In this instructive book exploring voice and style in writing, journalist and English professor Ben Yagoda offers insights and close readings of the work of renowned writers, as well as interviews, to help writers discover and develop their own writing style. Nine informative chapters look at the theory and practice of style, including “A Field Guide to Style,” “Consistency and Change,” and “Style According to Form.” As Yagoda writes in the introduction of the book, he does not aim to present a how-to manual, but rather an invitation to discuss how “personal style is more democratic than it might first appear” and how to become more aware of one’s voice. “This book began with a single and simple observation: it is frequently the case that writers entertain, move and inspire us less by what they say than by how they say it,” writes Yagoda. “What they say is information and ideas and (in the case of fiction) story and characters. How they say it is style.”
Best Books for Writers
From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.
In this humorous and informative guide, journalist and editor June Casagrande breaks down the semantics of sentences, and explains how words and grammatical constructions relate to each other in logical and artful ways. A meticulous examination of sentence structure, content, and style, this book reveals the building blocks of successful sentences, and how writers can apply this knowledge to their own work. The easy-to-read manual is filled with short chapters and an appendix on grammar, punctuation, and “most incriminating errors” to help writers avoid them. “We all know bad writing when we see it,” writes Casagrande in the introduction. “Understanding the issues that plague it—that plague all our writing—requires thought, time, a grounding in grammar, and the energy to stop and look at the writer’s guiding question: what am I really trying to say?”
In this collection of essays written over a thirty-year period, renowned author Ray Bradbury shares his wisdom, experience, and enthusiasm from his lifetime of writing. The essay topics include the joy of writing, inspiration, creativity, and the writing process of his many works. All of his advice demonstrates that success as a writer depends on how well one knows themself. “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer,” writes Bradbury. “It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited.”
For this lively and engaging anthology, fifty-seven poets, including Kaveh Akbar, Diane Seuss, Solmaz Sharif, and Ocean Vuong, choose one of their own poems and explain in an essay why it represents their “personal best.” Together the poem-essay pairings provide an insightful look at the life of a poem and the personal experiences that shape the writing process. “We hope the essays here remind that there’s always a singular consciousness behind a poem, a maker with unique feelings and ways of thinking about the world,” the editors write in their introduction. A probing honesty is the common thread that runs through the best essays in the collection, including Danez Smith’s notes on the poem “waiting on you to die so i can be myself,” in which Smith writes, “Let me slow down my language, let me be dissatisfied with what comes first, let me finds the poem that answers to no one, that sings not for the high notes but for the deep, earthly truths.”
In this guide, veteran book editor Susan Bell discusses the complex and necessary art of self-editing. Filled with writing examples, quotes, strategic tips, interviews, and case studies—including a discussion of Max Perkins’s editorial collaboration with F. Scott Fitzgerald on The Great Gatsby—the book walks writers through the discipline and creativity of editing and how it can enhance one’s writing. “Writers need to learn to calibrate editing’s singular blend of mechanics and magic. For if writing builds the house, nothing but revision will complete it. One writer needs to be two carpenters: a builder with mettle, and a finisher with slow hands,” Bell writes in the introduction. “Editing is more an attitude than a system.”
In this collection of essays edited by Joy Castro, twenty-five memoirists explore the complex personal emotions and literary responsibilities writers must negotiate when revealing private information about their families to the reading public. The essays cover a wide range of topics including adoption, sexuality, grief, illness, and cultural identity by authors such as Faith Adiele, Alison Bechdel, Jill Christman, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Rigoberto González, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Mimi Schwartz. “How family members react is not in your hands,” Castro writes in her introduction. “What is in your hands is the narrative: its fidelity to facts as you recall them, its fair-mindedness, its compassion for the straits in which your family members found themselves, its sincere quest to understand what happened.”
In Writing the Intimate Character, novelist and teacher Jordan Rosenfeld explores how point of view creates powerful narratives and dynamic characters in fiction. The book is separated into three parts which explore character building, voice, plot, point of view, and more. Each chapter offers examples and exercises to help writers breathe life into their characters. Rosenfeld reminds writers that “readers connect with characters whose senses they can experience, whose minds they can enter, and whose emotions they can feel” and guides them through the ways to create vivid characters.
In Writing Down the Bones, painter and writing instructor Natalie Goldberg gives clear, accessible writing advice that approaches the art of writing as spiritual practice. First published in 1986, this thirtieth anniversary edition includes a preface and interview with the author. Goldberg offers guidance and advice throughout the book with short, easy-to-read chapters covering many aspects of the writer’s craft: writing from “first thoughts,” listening deeply, using verbs, overcoming doubts, and even the best places to write. “It is my sincere wish that…students learn how to do writing practice, that they come to know themselves, feel joy in expression, trust what they think. Once you connect with your mind, you are who you are and you’re free,” writes Goldberg.
In this book on style and the art of articulation, the author of The Etymologicon and The Horologicon explains the figures of classical rhetoric, dedicating each chapter to a figure of speech with examples of its use, particularly in the works of William Shakespeare. Forsyth begins by noting that Shakespeare was not a genius, and, in fact, his early work was not very good, proving his argument that great writing can be learned. “A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher,” writes Forsyth. “A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely.” In thirty-nine detailed chapters of this wonderfully erudite guide, Forsyth introduces lessons on alliteration, hyperbole, paradox, rhetorical questions, personification, and more that explain the secrets behind the phrases of our most beloved poems, songs, and dialogue.
In this collection of essays, award-winning poet Terrance Hayes offers a road map to poetic reading and interpretation, shining a light on the influential works of African American poets. Each of the six sections are titled with provocative questions, such as, “How old is contemporary poetry?” and “How many of your muses rest in peace?” The mix of illustrated micro-essays, graphic book reviews, biographical prose poems, and nonfiction sketches by Hayes enrich the reading experience and imagination of readers. Through personal essays laced with challenging questions, Hayes guides readers through the literary landscape of contemporary poetry so that they can map their own routes. “Like any guidebook, this book should leave the curious reader with more questions than answers,” writes Hayes in the preface.
“Slow writing is a meditative act: slowing down to understand our relationship to our writing, slowing down to determine our authentic subjects, slowing down to write complex works, slowing down to study our literary antecedents,” writes Louise DeSalvo in the introduction to this guide examining the benefits of taking time to explore one’s creative process. Within this five-part book, the award-winning teacher and writer walks writers through preparing to write, understanding patience and humility, the challenges and successes of writing, the importance of rest, and how to build a book. The guide includes inspirational anecdotes from classic and contemporary writers such as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, and Virginia Woolf. Throughout the book, DeSalvo encourages writers to explore the complexities of craft by getting to know one’s stories and oneself more fully over time. “[Slow writing] acknowledges that we are all beginners and insists we cultivate empathy for ourselves because being a writer isn’t easy,” writes DeSalvo. “Slow writing is a way to resist the dehumanization inherent in a world that values speed. It’s one way to find—or return to—our authentic selves.”
In this collection, editor Lynn Stegner brings together eight of Wallace Stegner’s previously uncollected essays on writing fiction and teaching creative writing. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author and founder of the acclaimed Stanford Creative Writing Program, addresses every aspect of fiction writing: from the writer’s vision to his or her audience, from the use of symbolism to swear words, from the mystery of the creative process to the recognizable truth it seeks finally to reveal. “The work of art is not a gem, as some schools of criticism would insist, but truly a lens. We look through it for the purified and honestly offered spirit of the artist,” writes Stegner.
The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village neighborhood of New York City was founded in 1966 as a community space for poets of the downtown poetry scene. Since its founding, the historic venue has held readings and conversations with influential figures such as Ted Berrigan, Samuel Delany, Allen Ginsberg, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Lisa Jarnot, Eileen Myles, Harryette Mullen, and Maggie Nelson. Edited by poet and former artistic director of the Poetry Project Anselm Berrigan, this anthology celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the organization with interviews first published in their newsletter featuring writers discussing various topics including, Kenneth Koch characterizing anthologies, Alice Notley on the construction of narratives, Bernadette Mayer on her vocation as a writer, and Anne Waldman on the joys of collaboration. The anthology captures the lively spirit of the historic poetry scene and is an opportunity, as Berrigan writes in the introduction, “to speak directly to a community one could perceive as known, imaginary, expanding, unwieldy, intermittent, formative, desperately necessary, and sometimes peculiarly unsatisfying all at once.”
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) collects essays by and interviews with more than thirty acclaimed writers, including Camille T. Dungy, Nikki Giovanni, Charles Johnson, Tayari Jones, Elizabeth Nunez, Carl Phillips, Natasha Trethewey, and Jacqueline Woodson, who together offer an inspiring and informative guide to a wide range of writing styles and craft choices. “How We Do It is a kind of selfish gift,” Jericho Brown writes in his introduction. “I want you to have what I always wanted. Here is an anthology that gives us modes to try on the way we might wear and change clothing. And these wonderful writers are proof that nothing ever beat a failure but a try.” Arranged to defy supposed boundaries between genres, the eight sections of the book include insights and observations intended for “anyone who is a student of the craft.”
Edited by poet and novelist Laynie Browne, this unique anthology brings together essays by contemporary poets about their favorite “poet’s novel”—a novel written by a poet that defies the traditional conventions of plot, character, setting, and action. The fifty-seven essays include Kazim Ali on Fanny Howe, Rachel Blau DuPlessis on Gertrude Stein, Julia Bloch on Gwendolyn Brooks, Jeanne Heuving on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, John Keene on Fernando Pessoa, and Lynn Xu on Ben Lerner. Each poet provides original insights and approaches to their essays, such as Norma Cole addressing her essay of Emmanuel Hocquard’s Aerea dans les forêts de Manhattan to the late poet Stacy Doris and Traci Brimhall’s question-and-answer essay on Hilda Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D. Perfect for writers seeking to venture past the confines of genre, this anthology is both a collection of innovative critical essays and an excellent reading list of lyrical novels.
In this companion book to The 3 AM Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction, Brian Kiteley, former director of the University of Denver’s creative writing program, offers two hundred more writing prompts to help fiction writers expand their craft. Kiteley begins with personal stories that provide insight into what inspired his teachings and divides the book into three sections—Patterns; Concepts; and People, Places, Things—providing lessons and exercises focused on style, language, character, and more. Also included in the book is an appendix with a list of reference books, advice for teachers and students, and an essay about teaching fiction exercises. The straightforward yet playful mix of lessons and prompts from Kiteley are perfect for creative writing teachers and any writer seeking guidance and inspiration.
In this collection of essays, Dorothy J. Wang offers a roadmap to rethinking how poetry is critically discussed, and the ways in which the role of race is often occluded, through the study of five contemporary Asian American poets—Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Marilyn Chin, Li-Young Lee, Pamela Lu, and John Yau. Through these close studies, Wang exemplifies a rigorous way of thinking about each poet’s craft while contending that aesthetic forms are inseparable from social, political, and historical contexts in the writing and reception of all poetry. Wang covers a vast range of aesthetics, from traditional lyric poetry to avant-garde work, looking into the nuances behind metaphor, desire, form, and irony. The book asks us all to be better readers, in particular, when considering the ways in which we critique poetry. As Wang contends in the preface of the book: “Critics should accord the same degree of complexity and respect to the whole stylistic range of minority poetry as they do to ‘racially unmarked’ poetry.”
“The essays offered in this important collection not only open the heart to feel and be encouraged, they also demand for the ear to hear, to heed, to receive,” writes Mai Der Vang in the foreword to this anthology of essays written by poets of color about their writing practice. Through varied essay forms and strong, idiosyncratic voices, the essays in this collection offer a multitude of lenses through which one can think through issues of craft. The fifteen essays from poets at various stages of their careers include, “On Reading, and Shame” by Sasha Pimentel, “On Writing From Unincorporated Territory” by Craig Santos Perez, and “My Life Is Not a Stereotype Though Sometimes Writing About it Feels That Way” by Melissa Coss Aquino. This anthology aims to share a bonded experience and to learn from one another’s experiences, as Luisa A. Igloria writes in the introduction: “In this collection, we make no claims of presenting any definitive theoretical or other stance. Neither do we offer these essays as prescriptive of certain ways of thinking of craft or of doing things, although in them is expressed a collective wish—that writers of color find ways to gain strength and visibility.”
From the author of the memoir The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography comes this slim volume combining craft with autobiography and offering a response from a woman’s perspective to George Orwell’s influential essay “Why I Write.” Organized into chapters named after Orwell’s four reasons to write—“Political Purpose,” “Historical Impulse,” “Sheer Egoism,” and “Aesthetic Enthusiasm”—Levy identifies the life experiences that have shaped her novels, including her South African childhood, her family’s expatriation to England, and the challenges of motherhood. Levy spans continents and decades as she analyzes what it means to be a woman writer, quoting authors such as Adrienne Rich and Marguerite Duras. Both philosophical and practical, this unique book of memories and lessons portrays how creative ideas come to life, offering readers an inspiring look into the life of a working writer.
“Consider this: at one time, all the stories we know so well, every line we may have memorized from a poem or a play, all the literature that has shaped our collective imagination, did not exist,” writes award-winning author and teacher Susan Griffin in this step-by-step guide to the creative process. With encouraging words to support writers across genres, this meditative and practical guide is organized into three parts with short chapters “arranged according to an imagined but not always followed (or even appropriate) chronology of the process of writing, from beginning to end.” The first section of the book focuses on the elusive process through which ideas and images form before the writing begins, the second section dives into lessons on how to write gleaned from Griffin’s decades of teaching, and the final section helps writers find organic endings to their work. Threaded throughout the book is an essay titled “How I Learned to Write,” in which Griffin allows readers into her personal journey as a writer. Ideal for writers just beginning or for anyone stuck in their writing, Griffin reminds readers that “human beings are all creative” and “what is important is that you are present to the process.”
This sixth edition of compiled speeches from the prestigious Hopwood Creative Writing Awards includes lectures by recipients such as Charles Baxter, Donald Hall, Charles Johnson, Susan Orlean, and Edmund White. With an introduction by Nicholas Delbanco, who edited the book and directed the Hopwood Program at the University of Michigan until 2015, this collection includes lectures from 1999 to 2008. Topics include the relationship between reading and writing, the evolution of the gay novel, and the successes and failures of the creative writing workshop. Varying in approaches and writing styles, these instructive, thoughtful lectures offer writers of all backgrounds a chance to learn from literary figures at the height of their craft.
“There has long been a gap in the writing trade,” the editors write in the introduction to this unique volume. “Books written to serve writers offer strategies to fight writer’s block, to enrich the creative imagination, and to seek publication—but offer little about how a work evolves through revision, how it gets clearer, stronger, and deeper, start to finish.” Enter The Art of Revising Poetry, which displays side-by-side sets of first drafts and final versions of poems by Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Terry Tempest Williams, and eighteen others to track the precise details of the creative process. The behind-the-scenes look includes full-page reproductions from the poets’ personal notebooks and an essay by each poet about “how and why the poem changed between drafts, how it was expanded, distilled, transformed, revised, and finally released from the labors of change.”
“Is it any wonder that any writing task fills so many people with dread? It’s about time we brought them in from the cold and let them find fulfillment in writing from inside themselves,” writes Thomas C. Foster, professor emeritus of English at the University of Michigan–Flint, in the introduction to this approachable guide on developing a voice and maintaining a writing practice. The book is organized into three sections (Why Write?, What to Write and How, and Soaring Practice) and is written with a combination of personal anecdotes and lessons with exemplary writing from authors such as Joan Didion, Robert Frost, Malcolm Gladwell, and Ernest Hemingway. Topics include how to sharpen one’s sense of description, revision on a structural level, and development of one’s personal style of writing. Although primarily focused on memoir writing, the book’s lessons, writing exercises and prompts, and sentiment to “write like you mean it” can prove useful for writers of all levels and genres.
First published in 1986 and reissued in 2020 to mark what would have been Joseph Brodsky’s eightieth birthday, this collection of essays offers an intimate look into his life and work. The book begins and concludes with a set of autobiographical essays about the Nobel laureate’s difficult life as a poet in Soviet Russia, while other essays include insights on the works of Russian writers such as Anna Akhmatova, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Osip Mandelstam as well as other influential poets such as C. P. Cavafy, W. H. Auden, and Eugenio Montale. Brodsky’s close readings of beloved poems are in-depth and comprehensive; in particular his essay titled “On ‘September 1, 1939’ by W. H. Auden,” in which he provides line-by-line commentary of the iconic poem. Brodsky’s mastery of language is unmistakable in this award-winning collection of essays, providing deep analysis of great works and reflections on the life of an artist who survived extraordinary obstacles.
Edited by Robin Hemley, author of Turning Life Into Fiction (Graywolf Press, 2006), and Xu Xi, author of This Fish Is Fowl: Essays of Being (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), this craft book finds inspiration and guidance in the diverse literary traditions of Asia. Featuring works in translation by writers from Japan, China, India, Singapore, and beyond, as well as writers from Asian diasporas in Europe and America, this guide and anthology offers a wide range of voices and approaches to crafting short fiction. “Our aim is to open up a world of stories you might not otherwise come across and to glean from these stories’ techniques and approaches, some of which you might find in your typical fiction writing text and some that you likely wouldn’t find,” write the editors in the introduction to the book. Each of the eleven themed chapters includes a complete short story and writing exercises that invite readers to practice narrative techniques used by exemplary writers such as Lysley Tenorio, Nam Le, Dorothy Tse, and Banana Yoshimoto. Covering themes such as race and identity, history and power, family and aspirations, this guide offers a fresh take on craft that invites writers to look beyond the western canon.