Books on Writing

A compendium of valuable works on writing and the writing life, selected by our editors and spanning the ages, from Aristotle to today.


Format: 12/15/2018
Format: 12/15/2018
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
In this coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego, the author reveals his aesthetic development and intention to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race—a life’s work that lifted Ireland from its heritage of oppression under English rule to a renewed place on the world stage.
A Room of One's Own by Virgina Woolf
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s meditation on writing, and in particular on the line of descent in the history of women writing, continues to create the future of literature and of civilization. Essential reading for any writer, man or woman.
A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
A lifelong account of the author’s progress, filled with practical and aphoristic observations on life and art. “One of the most useful discoveries I ever made was how easy it is to say: ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Art and Ardor by Cynthia Ozick
Art & Ardor by Cynthia Ozick
A master’s spirited essays on art and its methods and meaningfulness. “Knowledge is not made out of knowledge. Knowledge swims up from invention and imagination—from ardor.”
Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster
Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster
The great novelist’s informal lectures from the spring of 1927 at Trinity College, Cambridge, offer a survey and insights from notable works up through time. The development of the novel, Forster notes, implies the development of humanity.
Author and Agent by Michael Kreyling
Author and Agent by Michael Kreyling
In 1940, well before Eudora Welty was taken up by publishers, editors, and the reading public, an agent, Diarmuid Russell, wrote to her, expressing his admiration and understanding of her work, and so began a correspondence that traces Welty’s emergence and a thirty-year personal and professional friendship.
Autobiography of Mark Twain
Not leaving immortality to chance, America’s foremost humorist forbid the publication of his autobiography until a hundred years after his death. From the grave, he continues to make fun of himself so that we may laugh with him. “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.”
Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by V. S. Pritchett
Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by V. S. Pritchett
Pritchett, a master storyteller, who came of age in the era before the existence of writing workshops, taught himself to write by reading the masters and by working as a writer across many forms. His biography of Chekhov is an appreciation by one master who learned by reading his predecessor. Without any straining for connections, Pritchett draws the line of logic and passion that connects the life to the art, how one is transformed into the other.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke
“With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.” So began Rilke’s first letter to a student who’d asked for advice. A quarter century later, in 1929, the student noted in his introduction for the publication of the ten letters Rilke sent him, “Where a great and unique man speaks, small men should keep silence.” In both men modesty burns brilliantly.
Life Work by Donald Hall
Life Work by Donald Hall
Essayist, memoirist, biographer, story writer, textbook and children’s book author, and poet laureate, Donald Hall made his life and vocation one. “I’ve never worked a day in my life. I stay at home and write. Work? Work. I make my living at it.”
One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
In her midseventies, giving a series of lectures at Harvard, Welty traveled a path from her earliest memories of the sound and sense of words to her fullest possession and accomplishment of her gifts. Like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Welty’s book generously shows the gradual individuation of the artist.
Poetics by Aristotle
Poetics by Aristotle, trans. by James Hutton
In the millennia since Aristotle analyzed the form of drama up to this time, some things have changed, but in the essence of how drama works, not much. To say a work, or a technique, is classic is simply to say that it works for all time. Aristotle’s thoughts on reversals, recognitions, beginnings, middles, endings, causality, and other aspects of storytelling are indelible, infallible guides to the art, and Hutton’s translation, unlike many abstruse translations of this short work, is very readable.
The Dyer's Hand by W. H. Auden
The Dyer’s Hand by W. H. Auden
The play of Auden’s mind in his essays, like the play of his verse, provides infinite pleasure. “Every work of a writer should be a first step, but this will be a false step unless, whether or not he realizes it at the time, it is also a further step.”
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Written a decade after the publication of his famous short story “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s book-length personal essay reveals the influences, thinking, and aspirations that went into the short story and into his life work. On the National Mall in Washington, DC, alongside the monument to Martin Luther King, another monument might well stand, one to James Baldwin for all he did and for all he has meant to humankind. “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard . . . it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
The Gentle Barbarian by V. S. Pritchett
Like Pritchett’s biography of Chekhov, this one of Turgenev twines an appreciation of the Russian master’s life and work into useful observations on every page. “In his apprenticeship the novelist learns that he must put his limitations to positive use.”
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
A comedy and satire on the writing life yet a profound exploration of the meaning of the Holocaust and the Diaspora and of individual and collective identity, Roth’s short coming-of-age novel is also a roman à clef, including versions of himself, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow. The Malamud character, E. I. Lonoff, mordantly recounts his writing days: “I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. . . .”
The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor
The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s letters span sixteen years, 1948 to 1964, from her advent as a young writer to the year of her death from systemic lupus erythematosus at the age of thirty-nine. Her work was so rich, so famous and celebrated, and often so misunderstood, that she, more than some writers, steadily clarified her work and her relationship to it. “The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. . . . Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.”
The Structure of Verse by Harvey Seymore Gross
The Structure of Verse, ed. by Harvey Gross
This collection of essays by preeminent twentieth-century poets, including Eliot, Pound, Roethke, and many others presents a study of prosody equally invaluable for poets and prose writers. In an interview with Gross, Stanley Kunitz notes, “A line to me is very much a time unit. . . . I like a poem that rides the beast of an action.”
Tolstoy's Diaries 1847—1910 by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s Diaries 1847–1910, ed. by R. F. Christian
From the age of eighteen until his death, Tolstoy kept a diary detailed with observations on himself, others, and all of life. His growth and development, his desire for honesty, his care for others, his conclusions, self-doubts, and struggles informed his works. “I’m doing nothing and thinking about the landlady,” he writes. “Do I have the talent to compare with our modern Russian writers? Decidedly not.”
Woman Writer: Occasions and Opportunities by Joyce Carol Oates
Poet, story writer, novelist, essayist, journalist, editor, publisher, teacher, Oates is as close as we have to a Virginia Woolf today, and along with Philip Roth, gets our vote as deserving a Nobel. Her essays illuminate the core of the twentieth century and the writer’s place and work within any time.


A Country Husband by John Cheever
A Country Husband by John Cheever
Cheever’s unfortunate hero, Francis Weed, a middle-aged suburban businessman commuter and shadow figure of the author himself, suffers the fear of mortality and its companions, lust and turbulent disarray. This classic mid-twentieth-century, middle-American comedy turns on ironies of delusion when Weed shifts between mores and disinhibition. The pathos and laughter are rich, wry, and cruel.
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
Character is all, Egri affirms in his 1946 classic. Drama depends on people, their relationships and motivations. Skillful dramatic structure focuses premise, character, and conflict to engage the human heart.
True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art by Chögyam Trungpa
Buddhist scholar Chögyam Trungpa offers his treatise on art-making and self-discovery. Patient pursuit of the greater Self brings a reward of authenticity and the power to awaken and liberate others through art.
Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
An uncompromising peek into the daily life of John Steinbeck while he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, filled with moments of unrelenting determination, bursts of high creativity, and near crippling bouts of self-doubt.


A Poetics of Fiction: Six Chapters on the Art of Imaginative Prose by Tom Jenks
A deeply generous offering from someone who has spent his life editing, writing, and teaching, Poetics is essentially an MFA between two covers. Covering diction, point of view, characterization, imagery, plot, and theme, it includes numerous excerpts from great works, showing what works and why. The chapter on “Plot,” for example, takes readers almost line by line through a short story, pointing out all the scenes within scenes, even within sentences, and conveying the breathtaking architecture in a master work.
A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch
A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch
Not just a dictionary, this book, full of poetry excerpts and poet profiles, is an intense inquiry into the many traditions—oral and written—of poetry, the “small devices and large mysteries,” as Hirsch puts it. The author reminds us whose coattails we all ride on, and have been riding on for centuries, in our writing and in our enjoyment of the form of poetry.
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Norris, who worked as a copyeditor at The New Yorker for thirty-five years, recounts her experiences working with writers. Incisive, charming, she can get apoplectic over the misuse of apostrophes and devotes an entire chapter, “Comma, comma, comma, comma, chameleon,” to that most pervasive and useful punctuation mark.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life by Annie Lamott
In her hugely popular primer, Lamott offers perhaps the most valuable writing advice: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” Lamott’s colloquial, compassionate encouragement has helped myriad writers find their way.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. by R. W. Burchfield.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. by R. W. Burchfield
Many editors and writers pick up this 1926 primer when in the mood for some grammatical reinforcement: “The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. [But] those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes.” Drollery aside, Fowler provides timeless principles for stripping away artificiality and stuffiness in prose.