapted for writing fiction.
Memoir and Creative Nonfiction
Lee Gutkind, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.
Gutkind is one of the early names in the writing and teaching of “creative nonfiction” – use of the elements of the craft of fiction to write more interesting long-form journalism, essay, and memoir. His words of wisdom about truth in nonfiction are gospel. This book is comprehensive about elements of craft.
Lee Gutkind, Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.
This book is a shorter, more succinct guide to creative nonfiction. It may be best for writers already familiar with the elements of the writing craft, or those looking for a quick introduction to creative nonfiction.
Other Writing Books I Like.
Lavinia Spalding, Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler. I love to journal when I travel. Spalding’s book is the best I’ve found on ways to be a better observer and writer on the road.
Michael J. Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry.
I’m not a poet. My teenage sons and I sometimes get out the poems I wrote in high school for a good laugh – it reminds them that they can’t possibly do worse on their own poetry assignments! But this book has helped me to read and understand poetry better, and I offer Bugeja’s exercises to students who want to write poetry. His chapter on war poetry alone is worth the price of the book.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.</em>
If you want to write, you have to read. Period. Prose explains how to get the most out of your reading if you want to write well.
Webster’s New World Dictionary. I have this as an app on my iPad, and I also have the cinderblock-sized Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language in hardback – I think I picked it up twenty years ago on a remainder table, so while it’s very comprehensive it’s also dated. Every writer needs a good dictionary, and while there are some great dictionaries available on line for free, going to an on line dictionary can be a “quick and easy” solution that will give you the correct spelling and basic meaning, it often won’t help you go deeper in your writing. For some of the things I write, I want to be able to noodle through etymology and alternate meanings and strange word compounds. If I could fit an Oxford English Dictionary in my office, and if I could afford it, I’d have it. Of course, then I’d be so busy reading that I’d never get any writing done.
The New Roget’s Thesaurus in Dictionary Form. Every writer also needs a good thesaurus. My copy, a hardback, was a high school graduation gift from a beloved neighbor in 1981, and I think of her every time I pull it off the reference shelf. I’ve never seen any reason to update it.
Leland Ryken, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
I’m a very lapsed Episcopalian, but I find this book indispensable when I’m noodling about connotations and abstract ideas. I also just like the stories and explanations.
Roy Peter Clark. Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.
This book is like having a friendly uncle who can talk you through the worst moments of your writing life.