Books on Writing: my well-thumbed half-dozen

I have a full shelf of Books on Writing and still buying. I had a few goes at making this selection, ended up with ten books, then had another go to get it down to the half-dozen I’m allowing myself. Along the way the criterion I used was this: which books have I reached across for most often from the typewriter and then spattered pencil-marks and underlines on page after page? This is it then; my selection of my half-dozen favourite books on writing.


 Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande. Hard to believe this book was first published in 1934, such is its freshness. Brande believes ‘that becoming a writer is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer’s temperament’. She steps the reader through practical ways to build such a temperament.

Writing Short Stories, Alisa Cox. Not a rigid ‘this is the way to do it’, this book is about spinning a yarn in many different ways and the theme running through of the relationship between the cinema and the short story is fascinating.

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N Frey. The sub-title to this book tells it all: ‘A Step-by-stp no nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling’. Even if you’ve no interest in doing that novel, you will get great tips on producing  dynamic prose. In summary, he says, ‘your prose should have time, color, textural density, convey a sense of motion, appeal to the senses…’

Writing Creative Nonfiction, eds Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard. This book works by having a section on the art and craft of creative nonfiction and its various sub-genres followed by a selection of excerpts from a wide variety of contemporary writers. And the hairy chestnut of truthfulness in the genre is well covered.

The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. If you’ve ever wrestled with poetic form in writing or reading poems, this book makes it all so simple. The approach is to take the form (Villanelle, Sestina, Ballad …..) and summarise it in a few bullet points, give a short bit of history and then show the form being used by contemporary poets.

Writing for Success, Patricia O’Reilly.  A no-nonsense gallop through pages of practical advice on the publishing process across the spectrum of fiction, non-fiction, radio and print journalism. A great resource book to have to hand.

That’s my list then. I’ll pile all these books back on the shelf now and then get on with it – the writing, that is.


  1. Máire T. Robinson on 1 September 2010 at 6:37 pm

    I remember years ago my old screenwriting tutor raving about the Dorothea Brande book, but for the life of me I couldn’t get my hands on a copy in those pre-Amazon days! Thanks for reminding me about it. Will definitely order one now. My fave book on writing is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. Well worth a read.

  2. mpbyrne on 1 September 2010 at 11:14 pm

    Yes, I have Stephen King’s book too and it has really useful stuff. Just a bit put off becuase he’s so phenomenally successful, which is a bit irrational! Another book in the Dorothea Brande mode – and cute in that it’s a list of staccato suggestions – is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones – first published 25 years ago. I keep going back to her piece on ‘The Power of Detail’. Here is a flavour: ‘This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.’ I think I’ll go back and change my list to include Goldberg!