Reading the Write Books

My Top 5 Books for Writers

Chelsey Engel
May 14, 2018 · 6 min read

Reading about writing can sometimes feel silly. Eventually you need to stop studying it and just start doing it. But there is so much value to be found in the right books, ones that open your eyes and your mind to the craft and, in some ways, make you throw out rules completely.

I wanted to share the five books on writing/creativity that I think are priceless, especially for new authors out there.

And please feel free to offer your own favorites down below in the comments! I’d love to find some more keepers to add to my arsenal.

(Follow me on Twitter, yinz.)

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

By Natalie Goldberg

This past Christmas, I was in Los Angeles visiting a friend, and I decided to finally start writing the novel I’d had in my head for nearly a year. So I sat my butt down in Bricks & Scones (now my favorite coffee shop ever) and worked for eight hours. When I left, I caught a ride-share, and my driver and I chatted about how I liked LA and what I was doing. We then got into an amazing conversation about writing, and this is where I learned about NaNoWriMo and a Buddhist book on writing called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

From the back of the book, “writing practice, as she calls it, is no different from other forms of Zen practice — ‘it is backed by two thousand years of studying the mind.’”

This is not your typical “how-to” book. Goldberg encourages writers to treat their work in a mindful, almost spiritual way. She wishes for us to let the characters go where they please without putting too much, if any, stress on “Well, should my characters do that? Is that what an editor might want?”

Goldberg talks about the value of stripping everything down to the basics, and merely writing whatever comes to you. Instead of sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a poem,” sit down and say, “I am free to write the worst junk in the world.” With this, we can be free from disappointment and attachment that often makes us never write a single word.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Now although Liz is likely best known for her #1 New York Times Bestseller memoir, Eat Pray Love, one of my favorite works of hers is Big Magic. This is a book I pull out at least once a month when I need encouragement as well as a reminder that whatever I’m doing, or not doing, creatively at the moment is just perfect.

There are so many highlights throughout my copy of this book, it’s practically the YellowPages. She touches on everything from the age-old stereotype that to make art is to suffer to her theory that all creative ideas are floating around the world from person to person waiting for the right person and the right time to come alive.

One of my favorite bits is Liz talking about her insanely popular memoir that resulted in her receiving letters that said everything from “I detest everything about you” to “You wrote my bible.” She goes on to say,

“Imagine if I’d tried to create a definition of myself based on any of these reactions. I didn’t try. And that’s the only reason Eat Pray Love didn’t throw me of my path as a writer — because of my deep and lifelong conviction that the results of my work don’t have much to do with me.”

Boom. Right there. The results of our work don’t have much to do with us. The only thing we can control is the work itself. And sometimes, we can’t even do that!

This book always brings me back to center whenever I’m feeling guilty or uninspired or stressed about my writing. I can’t recommend it enough.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King

Of course, this list would not be a list at all without the king himself. Stephen King wrote On Writing not long after his near-fatal accident in 1999. Part memoir, part master class, this gem is smart, funny, and empowering. He talks about struggling as a young writer and then again as an alcoholic.

This is a must-read not just for King fans, but for writers everywhere. I can’t really say much more because it truly is that good.

The Art of Fiction

By John Gardner

I learned about The Art of Fiction during one of Janet Fitch’s “Writing Wednesday” Facebook live videos (which I will expand on another day soon!). As one of Fitch’s recommended books for writers, Gardner’s “notes on craft for young writers” became an entire class for me.

He touches on everything from plotting, technique, and truth. In one section on description, Gardner says,

“One does not simple describe a barn. One describes a barn as seen by someone in a particular mood.”

From this, he even offers an exercise of describing a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in war, except you aren’t allowed to use the words “son,” “war,” or “death.” Imagine how challenging this is, but also how much of a difference it makes when we approach all of our fiction writing with this idea of the mood-description connection.

There so many beautiful nuggets in this book, with two of my other favorites being these two amazing quotes:

“True artists are obsessive, driven people — whether driven by some mania or driven by some high, noble vision need not presently concern us.”


“No critical study, however brilliant, is the fierce psychological battle a novel is.”

I can certainly attest to this second one as I’m tits deep into my first novel and I feel like I’m drowning.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

By Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

This baby is more of a resource than anything, but let me tell you — it’s a great resource. There are so many times when there is a word at the tip of our tongue and we just cannot get it out. That’s when the thesaurus comes in handy.

But this is more than that. This book provides physical signs, mental responses, internal sensations, and even tips. To many people, a book is nothing without character. (Well, in many ways, that’s true.) But making sure we describe our characters to the point where we don’t have a single doubt that they are real is so important. And it’s quite the challenge.

That’s why you need to snag this book. The authors have several other books that are just as helpful and even just downright unique. Make sure to check out The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus, The Rural Setting Thesaurus and more!

Chelsey Engel

Written by

Chelsey is a writer and activist living and working in Pittsburgh. Her debut novel, A Summer of Fever and Freedom, is out everywhere now.

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