6 Books to Help You Survive the Writing Life

Cover of 6 Books to Help You Survive the Writing Life

If you are looking for off-the-beaten-track advice that will boost your aspiration and willpower, help you develop the craft of scribbling things worth keeping on the page, and give you a realistic sense of what it is to be a writer these days, this list is for you. 




Read This If You Want to Be a Great Writer, by Ross Raisin (2018)


Ambitious in scope, this holistic book is divided into First Steps, Techniques, and Honing. Each section is then broken down into subtopics such as exploration, planning, research, form, plot, originality, the opening, and the ending, just to name a few.


Among the highlights are the encompassing of nearly all visual and formatting tricks (storyboards, flow charts, timelines, lists, quotes, covers) to illustrate a theoretical or practical point, and the chapter that describes six writing methods as well as the writers that swear by each of them.


“As much as we might enjoy hearing apocryphal stories of famous author’s quirks — that Joyce wrote in bed in a white coat; that Joan Didion sleeps beside her manuscript so that it doesn’t leave her; that Dan Brown hangs upside down in anti-gravity boots — they make no difference to the reader’s enjoyment of the author’s book. The important thing, as an author, is to know what ritual, eccentric or not, works for you.” 


Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd (2013) 


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd joined forces to create this hybrid of memoir and practical book. Their advice on writing and editing is woven into a structure combining excerpts from literature classics with technical essentials and stories about their four-decade friendship and collaboration.


Less than 200 pages long, Good Prose shines brightly on the passages about choosing a narrative point of view, learning the difference between facts and truth in non-fiction and the emotional lows involved in comparing oneself to others. It also has a nifty compilation of titles to read next on its very last pages. 


If the prose is good? You bet! 


“To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them — by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself (…). Writers are told that they must “grab” or “hook” or “capture” the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.”



It Was The Best Of Sentences, It Was The Worst Of Sentences, by June Casagrande (2010)


June Casagrande states that the sentence is the writer’s most crucial tool and proceeds to dissect what makes a good sentence and what makes them meaningful to readers.  


“This is where grammar comes in. This is where word choice comes in. This is where questions about clarity come in. This is where I come in. In this book, I hope to share some information I believe can be very helpful to you, my Reader, about the art of sentence writing. I arrived at this information not as a teacher of writing or a critic of great literature. I arrived at it as a student of grammar.” 


Subordination, short vs. long sentences, the truth about adverbs, relative clauses, preposition phrases, passives, and other matters of tense? Yep, yep, yep, it’s all there. 



First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing and Life, by Joe Moran (2018)


Centered around the mechanics of language, First You Write a Sentence could have easily turned into a heavy read, but it didn’t, thanks to its well-placed humor, the author’s unpedantic approach, and self-professed mission to “hearten, embolden and galvanize the reader” by offering not a style guide but “a love letter to the sentence.” 


As the title suggests, this is a great companion for when you already have a draft and wish to improve it on a sentence level.


“The world has plenty of sentences already, so pause before you add to the pile. Most of us, when we write, march too quickly on to the next sentence. A good sentence gives order to our thoughts and takes us out of our solitudes… A sentence should feel alive, but not stupidly hyperactive.”


Also available in audio format, the narration by Roy MacMillan is flawless!



Upstairs at the Strand, edited by Jessica Strand & Andrea Aguilar (2016)


Surrounded by millions of books in a legendary bookstore in New York, novelists, playwrights, and poets talk about how they work, think, and live. Although these conversations took place in 2012 and 2013, they still prove relevant today thanks to the broad spectrum of creative experiences and constructive divagations by twenty-five authors, including Alison Bechdel, Junot Díaz, Paul Auster, Hilton Als, Tina Chang, Rivka Galchen, Téa Obreht, and Tracy K. Smith.


“I had this huge six-by-four-foot chart on my wall with hundreds of little Post-its, and index cards, and notes and a grid. It was a very unwieldy story to write, mostly because there was no story. I had to find a story in all those different strands. At a certain point, I realized that there were actually through-lines. There was the story of my mother’s life, going to college in the fifties, and getting married in the sixties. There was my fixation with Donald Winnicott. There was a relationship I had in my twenties. These layers were becoming clear. It wasn’t an outline, it was this evolving Excel spreadsheet. I had it on my computer as well as on the wall.” (Alison Bechdel on writing Are you my mother?)



Swallowed by a Whale: How to Survive the Writing Life, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (2020) 


A very encouraging assortment of secrets and insights by more than sixty accomplished authors — novelists, poets, biographers, children’s writers, illustrators, etc. — who meditate on the art of making things up for a living. Also, possibly the prettiest book on writing out there: the green, blue, and orange pages will take you on an immersive visual journey.


“Getting started is hard. Even the most successful authors find writing difficult and have endured rejection and setback on their journey to bestseller fame and fortune. The good news, however, is that there are many ways to write.”


Check out the golden rules listed per author on the last pages. They are pure gold.



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