5 favorite books for writers & authors
I love reading about writing. Whether it’s a novel with a writer as the protagonist (see: Writers & Lovers by Lily King) or a how-to book, I find it fascinating to read about the writing process. It turns out that there are a lot of books about writing on the market, but the problem is that not every book is created equal. If you’re interested in reading more about the writing life, I’ve put together my five favorite books on the topic to help you sort through the pile.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but this was the first book I ever read about the craft and process of writing. Anne Lamott’s style is accessible, practical, funny, and irreverent. The first time I read Bird by Bird, it was for a high school creative writing class and I remember my sheltered sensibilities being shocked by her casual use of the phrase “shitty rough draft.” Having written a few such drafts now, I can attest that that is exactly the right name for that stage in the process.
Lamott really does cover pretty much every aspect of writing well-constructed and compelling stories in this slim book. Because she organized it by topic and writing stage so clearly, it’s easy to pick up at any point of your own drafting process, flip to the chapter relevant to your needs in the moment, and infuse some fresh inspiration and advice into your writing life.
At this point, I’ve read Bird by Bird probably five times—some sections more than that—and I’m guessing I’ll read it several more over the course of my writing life. If you buy any book on this list, I’d suggest this one for its sheer practicality and humor.
Confession: This is the only book by Stephen King I’ve ever read. I am too much of a chicken to read his other work, though I plan to give it a go eventually (only during the daytime and never when I’m home alone, naturally). I don’t really know why I picked it up in the first place, but I’m so glad I did. At the time of this post, I’ve read it three times and I plan to read it again in the future.
The contents of this book are in part a memoir of King’s own writing journey, his struggles with addiction, and the ups and downs of his marriage and family life. In general, I find books about artists’ processes and journeys fascinating and this is no different. King writes beautifully about all the hard things in his life, sharing candidly the worst parts of his past and his gratefulness at coming out the other side.
In the second section of the book (which is only about a third of the total page count, by my estimate), King shares all the writing advice he can impart to younger authors. It’s thoroughly concise, clear, practical, and a little self-deprecating. The piece of advice that’s stuck with me the most is that your first draft should be a “doors closed” draft just for your own eyes, whereas the second draft is a “doors open” draft when you let in readers.
While the previous two books illuminate the practical side of writing, The Writing Life instead offers a more emotional, intellectual look at the writer’s life and mind. If you’ve read anything by Annie Dillard, you’ll be familiar with her cerebral and sometimes stream of consciousness style and feel right at home here. For some reason, this has always felt like a winter book to me; a book to curl up under a blanket with.
Despite being on the more lyrical side, Dillard isn’t painting a rosy and idealistic picture of the writing life at all. Instead, she speaks candidly about the obsessive nature of her work, of the wrestling required to pin the right words down in the right order on the page.
If you’re feeling discouraged that your creative life isn’t the perfect picture of an artist sitting before their muse and joyfully transcribing the next great American novel, I’d suggest you pick this one up. It’s a lovely and intimate look at what a writer actually feels while they’re working on a project.
It seems as if every writing book around says some variation of “you have to read extensively to be a good writer” and this essay collection will teach you how to read like a writer, with an eye toward story structure in particular. In addition to being an acclaimed author, George Saunders is a professor at the Syracuse University creative writing MFA program. Obviously, only a very small portion of writers will ever take a class with him in person, but this is the next best thing.
The book pairs in-depth analysis with seven short stories by famous Russian authors and walks the reader through different modes of story analysis that illuminate different aspects of each work. For example, the first story (The Cart by Anton Chekhov) is laid out so that you read one page of the story and then spend anywhere from a page to several pages walking through the meaning of that page in the context of the story and what it sets up for the next page.
If you’re looking for a book that’ll teach you about plot and structure without feeling like a textbook, this is the book for you. Plus, it’s just a pleasure to read thanks to Saunders’ distinctive voice and humor.
My manuscript isn’t ready for the querying stage yet, but this book will be one I reread before sending that first query. The actual publishing part of publishing a book is often hidden in a black box and Courtney Maum seeks to open the lid in this book. Predictably, the book is divided into two sections:
One for before you secure a book deal, covering everything from drafting your book and beta readers to querying and understanding an advance
One for after you secure a book deal, covering everything from self-marketing and your book launch to writing your second book and building a career
While she certainly doesn’t present the process as an easy one, there’s a certain comfort in seeing the whole thing laid out openly. While the first section didn’t feel as groundbreaking to me (partly because I read a lot of writing books and listen to a lot of writing podcasts), the second was very insightful and I hope it’ll be helpful to my future writing ventures.
If you’re thinking of publishing your work down the line or are in the process of querying agents now, I’d highly suggest reading this book.
Do you read books about writing? What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?