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My 9 Favorite Books on Writing

I get asked a lot to recommend books about writing, so I've finally compiled a list of my top nine. Below, I briefly share who might benefit most for each book along with a short description, quote, and some additional information such as other work by the author.

Let me know if you've read any of these and what you think, and I'd also love to hear about your favorite books about writing or any other useful resources that support your craft.

Note: I don't earn anything from this or through the links. I did choose to link to Amazon in order for folks to see reviews and descriptions at-a-glance, but please consider shopping local for any books you purchase. Not sure where to buy small? Check out my favorite indie bookstore The Frugal Frigate. They can place orders if they don't have something in stock, and they ship!

Oh and connect with me on Goodreads!

1) Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Who should read this book?

If you're interested in writing but don't know where to start, or you feel stuck and like you could benefit from turning down the volume on your inner critic, this book is your you.

What's it about?

I start with this book because it's ultimately what helped me get a handle on my inner critic ("monkey mind" as the author calls it) and write my first memoir. Prior to reading this book and learning about writing practice, I rarely shared my writing and didn't feel "good enough" or "qualified" despite writing regularly since I could hold a pencil, despite my great love for it.

This book is about writing practice and what it can do for you, your writing, and your life. It's rooted in Buddhism and informed by Natalie's experiences studying and practicing Zen, but you don't need any previous experience or knowledge of Buddhism to benefit from it.

Early on, Natalie explains the "Rules of Writing Practice" as its own chapter. In short, they are:

1) Keep the hand moving, no stopping to edit, spell check, cross out, etc.

2) There's no good or bad (!)

3) "Go for the jugular" - in other words, if you notice resistance, go towards it because that's where the energy is

4) Read aloud with others after writing, but there's no comment allowed, no feedback (now or later), just reading and listening

5) Try to include sitting (meditation) for at least a few minutes prior to writing

Want to try it out? I host a free writing practice hour on Sundays from 2-3 pm PST and review the basics before we start. All are welcome 18 and up.

Other things to know: I'm not an audiobook person, but this book is read by the author and absolutely wonderful to listen to, especially because she pauses at the end of each chapter and reflects on what she just read since it had been 15 years since she originally published it at the time. There's a great interview at the end, too. I also recommend her other books, including Old Friend from Far Away (about writing memoir), and two of her memoirs that are my favorites are: Long Quiet Highway and The Great Failure (to be read in that order). I love all of her work, which includes 10 or so more non-fiction books, but I have to admit that I don't care for her one novel, Banana Rose.

“This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don't wait.” -Natalie Goldberg

2) The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith

Who should read this book?

If you're interested in diving into writing memoir, this book is for you. It's a small book with a punch that's anti-writing practice and the author wants you to get to work RIGHT NOW. She's kind of tough love about it, and I'm glad I discovered Natalie first.

What's it about?

I chose this book to discuss after Writing Down the Bones because it basically bashes everything Natalie teaches. In fact, the author sometimes gives the opposite advice. And why do I love that? Because it reminds us of the incredibly important lesson that there is no one way to do this, this writing thing. I believe it's really helpful and necessary to be exposed to as many different ways of thinking about and doing things as possible, even if she's kind of judgey and harsh at times. Just remember that you can always take what's helpful in books about writing and leave behind what's not.

As for me, I found a lot of her advice helpful, which included:

  • How to discern the things that do and don't drive your story forward

  • How to clarify the "about" or truth of your memoir

  • How to create a "hospitable" work environment & loads of other tips around memoir

Other things to know: Marion offers free and paid workshops, has a newsletter, and hosts a podcast called QWERTY. I haven't found a writing podcast I can get into yet, but let me know if you have one you love as I haven't given up.

"Memoir is not about what you did. It's about what you did with it." -Marion Roach

3) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Who should read this book?

Anyone who would like to take a hot, cozy bath in the tub of advice on the writing life that Anne has to offer. Great for writers of all genres and levels, but especially for beginners.

What's it about?

Like Writing Down the Bones, this is a book that's less about technique and more about "living the life of language" (Roy Clark). It's the book in which I learned about Natalie Goldberg and her work.

Anne Lamott is honest, raw, and funny. She makes us feel less alone in our writing lives (and our everyday lives if you read her other non-fiction work). And she covers everything from getting started to advice about perfectionism all the way to tips around publishing. But she doesn't lay it out drily. Ohhhhh no. Anne has found ways to talk about character, plot, and the inner critic in ways that'll have you laughing out loud as you turn the page.

Other things to know: In the fall of 2022, I hosted a 14-week workshop based on four of Anne Lamott's books. I learned to love her small non-fiction books that keep things real, offering anecdotes and advice about life, healing, coping, and more. She loves Jesus but writes in an inclusive way that everyone can relate to. She also offers various workshop opportunities online and in-person. Learn more about her here.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” - Anne Lamott

4) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Who should read this book?

Writers of all levels and genres will enjoy the first half, which is the memoir portion of this book that focuses on the events that led to Stephen's writing path, but it may be geared more toward beginners in the second half when he focuses on basic writing advice. Good reminders for all, however, regardless of prior experience.

What's it about?

I suppose I was concise for once, by accident, in the paragraph above. I'll elaborate just to say that this is such an enjoyable read that covers the basics and is a good starting point for those interested in reading about writing but unsure of where to begin.

Other things to know: I'm a giant baby who doesn't like any kind of horror or scary storytelling (is life not scary enough?), so I've never actually read any other of Stephen King's books. Well, I got halfway through The Stand (so, about 500 pages) but it gave me nightmares, so I stopped.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” -Stephen King

5) The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Who should read this book?

Folks who are interested in writing basics at the sentence-level but don't want to spend too much time reading about 'em.

What's it about?

It's a very short, concise guide to the technical bits and bobs of language. I like to think of it as the book that teaches you the "rules" so that you can more effectively and creatively break them later on.

Other things to know: There a few different versions of this book out there, including the original, shorter version written only by William Strunk Jr. One of his students, E.B. White, would later go on to add more to this little guide. And Charlotte's Web! Now, apparently, there's an illustrated version out there with a dog on the cover.

"Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason." -William Strunk/E.B. White

6) Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

Who should read this book?

Writers of any genre (though this is geared more toward non-fiction writers) wishing to go more deeply into the various elements of writing. A great book to read after The Elements of Style or in lieu of it.

What's it about?

I used this book as the basis of a creative writing class I taught in 2022, and we all adored it. It has 55 short chapters that focus on various writing strategies with examples and optional practice activities, which I highly recommend doing in order to really understand and apply the strategies. It can be read cover to cover, or you can easily begin with any chapter if you have a particular strategy you want to learn more about and practice. In fact, Roy explains in one chapter how he wrote this book, which was to break it down into 55 essays that he'd write over the course of a year, then compile into Writing Tools.

Other things to know: The author has another book called The Art of X-Ray Reading which I'm currently enjoying and using to help me prepare for the next class I'll be teaching, The Writers Circle, which is a 12-week cohort I host twice a year that includes close reading, the study and practice of writing tools, writing marathons, feedback sessions, one-on-one calls with me, and access to my virtual writing salon.

"Let your writing flow early. You can reach for a tool later." -Roy Peter Clarke

7) On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Who should read this book?

Nonfiction writers (especially those interested in journalism) who are looking for sound advice on a broad range of topics.

What's it about?

I've read a few William Zinsser books on writing, and I appreciate and enjoy his style. It's not fussy, it's easy to understand, and it's clearly grounded in a lifetime of experience.

In this particular book, he covers various topics that fall under four categories: 1) Principles 2) Methods 3) Forms and 4) Attitudes. Similar in format to Writing Tools, his chapters are short, and he includes great examples and anecdotes to illustrate his points.

Other things to know: If you prefer to focus on a particular type of writing, the author has many other books out there including writing about place and your life. I'm currently enjoying his anthology Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir which consists of around a dozen well-known authors' essays on their work processes. If you've enjoyed Frank McCourt's work, start with his essay. So good!

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.” -William Zinsser