Bookshelf Shuffle: Ten Writing Books that Remain


bookshelfI’ve been knee-deep in books this week.


Inspired by who knows what, I emptied the bookshelves and piled my books on the floor. A quick calculation revealed the scale of the challenge: a thousand books – more or less — to be sorted into two categories: keep or give away.

And so, I’ve been shedding books, filling boxes for the charity shop. And because we’re such a good team, my husband has been emptying those boxes and piling the books beside our bed ‘to read later’.

Oh well.

The project has had one unexpected benefit. The lovely Ellen, who blogs at Always the Garden, asked me to recommend some books for writers, a request easier to accede to now that my writing books (at least, the ones that survived the cull) are gathered together on one shelf.

Of course, recommending books is dangerous. I’m bound to have offended someone. But for what it’s worth, here are ten writing books I’ve found helpful over the years.

(A word of warning: as useful as these books are, reading them is no substitute for writing. Believe me. I’ve tried.)

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

Lamott is funny, and her self-deprecating wit is hugely entertaining. But she’s also honest and insightful. This is the first book I turn to whenever I lose faith in writing.

Writing down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Goldberg draws on the practices of Zen meditation to encourage careful observation and attention to detail. Short, stand-alone chapters are beautifully written. Still inspiring writers, almost thirty years after its publication.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Writers have been doubting themselves for a long time. Ueland’s book, first published in 1938, is an exhortation to write anyway.

Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, by Dinty W. Moore

A genial introduction to the basics of essay writing.  Great place to start if you’re just beginning to write nonfiction.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by New York Writers Workshop

Good technical guide. Chapters devoted to fiction, poetry, magazine writing, and personal essay and memoir. Practical advice on structure and craft.

Several Short Sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Brief insights that add up to a compelling writing philosophy. Here’s a typical excerpt: “Your job as a writer is making sentences. Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.”

Tell it Slant, Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

Short and useful. A simple guide to several forms of Creative Nonfiction, including lyric essays and braided essays. I come back to this whenever I need inspiration.

Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore.

Short essays by writers, editors, and teachers exploring the flash essay form. Includes exercises and examples.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser.

Gentle discussion of poetry for beginning poets and readers of poetry. Warm and conversational in tone.

The Making of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Evan Boland.

Clear definitions and wide-ranging examples of poetic forms, including the pesky villanelle. Lovely introductory essay On Becoming a Poet by the late Mark Strand.

writing books





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17 thoughts on “Bookshelf Shuffle: Ten Writing Books that Remain

  1. A year after I moved and I still have some boxes of books to unpack. I culled mine, too, but kept many. I like your list of writing books so it’s off to the library to check them out a few at a time. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Kay, I had books packed in boxes and in storage for years! It was such a nice feeling to finally liberate them — like meeting old friends again. Alas, bookshelf space is limited so culls are necessary — to make space for new books, of course! Hope you enjoy some of the writing books I mentioned. I’m always nervous recommending books to others. Books are so personal. A bit like perfume, really.:)

  2. That is a lot of books Aileen 🙂 Love it that your husband unpacked them ‘to read later’. I’ve wearied of reading advice on writing. It no longer sinks in. I think I’m best served just writing and getting critiqued before editing.

    1. Hi Roy, many books accumulated (and read) over the years! And you’re right. You could spend a lifetime reading about writing and never have a minute to write yourself….

  3. Thanks for the recommendations, Aileen: I have heard some of those names (Lamott, Goldberg, Strand and Boland) before and have not heard of others. Not having read any books on writing since I very timidly taught freshman composition years ago, it probably is time for a refresher course — if, of course, I can find the time. Good to see a post from you!

  4. Hi Aileen – thanks for those recommendations. I’m going to look out the Anne Lamott book. Our library doesn’t seem to stock it. I’m going to go on an Anne Lamott quest.

    I found an intriguing book about writing – George Townsend Warner’s ‘On the Writing of English’. It’s written for “boys [who] are anxious to learn to write better” and talks about writing essays. As the father of Silvia Townsend Warner, he interests me. He has some useful tips – I liked this idea for finding inspiration: “jot down all the thoughts that come into your head about your subject on one piece of paper – that’s the Heap”. He talks about looking through the Heap, thinking about how to divide and organise the thoughts in the Heap, building a ‘Skeleton’ from the thoughts that fit and throwing away what you don’t want. (He describes the process much more succinctly!) The trouble is, he’s very much of his British Empire time and comes out with throwaway lines like: ‘Why do men show mercy (savages don’t)?” Oh dear.

    I smiled when I read about you and your husband’s combined efforts to organise your book family. Whenever I try to cull books I’m a blend of both of you – I pick out the ones I think I should give to charity, I put them in a pile, I crack them open ‘one last time’ and I always find something interesting, which reminds me of why I invited them into my home in the first place. I put them aside to read later. Oh dear.

    1. Hi Elaine, I love the idea of having a ‘book family’, although I doubt it will make it any easier to curb a collection! Warner’s book sounds interesting (and stern). Brenda Ueland’s book is a product of its time too. She talks about having servant girls in her writing group! Times have changed, but Ueland’s book is worth reading for its great generosity of spirit. I think of writing books as belonging to one of two groups: the first group contains books that encourage and nurture (‘Write!’), the second group books that instruct (‘But not that way!’). I suspect Warner’s book may fall into the second category.:)

      1. Surprisingly, he’s closer to the first category. I think I gave the wrong impression by picking out his comment on ‘natives’! Apparently he was a very popular teacher.

        I picked his book up at a charity shop – it was published some time before 1916 (he died in 1916), so it’s full of British Empire assumptions, but it has a very kindly, encouraging tone. It was written to help boys at Harrow to organise their thoughts and to write essays. He says, in his introduction, that he wants to encourage his reader to “think, and to write his own thoughts in good English; that is all”. He was very opposed to pomposity, ‘journalese’ (which looks like tabloid journalese from the examples he gives), ‘sermony’ style and ‘oratorical’ style. He wanted the boys to express their thoughts clearly, not to sacrifice meaning to showy-off style.

        So I’d put him in the generously spirited camp. Very much of his time, but then, aren’t we all?

  5. Ah. I’ve done the man a disservice. He actually sounds nice! Now officially moving him into the first category where he can snuggle up to Brenda Ueland and Natalie Goldberg. And yes. We are all products of our time. (For good or evil.)

  6. What about Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages? I really liked his examples of bad writing.

    1. Will have to check that one out, Grant. Sadly, I’ve created plenty of examples of bad writing myself. Just grateful no-one has collected and published them. Yet. 😉

      1. That’s a great idea! We could cobble together our most spectacularly bad writing to show others how not to do it. And then we could ask questions at the end to see if they can spot why it’s so awful like we know the answer but don’t want to make it easy for them…

  7. But then we’d have to let others see our bad writing, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.;)

  8. Awesome. Thank you so much. This is really helpful.

    1. Hi Rhonda, hope you don’t feel you have to read them all!:) Enjoy!

  9. I own about half of the books you listed. They’re all part of my attempt to improve as a writer, to accompany the writing courses at the local college. Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers- I discovered her first through her memoir, Operating Instructions, which I read shortly after the birth of my twins.
    Thanks for sharing your inspirations.

    1. I loved Operating Instructions, Barbara! Read it when my own kids were little. Lamott certainly tells it like it is – but with added grace and humour. Would live to sit down and chat with that woman one day!

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