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: 09/22/2019
Format: 09/22/2019
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.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Detailing the introspection necessary for wringing the truth out of a life, Karr conveys what a writer must go through in pursuit of a memoir. With compassion, hilarity, and self-deprecation, she reveals her writing process.
The Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press
Now in its seventeenth edition, this book is a bible for many editors and writers. The CMS is an authoritative guide on everything from the proper fonts to use in mathematical notation to when to use scare quotes and how to make names like Euripides possessive. We base Narrative’s style guide on CMS. And now that’s it’s online, it’s easy to access and use.
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
This little book is a classic, and for good reason. It offers the most valuable advice to writers—“make every word tell”—and contains the best-ever example of a participial phrase that does not refer its grammatical subject: “Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.” Our in-house copies are stained, dog-eared, and beloved.
The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky
“The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing.” Pinksy’s guide to appreciating poetry is equally relevant to appreciating prose.


How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish
How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish
Fish offers the beginning writer a trove of great sentences and shows how they achieve their remarkable feats. He also suggests how a writer may mimic these sentences to expand his or her own style and range.


Photographers on Photography by ed. Nathan Lyons
Photographers on Photography, ed. by Nathan Lyons
Reading the aesthetic principles put forth by the greats in various media can be as useful as studying the aesthetics of writers. Collected here are essays by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, and many others, on what it means to see clearly and produce meaningful art.
Poetry and Ambition by Donald Hall
Poetry and Ambition by Donald Hall
Amid a proliferation of manuscripts being sent out into the world in hopes of publication, Donald Hall surveys contemporary literary conditions and invokes a timeless pursuit. “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.”