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Books About Writing

July 2, 2012

writing books

MAD Office Bookcase

As you can see, the shelves in my office are overflowing with books about writing. They are some of the tools of my trade as a writer, editor, and writing coach, and I keep them alongside my grandfather’s antique carpentry tools.

I have way too many books about writing, though. Many of them are derivative or not very good. If I had to choose, here are three writing books I’d be sure to take to my desert island.

1) For my spirit:

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

I’ve come to believe that all good writing advice makes good life advice, too. Anne Lamott figured this out way before I did. In this book, she guides us through the frustration, angst, and joy associated with being a writer, and she does it by exposing her own inner life and overlaying everything with humor.

Gem: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

Runner Up: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

2) For my craft:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Second Edition by Renni Browne & Dave King

I recommend this book more frequently than I do any other writing book. It focuses on the mechanics of style including dialogue, interior monologue, point of view, showing versus telling, proportion, voice and more. Explanations are crystal clear, illustrated with examples, and written in an engaging style. To reinforce what you’re learning, each chapter includes a checklist you can apply to your work in progress and exercises to test your understanding of the principles.

Gem: “As you read, be on the lookout for places where you are tempted to change the wording. Give in to this temptation whenever you can.”

Runner Up: The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sara Scofield

3) For reference:

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition by University of Chicago Staff

This is the source of authority—the bible—for writers, editors, and publishers of books. Running more than 1,000 pages, it is a detailed and comprehensive reference for matters of manuscript preparation, the publishing process, style and usage, and documentation.

Gem:2.48  Discretion in substantive editing. A light editorial hand is nearly always more effective than a heavy one. An experienced editor will recognize and not tamper with unusual figures of speech or idiomatic usage and know when to make an editorial change and when simply to suggest one it … An author’s own style should be respected, whether flamboyant or pedestrian.”

Runner Up: The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World by Yahoo! and Chris Barr

What about books for nonfiction writers, or books with writing prompts, or for information about marketing? I have recommendations, and perhaps I’ll cover these in later posts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite writing books. Use the comment section to tell me about the books that help or inspire you.

Let’s face it, too. Sometimes reading about writing is just another way to avoid writing. The real learning comes from the writing and revision we do, and not from some how-to book. In writing, as in life, I find it much more educational, productive, and fun to just do something, try, experiment—and read the manual later.

Mary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and writing coach with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. She does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. loiswstern permalink
    July 2, 2012 6:23 am

    I am just in the midst of Bird by Bird now. I enjoy Anne Lamott’s breezy, almost self deprecating style. Another book I often recommend – one that had a far reaching impact on me – is Stephen King’s On Writing.
    Lois W. Stern
    Creator of the “Authors Helping Authors” project/contest:

  2. July 2, 2012 7:46 am

    good list (and commentary)


  3. Lisa permalink
    July 2, 2012 7:58 am

    I love that your grandfather’s carpentry tools are there with your writing books. Perfect visuals for both crafts.

    • July 2, 2012 8:34 am

      Thank you Lisa. You can’t really see them in the photo, but they’re there in the small pottery piece in between the photos. Lots of carpentry metaphors work for writing.

  4. Heather Georgoudiou permalink
    July 2, 2012 10:08 am

    Great list and just in time for my birthday! Thanks Mary Ann.

  5. July 2, 2012 10:15 am

    Great list, love the photo. I love books about writing and have owned many over the years. When I made a big move cross-country a couple of years ago, I sold many of them – – I miss them. I have many recommendations also, but will keep it to a few: I have recently discovered the books by Roy Peter Clark; very helpful! Also, I am inspired by Roger Rosenblatt’s “If It Touches the Human Heart”.

  6. Chris Hamilton permalink
    July 2, 2012 2:46 pm

    Gonna check out that self-editing book. Thanks Mary Ann!

  7. July 3, 2012 7:41 am

    Wow you have a very list of books


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