Want to Read about Writing? Here Are My Five Favorite Books about Writing.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: My five favorite books about writing.

It’s not easy to write a book about writing that’s also a pleasure to read. Here are my favorites:

1. William Zinsser, On Writing Well. I’ve read this book several times, and I’m due for another re-reading soon. It’s full of invaluable advice, and so beautifully written that it’s a joy to read. My favorite chapter may be “Humor,” which includes Zinsser’s example of his own magazine piece about women and their hair curlers–brilliant. I’d quote it here but you really have to read the whole thing to get the proper effect.

2. Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary. I’ve read this many, many times. Virginia Woolf kept a diary for twenty-seven years, and after her death, her husband drew from those diaries to create A Writer’s Diary, which includes the entries that refer to her own writing, that comment on the books she was reading, and that touch on the scenes and ideas relevant to her work. Extraordinarily rich and powerful.

When I was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, which is a very unconventional biography, I thought many times of this passage:

Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry–by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing?….I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate.

And in Happier at Home, I wrote a passage that’s a direct allusion to this haunting passage from Woolf:

What I must do is to keep control; and not be too sarcastic; and keep the right degree of freedom and reserve. But oh how easy this writing is compared with The Waves! I wonder what the degree of carat-gold is in the two books. Of course this is external: but there’s a good deal of gold–more than I’d thought–in externality. Anyhow, “what care I for my goose feather bed? I’m off to join the raggle taggle gipsies oh!”

(You can read a bit about my strange response to this passage and to the song, and you can hear the song, Raggle Taggle Gypsy, here.)

Okay I must stop, or I’ll end up quoting dozens of passages.

3. Robert Boice, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. This book is bizarrely, insanely expensive, and written very simply, but in terms of practical advice about how to get writing done, it’s very useful. I’ve been thinking a lot about it as I write my book about habit-formation, Before and After, because it’s all about creating habits that allow writers to be productive and creative over the long term.

4. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters. Speaking of habits, how could I resist that title? Plus I’m a crazy Flannery O’Connor fan. These letters are fascinating, especially about her writing. I include one passage, from a 1957 letter, as an epigraph to a chapter in Better Than Before about the Strategy of Scheduling:

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.

5. Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird. This is an encouraging, accessible account of how to keep going as a writer. I love the story from which the book gets its title:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

How about you? What are your favorite books about writing?

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  • Suhita

    As an artist who finds writing to be an interesting practice, I loved this book: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Down-Bones-Freeing-Edition/dp/1590302613

  • Scott K.

    Stephen King’s “On Writing” (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Stephen-King-ebook/dp/B000FC0SIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394056869&sr=8-1&keywords=on+writing) was a great look at the way he writes and some of the thinking behind what he does.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I really like that book too.

      Especially the part where he talks about how he never knows exactly what a book is about, until he’s done writing it.

  • Lucky Barb

    “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Ueland. I will check out the five you mentioned (I rather think I have one of them, Bird by Bird, around here, somewhere.) Thanks

    • Nanette Bulebosh

      I also heartily recommend this book. Brenda Ueland was amazing A genuine iconoclast, back when most people weren’t trying to be.

  • Ambal Balakrishnan

    Thank you Gretchen. I’ll read these books. I have read Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Robert McKee’s “Story” and found both the books insightful.l I found that my love for poetry (old and new) makes me write better. Poetry makes me look at the world through a special lens that is distant yet close.

  • Carolyn Stephens

    I like Janet Evanovich’s “How I Write”.

  • leesgoodfood

    I’ve loved Susan Wooldridge’s “poemcrazy” more about words, but related to writing.

  • Allie Smith

    I love Bird by Bird!

  • Elena

    Annie Dillard, “The Writing Life”!

  • Diana Cherry

    I like “The Artist’s Way.” It’s not specifically about writing, but about creativity in general and I find that it’s true what they say, it is an artist’s manifesto, no matter the medium.

    • mlatela

      Diana, I too loved “The Artist’ Way.” It has a way of helping to empower the reader to unleash the spirit, to explore, to take risks (in whatever is her medium), to make mistakes, to revise, to grow. That’s essential in writing as well. Mary Latela

  • Indira Max

    Thank you, Gretchen. I’ d say about “inspiring to write” books of Karen Blixen, it is a real magic of story telling…

    • gretchenrubin

      OUT OF AFRICA is such a great book. I need to read more of her work.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I love Orwell’s rules, the ones that you published in a blog. I love Trollope’s rules for having a writing HABIT. And then I just love the example of great writers. Every author’s voice has so much to teach. After that, for me it’s all about practice, practice, practice and the mindfulness to notice and record what I see.

  • BKF

    Love all of these above!
    Also: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende, and F Scott Fitzgerald (on the secret of great writing),”Nothing any good isn’t hard.”
    I read once that John Steinbeck said something like a nameless faceless audience will scare you to death and also it doesn’t exist, and that your audience in writing ought to be one single reader- pick out one real or imagined person and write to that one.

  • Kathy B

    I have a 15 year old daughter who loves to write. Would you suggest any books that would be appropriate for a high schooler? Maybe something with some practical advice on writing.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Everything mentioned here! There is nothing in this list that should be ‘too hard’ or ‘too adult’ for an ambitious teen who loves to write.

    • gretchenrubin

      All these would be appropriate for a 15-year-old. Maybe start with Bird by Bird. It’s the most accessible, also very practical.

  • Ginger Horton

    I’m currently reading Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and it is a joy to read. So much practical advice strung together with delightful passages from novels as examples. It makes me want to read everything she quotes!

  • Mary Wagner

    “Stalking the feature story” by william Ruehlmann. And have to second the recommendatoin by antoehr poster on McKee’s “Story.”

  • Sadie Grace

    I love Bird by Bird – I have been reading it bit by bit for a while now. I am not familiar with the other books you mentioned, so will definitely have to consider them.

  • Susan

    Thanks for the list and quotes, Gretchen. I would recommend books by Joseph M. Williams, such as Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. He seems to get overshadowed by Zinsser and White, but he’s really good.

  • Jacky B

    Zen and the Art of Writing by the man, Ray Bradbury. It’s inspiring in seeing how hard someone worked and how committed he was to his craft.

  • Gina M.

    I’m fond of the Zinsser and Stephen King books and am familiar with most of the others mentioned. I believe the author of “The Artists’ Way” published a book called “The Right to Write.” Also, Margaret Atwood has written a book on writing, which is on my “to read” pile. I like reading about writers’ habits and finding out what their writing spaces look like too.

  • excessivelyperky

    Mine? The Writer’s Survival Guide, by Rachel Simon. Best advice on revision, Evah. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury–literary antidepressant on the hoof.

  • Helen

    I love “Several short sentences about writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

  • lemead

    I love this list. Books about writing are some of my favorites. I think I love Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life best of all … And also love Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing

  • barbara

    I would love to write a book about my life..i think it would be very interesting of no and what I have experienced the trials and tribulations during my journey.the only problem is that I don’t have a clue where to begin and how to get it published. Any advise??? It would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!!!

  • AuthorShereeseM

    Carolyn See, “Making a Literary Life” is not only a poignant in content; the way it is told is entertaining and full of wit.

  • Adrienne Allen Stapleton

    My favorite book on writing is Mary Oliver’s Poetry Handbook.

  • Nancy Gibson

    Raggle Taggle Gypsy! Thanks for sharing the link. I may have found a new genre to feed through my Pandora, lol.

    • gretchenrubin

      So happy that you like it.

  • Carl Plumer

    Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. 🙂 Seriously. Good writing stuff, plus Peanuts cartoons about writing. What’s not to like?

  • HappyMomHealthyMom

    Great resources. Problem is,

  • CatherineBuckMorgan

    I just picked up Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Zerfoss. What a beautiful book– so many visuals, as well as lovely writing. http://www.amazon.com/Wonderbook-Illustrated-Creating-Imaginative-Fiction/dp/1419704427

  • Ella Mae Masamayor

    Your book, “The Happiness Project,” though it wasn’t really about writing, inspired me to become serious about my blogging. I tell you, ever since I read that book of yours, I haven’t stopped writing since. I dream of writing a book and publishing it one day. I have a lot to thank you for. Really, writing has made me happier.

    • gretchenrubin


  • I don’t know if this qualifies, but I am loving This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which I started on the heels of attending a workshop with Dani Shapiro. The latter primed me and the former is inspiring me.

    • gretchenrubin

      I loved that book, too. Love Anne Patchett’s writing.

  • The Elements of Style, written by E.B. White & William Strunk, Jr (White’s professor at Cornell), is a little gem that is as valuable to a writer today as when it was first published in 1959. When I get stuck, this is the first book I reach for.

  • Thank you so much Gretchen for the book collection, will purchase on April some of my favorite books..Thank you..glad to know you!

  • Matilde Van Der Zel

    I just recently (2 years) started writing morning pages (Julia Cameron) and also love the book ‘Writing down the bones” by Natalie Goldberg.

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