There must be thousands of how-to books on writing out there. It makes sense, right? If you’re a writer who is good at writing, clearly you’ll want to share your knowledge with others through your favored medium. Have you ever heard an expert trying to explain their field, though? Just like listening to a nuclear scientist tell a layperson about their latest research, writers aren’t always the best at explaining the tricks of the trade to a broad audience. There are some good ones out there—you just have to persevere. I’ve sifted through the chaff and found five books on writing that won’t leave you groaning or scratching your head.
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction
By: Stephen Koch
For the beginning writer, reading about craft can be, well, mysterious. It doesn’t seem so much a craft as some mystical process which happens in a writer’s head under a full moon on the winter solstice. Koch taught at Columbia University’s creative writing program for decades, and he’s clearly used to explaining the mechanics of fiction to those who are new to writing. His tone is that of a kind mentor, and he offers practical tips and interesting quotes from some of the most well-known authors out there.
Good for: the new short story writer or novelist
Zen in the Art of Writing
By: Ray Bradbury
Sci fi legend Ray Bradbury serves up inspiring writing advice in these ten short essays. Here you won’t find tips like how to outline or pace a story. The book is more about getting outside one’s head and tapping the creativity inside of them; consider this the zealous antidote to Koch’s sage, practical advice. While some might dismiss this as the same vague mysticism that comes with lots of writing advice, it’s more empowering than that—it can get me excited about writing, even when I’m sure I’m ready to give the whole thing up and become an accountant.
Good for: the depressed writer
Women Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews
Edited by: George Plimpton and Margaret Atwood
I would recommend all three volumes of this set, even though I’ve only linked to one. These Paris Review interviews are by far some of the most intimate and candid ones out there: instead of the standard Time magazine softball questions, you find the writers in a relaxed atmosphere actually sharing how they work and think about their writing. As fiction writing is still largely a man’s game, this set can be inspiring for any experienced or amateur lady writers out there.
Good for: women writers
The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
Edited by: Vendela Vida
You can consider this the antidote to the Paris Review interviews. If you’re familiar with the literary magazine The Believer, you’ll recognize its funny, slightly off tone in the interviews of this book. Writers as diverse as Grace Paley and Haruki Murakami are interviewed by fellow writers. The questions aren’t only casual and funny, but also revealing—you’ll get a glimpse into their personal life, which, as a neurotic writer myself, I am always interested to see.
Good for: the seasoned writer
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
By: Anne Lamott
It’s only the truly masochistic person that decides to pursue writing seriously. Because of this, most writers have a pretty close relationship with self-deprecation. As you watch a new work unfold from its choppy, undeveloped self into something more readable, it’s always tempting to abandon it midstream and call yourself a failure. Lamott’s book offers valuable advice on getting over your own perfectionism and self-esteem hang-ups—something that all writers deal with. It’s personal and well-written, and I often turn to certain chapters for an inspiring pick-me-up.
Good for: the unsure writer