An Editor’s Look at Some of the Best Writing Books on the Shelves
A Penguin nonfiction editor shares some of her favorite resources for writers.
In my day job, I edit books at Perigee, an imprint of Penguin. Editing comes fairly naturally to me: when I read manuscripts, I’ve learned to trust my inner reader voice, the one that says, “Hmmm, the tone isn’t right here,” or “This part tripped me up,” or “I wonder what would happen if we cut this and moved this…” I confidently listen to these instincts as I work with my authors and their manuscripts, helping turn ideas into smart and compelling books.
After hours, however, all of those confident editorial instincts go right out the door as I sit in front of my laptop and transform from Assured Experienced Editor into Neurotic Aspiring Author. Like Bruce Banner turning Hulk-ish, this is not a fun transformation. Neurotic Aspiring Author spends hours on her commute or laying in bed at night desperately mulling over story ideas. She struggles to get words on the page, painstakingly keying in words one by one. She obsessively reads and re-reads her writing, one second falling in love with a seeming moment of genius, the next deciding all of her writing self-loathing is completely justified as the words she’s written are the worst affront to writing ever.
So, what’s Neurotic Aspiring Author to do? Turn to the pros.
I’ve learned to be kinder to my writing self after reading Betsy Lerner’s Forest for the Trees. I’ve managed to overcome the occasional case writer’s block by spending some time with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I’ve discovered how to rethink my motivation and rework my plot with the help of Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover.
There are a variety of wonderful resources available to both neurotic and well-adjusted writers–writing guides that offer knowledge and tips to make your writing as polished and compelling as possible. (Disclosure: Yes, I’ve confidently edited some of these titles, but my anxious writer side has thrived from the advice within.) So take a look at some of this Neurotic Aspiring Author’s personal favorites—I hope you’ll find they speak to you as well!
Books on Writing Basics
Any novice writer who needs help on the basics, or simply some brushing-up on the craft should check out these easy-to-absorb guides:
- 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Scott Edelstein: A wide-ranging introduction to the building blocks of the craft and business of writing, from finding your voice to getting an agent, written by a writer, editor, and literary agent.
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
A series of essays by the science fiction bestseller Bradbury that will leave you feeling empowered and ready to write.
- 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost: A classic, well-loved writing guide that presents quick and easy-to-implement tips on writing.
- On Writing by Stephen King: Both an inspiring memoir and instructional guide to craft, this book will get you ready to take the leap into writing.
Books on Fiction Ins and Outs
If you’re looking for instruction on writing fiction, from plot and character to pacing and voice, take a look at these simple and useful books:
- The Art of Fiction by John Gardner: A classic guide to, well, fiction writing, with easy-to-understand and inspiring tips and advice for new writers.
- A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon: A concise, practical guide covering the key elements of fiction, that includes sections on revision and marketing your work.
- The Writing Book by Kate Grenville: A step-by-step guide on how to write fiction, complete with exercises and workbook.
- Now Write! by Sherry Ellis: You can learn from National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and Guggenheim winners in this collection of personal writing exercises and commentary from some of today’s best novelists, short story writers, and writing teachers.
Books on Writing Motivation
Having a hard time getting started or finding momentum? Get some tips and advice in these inspiring guides:
- The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood: Optimistic and encouraging, this book guides readers through a series of writing exercises sure to increase motivation and creativity.
- Bang the Keys by Jill Dearman: Provides a four-part plan so writers can gain the momentum and discipline they need to follow through on a project.
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg: A powerful and enthusiastic guide to useful and motivating writing practices that combine creativity with meditation.
- The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block by Kathy Kleidermacher: A practical guide full of tips, exercises, and prompts to get your writing back on track.
Books on Insider Advice
Sometimes, the best advice comes from those in the trenches: editors, agents, and other published authors. Get an inside look at the industry from these unique perspectives:
- Who’s Writing This? by Dan Halpern: An delightfully invaluable collection of essays about the publishing and creative processes from the people who do it every day—-writers.
- Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell: A helpful look at the specific errors beginning writers often make that keep them from breaking out into the industry.
- The Secret Miracle by Daniel Alarcon, Ed.
Learn the ins and outs of writing fiction from the best of the best in this roundtable disccusion in print.
- On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner: A collection of essays from Pulitzer-Prize winning author, covering aspects of fiction writing from the writer’s vision and audience, to symbolism and swear words, to the mystery of the creative process.
Books on Living the Writing Life
Hoping to dig deeper with your writing, and to infuse joy into the actual process? Learn how to find balance and structure in these reads:
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: A sharp, funny, and at times brutally honest guide that will help you find your voice in both your writing and your life.
- Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico: A guide on how to turn the task and stress of writing into a meaningful and natural process.
- A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock: A first-hand account from a once-struggling writer on balancing real life and writing life before and after you “make it.”
- Right to Write by Julia Cameron: Empowering guidance on how to make writing a joyful way of life (vs. a stress-filled “Big Deal”).
Books on Grammar Guidance
Worried your writing is rife with grammar and spelling errors? Read these great guides to help you polish your work:
- Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner: Down-to-earth guidance that de-mystifies the confusing world of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation.
- Words Into Type, Third Edition by Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay: Definitive and credible source for writers on manuscript etiquette, copyediting, style, grammar, and usage.
- Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande: If you’re tired of the grammar police but still need to learn the basics, you’ll love this humorous and lively approach to learning grammar. Also check out the author’s other book, Mortal Syntax, for another fun guide—this time on frequently attacked language usage choices.
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: This classic style manual is a must have for any writer.
- Literally, the Best Language Book Ever by Paul Yeager: A wry and opinionated examination of trite, trendy, grammatically incorrect, inane, outdated, and lazy uses of words, phrases, and expressions.
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn: A dynamic manual for both newbie authors who want to learn the ropes and writing veterans who want to hone their craft.
Books on Getting Published
Ready to take the next steps and find a good home for your work? Look no further than these useful resources:
- 2011 Writer’s Market by Robert Lee Brewer, Ed.: An annual guide to getting published from a variety of industry sources, compiled by Brewer into one sacred text.
- Publicize Your Book by Jacqueline Deval: “Easily the most incisive and expert guide to book publishing ever” according to Publisher’s Weekly, this guide teaches writers how to actively take part in publicizing, marketing, and promoting their work.
- The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman: Tips on how to avoid bad writing and stay out of the rejection pile from a well-known literary agent.
- Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon: Step-by-step details on what editors want and how to develop a marketing strategy to get published.
[Photo by Danielle Poiesz]