The Essentials: Writing Books I Can’t Live Without

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

Today we’re focusing on building our writing library.  The way I see it, there are three types of writing books.  You have books on craft, books containing writing exercises and prompts, and books about the writing life.  A well-balanced home library should represent all three types.  Yet, not all writing books are created equal, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly have unlimited shelf space in my apartment.  For these reasons, I’ve had to pick and choose which writing books I add to my collection and in doing so, I came up with this list: The Essentials.  These are the five books on writing I just can’t live without.  They’re my go-to books, the ones I pull from the shelf every time I have a question.  If I had to pick only one or two books in each category, these are the books I would choose.


If you must own only one book on the craft of fiction, I would recommend Gotham Writers’ Workshop Writing Fiction.  This book gives you the basics on character, plot, dialogue and description.  There are many books on craft that are similar, but I’m partial to this one because each chapter is written by a different author.  This means that as a reader you gain a variety of perspectives and approaches to writing, rather than just one author’s view.  Also, because each chapter covers a main topic of craft, it’s easy to find answers to all sorts of writing-related questions, making this an excellent reference book.

If poetry is your preference, the book I would recommend is Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius.  This gorgeous book explains the craft of poetry without losing the beauty of it as well.  In addition, the writing is so fluid and engaging that we don’t even realize we’re learning about craft.  This is the sort of book you could read cover-to-cover, like a novel.  Addonizio is a patient and supportive teacher in this book, guiding poets through the nuts and bolts of the craft and winning over even the most reluctant readers.

Writing Exercises

There are lots of great books with writing exercises and prompts, but if I had to choose only one, it would be The 3AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.  While there are many other books that offer interesting exercises, this one is my favorite because the prompts not only get you writing, but they force you to consider elements of craft as well.  In fact, you could learn as much about craft from this book as you would from the craft books listed above.  There is also a sequel to this book called The 4AM Breakthrough, but considering that there are 201 exercises in The 3AM Epiphany, I suspect this book alone could keep a writer busy for a very long time.

The Writing Life

This category is the most difficult one for me to limit my choices, because I love reading about the writing life.  After much struggle, though, I have managed to trim down my selections to two books.  The first, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, is not just one of my favorite writing books, it’s one of my all-time favorite books, period.  This book gives a warm and honest view of the writing life as experienced by Lamott.  This book didn’t just make me want to be a writer, it made me realize I already was one.  And that is a precious gift.

Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is another favorite in this category.  Though a little more didactic than Bird by Bird at times, this book guides writers through all aspects of their writing life.  This book takes a zen approach to writing, with topics ranging from writing in restaurants to writing marathons to fighting tofu.  (You’re going to have to read it to find out what that last one means.)

In the end, each writer will come up with a different set of The Essentials, but if I had to limit my writing library to five books, these would be the ones I would choose.  If you’re curious what other writing books I have on my shelf, here’s a list.

Craft of Writing

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
Writing Fiction by Gotham Writers’ Workshop
Rhyme’s Reason by John Hollander
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost
Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
By Cunning and Craft by Peter Selgin
Save the Cat!
by Blake Snyder
The Making of a Poem
by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Illustrations by Maira Kalman)

Writing Exercise and Prompts

Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis
The Writer’s Book of Matches by the staff of Fresh Boiled Peanuts, a literary journal
Room to Write Bonni Goldberg
The 3AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley
The 4AM Breakthrough by Brian Kiteley

Writing Life

Write that Book Already! by Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark
The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Constant Art of Being a Writer by N. M. Kelby
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell
Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy
Take Joy by Jane Yolen

  • I posted my answer on my blog. And then went to hide……..

  • I posted my answer on my blog. And then went to hide……..

  • Gabriela

    Great answer! Just read it, and I think it’s important to recognize our reading and writing patterns. Also, remember that it’s OK to use some books just as references. I have TONS of writing books that I only read snippets of at a time, because I’m looking for answers to specific questions. But if a book can answer even just one writing question or problem, then that book has earned it’s place on my shelf.

  • Kai

    Thank you for this list! I haven’t read a single one of these, but they all look helpful. I’ve reserved everything my library has. 🙂

  • I finally stopped trying to write the perfect list and just grabbed my books. I deleted a few things like supplementary reading I recommend and such. However, I also say in the post that I plan on coming back and adding to the list so I can always add some of the things I intentionally left off this time–like books with writing prompts and such. (You’ll see some familiar faces!)

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