If You Want to Write … Start Here!
These writing guides deserve a perch on the bookshelves of writers both novice and veteran
Maybe you dream of writing but haven’t started yet, or perhaps you’ve been writing for a while but want to ratchet your craft to a new level. Wherever you are on the authorial spectrum, the writing guides below will furnish inspiration, instruction and insights aplenty.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. A gentle but firm-handed instructive companion for fiction writers, first published in 1934. Brande devised a nifty exercise to get around that “meddlesome, opinionated, and arrogant” internal editor who so often silences your true writer’s voice: Commit yourself to spend the first 15 minutes of every day writing whatever comes to mind. Then, without revising or even reading it, set it aside. Later in the process, as Brande shows, you can work in tandem with your inner critic to shape this raw material into solid stories.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. A master class between book covers. Writing professors around the country savor this title for its comprehensive look at creative writing — including the analysis of stories, exercises and assignments.
From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. The novelist and teacher invokes passages from both his bad and his good writing to illustrate how ideas and stories emerge from the unconscious. If nothing else, read the chapter on yearning — a fundamental element that many writers overlook, says Butler: “There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.” Isn’t that, after all, why we write?
The Making of a Writer, Volume 2: Journals, 1963–1969 by Gail Godwin. A fascinating look at a work in progress — both the young writer and her writing. The themes that emerge as you read Godwin’s notebook entries may parallel your own: her desire to be a serious writer, her bouts of self-doubt, the endless conflict between writing and marriage.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. In this Zen approach to establishing a fruitful writing practice, Goldberg lauds the power of setting down the minutiae of a life: “We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal — The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories by Alexandra Johnson. Can journal writing sharpen such essential writing skills as notation, description and narration? Can it give you the tools you need to identify pivotal moments, deeper truths, underlying patterns — and shape them into stories? Johnson thinks it can — and shows you how. “Just below the surface of quickly jotted facts,” she writes, “there’s always a more interesting story waiting to be claimed.”
The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes. I tend to be skeptical of writer’s block (I’m a Midwesterner), but Keyes won me over with this entertaining and motivational book. It’s comforting to learn that certain familiar insecurities plague even the most successful writers. (Cynthia Ozick, for one, admitted, “I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”) Keyes helps you recognize what’s holding you back — and then vanquish it. “The more I read, and write,” he says, “the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than inner conviction.”
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Tough, get-on-your-duff-and-write love, served up with a side dish of The Master’s salty good humor. King believes that you can become a better writer, and he pushes you to do so via reminders that pretentious language, the passive voice and adverbs are enemies of good writing. “Make yourself a solemn promise right now,” he urges us, “that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ to mean ‘tip.’” (Speaking of tips, start with King’s “Toolbox” chapter.)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. A let’s-get-real look at what it takes to be a writer. Lamott leavens the downside of writing (loneliness, rejection and despair, for starters) with some wickedly upbeat humor — and many practical strategies designed to help you do the thing you love. (When you feel like quitting, for example, turn to her chapters on “Short Assignments” and “Shitty First Drafts.”)
Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life. Compiled by Carole F. Chase, this collection of L’Engle’s short essays (many are only a few hundred words long) offers practical tips on writing techniques. It also touches on the spiritual aspects of creativity. Here’s some advice to treasure from the book: “But when you start to write, don’t think. Write. If you think when you’re writing, it’s no good.”
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. This is the book version of an article Leonard wrote for The New York Times in 2001 that was entitled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” he exhorts us. That means saying goodbye to detailed descriptions of characters, people, places, the weather and what’s going on in a character’s head.
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. The writing life as seen from the other side of the desk. Top-notch editor and agent Lerner pulls no punches: You’re facing rejection, an “eat or be eaten climate” and likely not much in the way of payment. Yet she also prizes even the most private forms of writing: “No combination of written words is more eloquent than those exchanged in letters between lovers or friends, or along the pale blue lines of private diaries, where people take communion with themselves.”
Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and What They Should Say Instead) by Eric Maisel. Dip into this slim volume of writing affirmations for some quick confidence-builders. Maisel, a creativity coach, has heard just about every excuse imaginable for writers not writing — and knows how to rebut each one:
Excuse No. 64: “Reading four hundred novels would probably help me find my voice.”
Rebuttal: “I will only find my voice by writing many novels, including the bad ones I will probably have to write, and learning by writing.”
Excuse No. 166: “I need to nag my children about their dirty rooms.”
Rebuttal: “I need to write.”
You get the idea.
The Journal Keeper: A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux. A solid-gold example of mining the meaning hidden in your journals. Theroux has written several winning essay collections. Here she invites you into her life, hands you a glass of wine, and launches into a conversation about art, love, relationships, aging, loss, reading and writing.
If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit by Brenda Ueland. A welcome respite from the brain buzzing brought on by print and electronic media bombardment. Ueland offers tips on ways to tap your imagination, including “moodling — long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” You can’t lollygag all day, of course; at some point you have to put what’s in your mind onto paper or screen. If You Want to Write helps with that, too.
One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. The lessons in this widely treasured memoir are all about the craft of writing and its three essential ingredients: listening, learning to see and finding a voice. Read it and witness how Welty creates a deep sense of place, trains her eye for detail and hones her ear for the nuances of the language she heard growing up in Jackson, Mississippi.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. The elements of good composition. Interviewing and travel-writing tips. Writing a memoir. It’s all here in this aptly titled “classic” handbook for working writers. “Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page,” advises Zinsser, “a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.” Once you learn that “creeping nounism … is a new American disease,” you’ll be well on the way to absorbing Zinsser’s main points: Be clear, concise and uncluttered in your writing. Have fun, he counsels, and your readers will too.
Elfrieda Abbe is the publisher and former editor of The Writer magazine.