Category Archives: advice

The 27 Best Books on Writing

Writing is hard, and defining yourself as a writer can be even harder. Here’s our exhaustive list of the best books on writing when the blank page beckons.

Source: The 27 Best Books on Writing

Writing is, as a general rule, hard. Defining yourself as a writer can be even harder. Sure, there are other difficult practices like law and medicine out there, but a person becomes a lawyer or a doctor when he or she passes a series of exams and graduates from a certain school. Writing doesn’t always work that way. There aren’t tests to study for and facts to memorize. Where are we supposed to learn how to write?

From grammar rules to publishing advice to personal narratives, these books on writing reveal in intimate detail the ins and outs of what it means to call yourself a writer. Sometimes harsh, sometimes funny, but always honest, they can be thought of as a kind of syllabus for writing. Whether you’re an aspiring artist working on your first drafts or a seasoned veteran in the publishing world, these are some of the best books on writing with insight and wisdom that can support you at all stages of your writing process.

Books listed include:

The Forest for the Trees (Revised and Updated)
An Editor’s Advice to Writers

by Betsy Lerner

For both established and prospective authors alike, the publishing house can seem like a jungle. Luckily, Betsy Lerner is here to lead a safari, citing her vast collection of experiences as an editor as her field guide. The Forest for the Trees motivates writers by helping them get over their fear of the unknown. It’s less about taming the wilderness and more about facing the demons of self-doubt and sloth that live in every person’s own mind.


The Elements of Style Illustrated

by Strunk, White, Kalman

William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is so widely known that we’re sure you already have a copy, but of course we had to mention it. The only style guide to ever appear on a bestseller list, this book should be your go-to if your writing is in need of an infusion of clarity. Plus, this particular edition is illustrated by Maira Kalman, adding a visual element of style to the classic.


Story Engineering

by Larry Brooks

Larry Books turns a technical eye to the writing process in Story Engineering. If you don’t properly plan out your story prior to setting pen to paper, he argues, your storytelling won’t be as effective as you’d like it to be. To remedy this, he takes readers through six core elements of storytelling: concept, character, theme, story structure, scene construction, and voice.


Naked, Drunk, and Writing
Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay

by Adair Lara

Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing is a must-read for any memoirist or personal essayist. With experience as a teacher, editor, and, of course, writer, Lara’s know-how will help readers through problems like how to face your family after they’ve read your work and how to find an agent who will fight for you. The perfect mix of tough love, comic relief, and passion, Lara’s book is invaluable for anyone who needs a little help telling their story.


How to Write a Damn Good Novel

by James N. Frey

James N. Frey’s overarching guide will be of use to both the novice and the seasoned, published writer. He provides advice for how to overcome writer’s block and fear of the blank page, how to turn a critical eye to your own writing, and more. Frey’s book is one to keep within arm’s reach while writing, to grab during those moments when you need to take a step back from your work and get back to basics.


On Moral Fiction

by John Gardner

Morality and art have a complicated relationship, but John Gardner faces it fearlessly in this book-length essay. By Gardner’s way of thinking, all real art is moral, but morality doesn’t necessarily have to do with codes of conduct and submission to a Higher Power; it is the ability of art to point to some human value. The harsh lines he draws to distinguish “art” from “not art,” may frustrate some, but even in that case, this book’s ideas stick in the reader’s head.


On Writing

by Stephen King

If you’ve ever read a book by renowned American horror novelist Stephen King, you’ve probably wondered just how he comes up with his ideas. For the answer, look no further than On Writing, King’s memoir where he describes his writing process, including anecdotes about how he started some of his most iconic stories. In addition to recounting his personal experiences, he dedicates a whole chapter to grammar and offers his advice on form. It’s a great read for anyone in need of inspiration, and how better to make you pay attention than Mr. King?


The Writer’s Journey

by Christopher Vogler

Movie lovers will appreciate this book from Christopher Vogler. He exemplifies his writing tips with movies, a practice that makes this instructional especially helpful for screenwriters. Having received praise from writers and directors such as Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), The Writer’s Journey can boast its status as an essential to anyone looking to write the next Oscar nominated film. It’s also an excellent field guide for a novelist stuck in a plot maze and desperate to get out.


A Poetry Handbook

by Mary Oliver

Imagine if you could get help with the very basics of writing poetry from a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet? Fact is, you can via Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook. The handbook is written in a way that makes it a perfect resource for both teens and adults as they start on their poetry journey – and is a useful refresher for veteran poets as well.


For the full list, with brief descriptions and links to buy them, go to


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Robert De Niro’s advice can be of use to us all

Esteemed actor Robert De Niro’s commencement speech to the 2015 graduates of NYU’s Tisch School of Arts is colorful, humorous, and honest. Reject will come often, he said. His answer: Next. Next project. Next part. Next try.

It will not be easy, he said, but succumbing to your destiny often isn’t, especially in the arts.

Don’t worry, it’s only about 16 minutes long. He headed the advice of a couple of Tish students he consulted beforehand who told him to keep it short.

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Saturday update: “‘Breakneck speed'”

[Editor’s note: below is a follow up article to the one posted in this blog on Thursday:]

UT: Missing brains were destroyed

By Benjamin Wermund | December 3, 2014


The bizarre mystery of the University of Texas at Austin’s missing brains came to a swift end Wednesday, as officials revealed that the preserved organs had been destroyed more than a decade ago. But some questions remain.

One hundred brains, kept in formaldehyde-filled jars, were reported missing this week from the state’s premier research university. About 200 brains dating from the 1950s, which originally belonged to patients at the Austin State Hospital, were given to UT for research in the 1980s.

About half of them briefly went unaccounted for and officials spent Tuesday and Wednesday scrambling to find them. A preliminary university investigation found that UT environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens in 2002 in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste.

But questions remain — including why the brains were destroyed — and the university said it would appoint an investigative committee to get answers.

“As researchers and teachers, we understand the potential scientific value of all of our holdings and take our roles as stewards of them very seriously,” UT officials said in a statement. “The university will also investigate how the decision was made to dispose of some of these specimens and how all brain specimens have been handled since the university received its collection from the Austin State Hospital in the 1980s.”

The brains were in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching, the university said in a statement. Workers disposed of between 40 and 60 jars, some of which contained multiple human brains, the statement said.

Despite reports that the missing brains included that of Charles Whitman, the sniper who went on a shooting spree from the UT Tower in 1966, UT officials said they had no evidence that Whitman’s brain had been destroyed with the others. Other reports Wednesday that the brains had been given to UT campuses in San Antonio also appeared to be false, UT said. The university will continue to investigate both claims, however.

“We’re moving at breakneck [Editor’s note: An interesting word choice considering speed to figure this all out,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said Wednesday. “We obviously take this very seriously.”

Author Alex Hannaford discovered the brains had gone missing while reporting for his book, “Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital.” Hannaford detailed the mystery in an article for the Atlantic, published Tuesday.

Timothy Schallert, a neuroscientist at UT and curator of the university’s collection of preserved brains, told Hannaford that by the mid-1990s, about 200 of the organs, sealed in jars, were taking up much-needed space at UT’s Animal Resources Center. Jerry Fineg, the center’s then-director, asked Schallert if he would move half of the jars elsewhere.

Eventually, Schallert discovered about half of the brains had gone missing. “I never found out exactly what happened—whether they were just given away, sold or whatever—but they just disappeared,” he told Hannaford.

Hannaford said Wednesday that UT still has a lot of questions to answer. He questioned whether 100 brains could possibly fit into the 40 to 60 jars UT says it destroyed.

“It leaves the question, are there some that are unaccounted for?” he said, adding that it was “pretty obvious that Whitman’s brain was part of the collection.”

Coleman de Chenar, a pathologist at the Austin State Hospital in the 1960s, conducted the autopsy on Whitman, who had left a note for police, urging physicians to examine his brain for signs of mental illness. Whitman’s brain reportedly ended up in the collection of specimens then housed at the hospital that was later given to UT, Hannaford said.

“As far as I’m concerned, it leaves some sort of open ended questions,” Hannaford said.

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I’m a writer and I don’t get no respect

[Editor’s note: I believe it was the late Rodney Dangerfield who had a comedy routine based on “I don’t get no respect.” The lack of respect could come from anybody, anywhere, including his wife. Below is a playwright Rodney could empathize with. He writes to Dear Abby, and she responds. I have known one or two other writers in the same situation. Maybe you, do, too.]

Rodney Dangerfield

Sometimes respect is hard to come by for a writer, or a comic. Just ask Rodney Dangerfield.

DEAR ABBY: I am an amateur playwright. Our local theater sponsors an annual playwriting contest. The prize isn’t monetary, but something far more important to an author – full scale production of the play.

I have won this prize four times – more than any other writer in the history of the contest. But is my family impressed? Not at all! My wife told me she thinks I write everything the same way and have simply repeated myself four times.

I am up in years. It’s unlikely I will ever again win this prize. So how do I respond to such indifference? What do you do when you feel you have accomplished something important and the response is, “so what else is new?”

–Looking for Validation in Florida

DEAR LOOKING FOR VALIDATION: My hat’s off to you. That you have won this prize more than any other writer in the history of the contest is a notable achievement. Attend the production, take your well-earned bow in the spotlight, and accept that the less you look to your wife for validation, the happier your life will be.

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Filed under advice, Dear Abby, humor, respect, Rodney Dangerfield, writer, writing

Best writing advice you’ve received?

Below is some writing advice gathered by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary. The listing below is from his blog. Website for the agency is

December 30, 2011

What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

I’ve had several people write to share the best writing advice they’ve ever received.

Vince Zandri, who has done numerous novels and sold more than a quarter million books, wrote to me and said, “The best writing advice I ever got came from Ernest Hemingway in the form of his memoir, A Moveable Feast. If writers are worried about one thing, it’s the ability to keep a story moving from day to day. To avoid the ‘block,’ as some people call it. Papa wrote slowly and methodically in the early morning hours, and trained himself to stop at a point where he knew what was going to happen next. That way he could be sure of getting started the next day — and it left him the afternoons to play, exercise, fish, drink, or do whatever he wanted.”

Successful nonfiction writer Mel Lawrenz wrote to say, “The best advice? Take the long view. See the long process of publishing as an advantage — the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, and revising make for a more refined end product. Don’t miss the opportunity to rethink what you originally wrote.”

Harlequin author Dana Mentink sent this: “The best writing advice I got as a pre-pubbed author was that I should act like a professional. My mentor encouraged me to treat my writing like a business, not a hobby. Put in the hours, describe yourself to others as a writer, and really put yourself into the mindset of a professional. She explained to me that there’s a big difference between ‘I want to write a book’ and ‘I want to be an author.’ The latter requires professional dedication.”

Children’s author Kayleen Reusser noted, “Believe in yourself, even if no one else does. At my beginning I was the only one who believed I could write and get published. Even my mother told me I could not write — no money, no time, three small children to care for. But I swore I would die trying. (Thank goodness it has not come to that.)”

And novelist Dianne Price wrote to say, “Know your characters. LIve with them. Talk to them. Listen to their words and the cadence of their speech. Make them your constant companions. Argue with them. Commiserate with them. Ask them questions. You must know them to make them believable.”

What about you? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard?


Filed under advice, agents, writing, writing tip

“Wings” to heaven.

DEAR ABBY: I am a middle-aged woman who is Baptist by faith. I believe that when I die I will go to heaven, My problem is, if going to heavean means being reunited with my parents and other family members, then I don’t want to go! The idea of spending eternity with them is more than I can stand, but I don’t want to go to hell, either. Any thoughts? –Eternally Confused in Mississippi

DEAR ETERNALLY CONFUSED: Yes. When you reach the pearly gates, talk this over with St. Peter. Perhaps he would be willing to place you in a different wing than the one your parents and other family members are staying in. And in the meantime, discuss this with your minister.


Sometimes, you just can’t make things up. The entry above appeared in the Dear Abby column of my local paper in November of this year. In one sense, it needs no commentary, though it does remind me of the quote from mark Twain: “Heaven for climate and hell for society.” This also seems like a question the writer should have been asking of her minister before asking Dear Abby or even instead of Dear Abby, whose response is interesting and yet odd in its own way. “Wings” to heaven?  Is this an attempt at a pun?

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Starting with the obvious

Why men shouldn't write advice columns

Some things need no commentary, but I have one below anyway.

Editor’s comment: Some say this is an example of why men should not write advice columns. I say it’s an example of missing the obvious. First, the advice guy should have told the writer to check to make sure there was enough gas in the car’s tank. An empty gas tank and a car will stall easily. Geez, some people never want to start with obvious.

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Filed under absurdity, advice, advice column, age, car, fun, humor, men, obvious, wit, words, writing