16 Oct 2014
The five best books on writing
When it comes to books about writing, there are endless guides and manuals that can teach what to do—and what not to do. Many books find their way onto our writerly shelves and never leave, but there are certain reads that we want to pull out time and time again. We’ve put together a list of five books on writing—the five we can’t get enough of.
1. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative,Vivian Gornick
How do you turn the boring truth of your life into a story worth telling? How do you tell a story based on personal experience that doesn’t sound self-absorbed? How do you perfect the art of nonfiction first-person writing without being clichéd? Vivian Gornick’s book, The Situation and the Story, does just that.
Having taught in M.F.A. programs for 15 years, Gornick knows a thing or two about telling a story that accomplishes multiple goals: Letting your experiences shape the reader’s experience, sharing transformative events that in turn transform others, and, hopefully, delivering some wisdom, insight, or knowledge that only you can provide to the reader.
This short book reads as if written just for you—the writer who is ready to show and not tell, who is committed to a tale but needs to be pushed that one step farther. Gornick’s accessible writing makes her equal parts friend and teacher. The Situation and the Story is a book you’ll revisit over the years as your writing continues to evolve.
2. On Writing Well, William Zinsser
If ever there was a writing bible for nonfiction, On Writing Well is it. Organized around principles, methods, forms, and attitudes, William Zinsser manages to guide the writer through every step of the writing process. And his clear, simple language makes for approachable reading—and learning.
Best of all, Zinsser’s instructions are layered with examples, including sample writing with a slew of his corrections. His number one mantra? To keep writing as clean as possible, sans fluff, which can be trying even for a veteran writer.
Best of all, Zinsser offers specific sections on how to write about people, places, sports, business, the arts, and yourself. So, regardless of your writing topic or where you are in your writing journey, you’ll find a number of useful tips and instructions to turn average prose into tight, clean paragraphs.
3. Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg is committed to what she calls writing practice, which bases its model on the Zen study of the mind. Such introspective study allows us to ask ourselves big and small questions and tap into authentic answers for both.
She is quick to acknowledge that not everyone wants to write the next great American novel, but we all have an urge to write, to communicate who we are and how we feel. We all have stories to tell, and whether they’re for public consumption or simply for ourselves, the urge is still there and should be acted upon.
Her instruction in Writing Down the Bones is clear: Remove the rules around writing. Narrate a real account—and your real feelings—about a space and place in time. Not the surface “I had fun,” or “it was good,” but something authentic and accurate that conveys the depth of our true experiences.
4. What if?, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
With 25 years of teaching experience in creative writing between them, Bernays and Painter set out to write a fiction guide for would-be writers. Chock full of writing exercises—75 to be precise—their aim is clear: To convey how to think like a writer and write like a writer.
They dive deep to focus on dialogue, how to take real-life events and turn them into fiction, the beginning and end of a story, and how to choose language that clearly communicates your message and that makes for lovely writing.
Spend an hour every day focused on one writing exercise, or hunker down with a few on the weekend. Writing is a craft, but also works like a muscle when it comes to developing stamina. This book can improve your writing endurance, using specific techniques to tackle various writing conundrums.
5. The Emerging Writer, Emerging Writers’ Festival
As a nonprofit organization focused on supporting new writers, the Emerging Writers’ Festival was keen to put together an insider’s guide about everything it takes to be a writer. And that they did.
Featuring over 30 contributors, this book covers everything from getting started to negotiating a contract. Most notably, however, it offers a brief overview of the writing life, which makes this a perfect read for those just starting out. If you’ve already written a book and want to learn how to publish it overseas, you’ll find guidance here. Or if you want to illustrate books and don’t know where to begin. Or if you want to develop and write books for education and learning. It’s all here. Regardless of whether you’re able to attend the festival itself (it’s in Australia), this book will offer insight into group’s mission, the writers who contribute, and how to do everything a writer needs to do.