Writing 101: Five Books You Need In Your Life



It’s often said that good writers are good readers.

In the early days of my career, I read everything I could get my hands on. I subscribed to over twenty different magazines and spent what little money I had in Barnes and Noble every weekend.

I don’t read nearly as much as I should anymore.

But I do carry many of the lessons from a few of my favorite  books in writing.

If you’re new to writing. Or just need to reinvigorate. Cop these joints. Today.

1. On Writing by Stephen King


This is half memoir and half full of writing tips. His career tragectory is inspiring. And he’s unflinchingly honest. (Who knew he was coked up and doesn’t even remember writing some of his best work?!)

I re-read this book constantly. And any time I do an attribution in my dialogue, I envision Stephen King sitting on my shoulder. He cautions writers about using adjectives in dialogue attribution. According to King, it’s almost always unnecessary. And I agree.

“Don’t slam the door,” she said angrily.

“I love you,” she said passionately.

“I hate you,” she said forcefully.

No. no. no. Take away the -ly adjetives in dialogue attribution. A mini-Stephen King sits on my shoulder and whispers this to me whenever I’m writing.

Lots of gems like this in his book. Get it.

2. Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg


This book prepared me to write a novel. I’ve read it at least fifty times. I used to bring it into bed with me every night and read it aloud to my then-boyfriend, (now TH). He would snicker and call it a glorified self-help book. Because the book is full of inspirational, bare-bones advice about finding your inner writer.

Sidebar: Years ago, I must have been 20 or 21, I went on a family vacation with my family to the shore. I bought brand new pens and notebooks with me, envisioning endless days of writing on the beach.

I remember sitting on the beach, notebook in hand, pen poised over the paper.

And I couldn’t write a single word. I mean nothing. I ended up writing a few lines about wishing I had something to write about.

Once I choked out my first never-published novel, I was on my way. And now, at any given time, I can open a Word document and go for it. (Most of the time.)

Writing Down The Bones helped immensely. It’s filled with tips for beginning to write. She takes it back to the essence. Skip the fancy notebooks and just get a spiral joint. Make sure you have the right pen. Don’t filter yourself.

I thought about this book quite a bit as I worked on No Tea For The Fever As-Yet-Untitled. Particularly when I found myself writing scenes that scared me. We often choke on our writing because we’re thinking about the reader and what they will think of us. Goldberg reminds us that you should just try to get the words down. Love this book. Get it.

3. On Writing Well by William Zinnser


A classic. It’s about writing non-fiction but it applies to every kind of writing. Zinnser is the polar opposite of Goldberg’s touchy-feely approach. Zinnser says to sit your ass down and write like it’s a job. Because it is. It is not glamorous. It is not easy. And it is not cute. You just have to buckle down and do it. When you’re feeling like you need a kick in the pants, pick this up.

4. Dust Tracks on A Road by Zora Neale Hurston


Okay. This is an autobiography. And it’s not an instructional tool about writing. But Zora’s writing is so simple, direct and wonderful that it serves as a wonderful tool for writers. If you haven’t read it, for shame. If you have, read it again.

5. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott


Very similar to Goldberg’s approach, Lamott is all about getting to the essence of what it takes to get your words down. This is the book that you take with you to the park, all alone, with a cup of coffee and a pen and a notebook. It makes you feel like writing. Gives you that soft push you need to face the blank page. Cop that!

Dear readers: What books inspire you? Have you read any of the above? Have other suggestions?

I’d love to hear from you…


16 Responses to “Writing 101: Five Books You Need In Your Life”

  1. Jenna Marie Christian Says:

    Aliya you’re the best. you’re always sharing what you’ve learned along the way and it truly helps me a great deal :-)

  2. Sunflower Jones Says:

    “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. I just finished this one. Wonderful book for getting (and holding on to) the motivation to write.


  3. Claire Says:

    Elements of Style by Strunk & White is always good to have. I love that William Zinsser Book.

  4. incilin Says:

    Word up. Heavy co-signs for “On Writing Well” and “Bird By Bird” (I knew Zinsser would make the list, but I’m kinda surprised Lamont did too). Love them both and was rereading Lamont just last night.

    The only other book I would add is “The Elements of Style.” I know it’s not a book that tries to inspire writing like the rest of these, but it just helps me ease my mind and focus more than any other title.

    I think that in summary what most of these books teach is something Roger Ebert always wrote, and I always tell any writer who’ll listen: “The muse visits during, and never before the act of composition.”

  5. Michael Says:

    I own On Writing Well and Stephen King’s book, but I have to own up to not finishing either book. On Writing Well was helpful, but in some instances became repetitive to me. I usually feel that way about most books on writing. They’re helpful, but I tend to learn more from other types of books. For example, one summer in college I spent my time simply reading different works of fiction and non-fiction. There was this one anthology that included works from just Black men. It was very helpful, and in the coming months I realized how much I grew as a writer.

    Sans TV writing books, which deal more with structure, I tend to not like books on how to write. But, because I love me some Aliya, I’m going to check out a few of these. Nice post.

  6. Alisha Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Aliya! I’m very interested in Writing Well. When I was 15, I had a summer reading assignment to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I wasn’t too excited about. We took a roadtrip to Louisiana (5 hours away) and I’d finished it before we hit the stateline. Her writing was so pure and it pulled me so quickly, I was shocked. That books inspired me to want to write stories, rather than “articles.”

  7. carleen Says:

    Own & read all those. Also recommend Story by Robert McKee and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

  8. brook Says:

    and your forgetting a couple…one is On Writing by Samuel Delany.

    but your list is proper. I have to agree on it.


  9. svonnah Says:

    I love James Thurber’s Lanterns and Lances. He has so much fun with the English language, it energizes me and makes me want to be as clever as him!

  10. Samantha Hunter Says:

    My favorite is Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life. It’s autobiographical, but beautifully written and I have come back to the advice and thinking about writing in that book more than any other.


  11. Thembi Says:

    Thank you for making out my xmas list for me ;)

  12. schukumba Says:

    Child, I feel like running out and copping at least 4 of those 5 books and getting my novel on! I’ve been talking about writing a book for years, and aside from blogging more regularly, I’m no closer to that goal. Perhaps I can get inspired somewhere in the pages of these recommended reads. I see it worked for you!

  13. Jamie Fleming Says:

    Thanks for sharing these. Will definitely have to check them out! : o )

  14. la negrita Says:

    The only one on the list that I own is On Writing Well. I needed it for a class in undergrad. Will def check the others out.

  15. mizChartreuse Says:

    Couldn’t have asked for a better blog, especially being smack dab in the middle of NaNoWriMo. I think I’m gonna hit up the indie bookstore later today.

  16. Michael Says:

    Great list, though the only book I have read is Stephen King’s On Writing. I was struck by his honesty and fairly common-sense advice. I always thought Stephen King was underrated as a writer because he’s popular. But people forget how good of a storyteller he is.

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