The Best Books on Writing by the Best Writers
You do not have to read this essay, just the books.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
You do not have to read this essay. You only need to scan. At least, given so short a time on this planet to read all the books that I want, that is how I would do it.
But if you are still reading and likely curious about my reasons for curating what follows, you are probably a writer.
You know how conjoined writing is to reading, how reading makes us better writers. These books were written by my favorite writers so I hope that when you browse through the collection, you find something you like.
In the reading part of our practice, a wealth of wisdom passes through, yet the shelf life of some of these books has reached its expiry.
Learning to write better does not have an expiry date, for it is a constant beseeching for answers for what passes understanding. We write about what confounds us.
We write for clarity and truth. For as long as the world remains a mystery, and our human frailties preclude us from separating fact from fiction, these books have to be revisited, if not re-read, as many times as needed.
Every book is an adventure, and the excerpts you will find below are personal milestones — rare occasions when I nodded in approval or paused to come up for air.
The author may never know it, but those were the moments where we connected, when my life slightly shifted its course, and for which I will always be grateful.
These books are for avid writers and readers, already faithful followers of the grammar god.
The bible is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which was required reading in school, as timeless in its brevity as the psalms.
I suggest pairing it with Revising Prose by Richard Lanham which has a paramedic method still tacked on my wall. I have them close by, heeding the advice of some of the most seasoned authors who still find them useful.
This list aims to take scribing to the next level by helping you learn from those with the battle scars to show.
The writing journey, like many career paths, is not linear. It is excruciating before it gets rewarding. But rewards are not guaranteed.
Finding one’s voice could take a lifetime. And writer’s block is not a myth, and could be debilitating in one’s mad dash to the deadline. In the hopes of short-circuiting the process, I immersed in the wisdom of these writers, who, in their own words, taught me to write mine.
Working by Robert A. Caro
“It is the research that takes the time — the research and whatever it is in myself that makes the research take so long, so very much longer than I had planned.
Whatever it is that makes me do research the way I do, it’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something for which I can take the credit — or the blame.
It just seems to be a part of me. Looking back on my life I can see that it’s not really something I have had much choice about; in fact, that it was not something about which, really, I had any choice at all.”
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
“When my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something.
It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
“It is good that for the moment you are going into a profession which will make you independent and mean you only have yourself to rely on, in every sense.
Have the patience to wait and see whether your inmost life feels confined by the form of this occupation.
I consider it a very difficult and a very demanding one, as it is burdened by powerful conventions and leaves almost no room to interpret its duties according to your own lights.
But your solitude, even in the midst of quite foreign circumstances, will be a hold and a home for you, and leading from it you will find all the paths you need.”
On Writing by Stephen King
“I am, when you stop to think about it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. This might not be important.
On the other hand, if you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.
Just an idea.”
Draft №4: On The Writing Process by John McPhee
“Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help.
The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are among other things, lucky.”
“Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft.
With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom.
The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.”
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
“Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand.
And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommending them for browsing.
What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don’t force yourself too hard. Take it easy. Over the years you may catch up to, move even with, and pass T. S. Eliot on your way to other pastures.
You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.”
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
“Memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page. Most morally ominous: from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.
Plus, memoir uses novelistic devices like cobbling together dialogue you failed to record at the time. To concoct a distinctive voice, you often have to do a poet’s lapidary work. And the good ones reward study.
You’re making an experience for the reader, a show that conjures your past — inside and out — with enough lucidity that a reader gets way more than just the brief flash of titillation. You owe a long journey, and most of all, you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself.
So while it is shaped experience, the best ones come from the soul of a human unit oddly compelled to root out the past’s truth for his own deeply felt reasons.”