grade The Last Word: On Writing

by Mariah Beckman

Published in Issue No. 255 ~ August, 2018

Trade magazines and columns and blogs. Conferences. Workshops. Post-graduate work. Weekend retreats. There is no end to the free and paid methods a writer can supplement his or her experience these days.


If you’re at all like me, however, somewhere along the line you have developed a theory. That theory goes something like this: nearly everything you learned in school or an extracurricular setting you could or later happened to read in a book. 


Assembled below is a list of such tomes for your convenience. Perhaps you’ll find them useful; perhaps you won’t. Worst case scenario, they make what appears to be a thoughtful stocking stuffer for the writerly friends in your life.  


The Forest for the Trees

An Editor’s Advice to Writers

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.



Story Engineering

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

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

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.


Bird by Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott knows from writing. She’s the author of seven novels (with one on the way) and nine works of nonfiction – many of them bestsellers. In Bird by Bird, her 1994-published book on the craft of writing, Lamott addresses how to get started, accepting the shittiness of a first draft, writing groups, writer’s block, how to know when you’re done and more. Her words, advice, insight are priceless.


Walking on Water

Reflections on Faith and Art

Madeleine L’Engle; Preface by Sara Zarr

Madeleine L’Engle has mastered the art of weaving faith into fiction. In Walking on Water, the late author explores what it means to be a Christian artist, and touches on the influence of science on her writerly life. This is, truly, a book that will hold appeal for writers and readers alike, as it sheds light upon the mind of one of this last century’s most talented writers.


On Writing

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski was a legend in his own time, and has left behind a legacy that will live on for as long as the English language does. In On Writing, take a deeper look into this complicated, brilliant writer’s mind through his correspondence with publishers, editors, friends, and other writers. And be prepared, of course, for Bukowski’s oft-hard-to-take honesty.


Story Genius

How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel(Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)

Lisa Cron

So much of writing is creativity. But let’s not forget about the scientific piece of the puzzle. In her new book, Story Genius, story coach Lisa Cron addresses just that, examining the role that cognitive storytelling strategies can play in writing – and how you can put them to work for yourself.


The Sense of Style

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker

Harvard College Professor of Psychology and two-time Pulizter Prize finalist Steven Pinker applies his background in cognitive science to the practice of writing in The Sense of Style. In a book that differs in approach and method from most others on this list, Pinker takes a critical eye to the common writing practices of the 21st century. He often does so via examples of writing gone terribly wrong, so that readers can study what exactly went awry, and how those mistakes can be avoided. Pinker does not scold or demean as he does this, but rather takes readers along with him on a journey that demonstrates how the science of the mind can shed light on the art and practice of writing.



Writing Tools

Roy Peter Clark

What started out as a series of blog posts ended up being one of the most useful and extensive writing guides on the market. More of a practical how-to than a self-help book, the chapters of Roy Peter’s Clark instructional range in topic from “Begin Sentences with Subjects and Verbs” to “Create a Mosaic of Detail to Reveal Character.” Equally useful for writers and editors, Writing Tools empowers the reader to turn good writing into great writing.


On Moral Fiction

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.


Still Writing

Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro offers this deeply personal account of her experiences as a writer in a book that is equal parts diary, advice column, and narrative story. She tells of her own success and failures always with candor, sometimes with humor, and never with regret.  Still Writing is a book for both the novice writer and the seasoned veteran, as it will remind all of its readers why they are, indeed, still writing.


First You Write

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers’ autobiography was published by HarperCollins and became a New York Times bestseller – the writer’s dream, yes? So, then, why did she publish this book with an independent publisher? In First You Write, Rodgers reminds writers why they dedicate themselves to the craft in the first place, including herself. Anyone interested in both writing and publishing would be wise to read this humorous mini-memoir.


Writing Past Dark

Bonnie Friedman

Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark is an emotional and psychological writer’s guide. She doesn’t discuss structure, character, or plot, but rather envy, guilt, and writer’s block. She focuses on the hardships of the writer’s life, drawing from personal anecdotes of her own and of historically famous authors (even Shakespeare could get jealous—he said so himself!).


Several Short Sentences About Writing

Verlyn Klinkenborg

Verlyn Klinkenborg offers an interesting challenge to the reader in his book: forget everything you have ever been taught about writing.  Rather than composing his essay in paragraphs and chapters, Klinkenborg employs a more poetic style of prose. He uses simple sentences in succession to demonstrate his point: that the sentence itself is the most basic element of writing, and that each sentence should do its fair share of work. Put expectations aside before you pick this one up, and you just may find yourself scribbling sentences on the backs of receipts before you know it.


On Writing

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?


Telling True Stories

A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University

Mark Kramer

Every year, America’s most prominent journalists and nonfiction authors gather at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Consider this compilation of advice from editors Mark Kramer and Wendy Call the “we attended so you don’t have to” summary of the conference. It’s a Best Of from the best of, and each essay is packed with amazing writing advice that will help hone your narrative voice and exercise it so it is stronger than ever.  Featuring writing from Malcolm Gladwell, Nora Ephron, and Tom Wolfe, Telling True Stories is essential for a writer who wants to learn from some of writing’s heaviest hitters.


Writing Down the Bones

Freeing the Writer Within

Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is a devout practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and it certain comes through in her book Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg explains how her spirituality has informed her writing. Her tone is encouraging, but she is by no means trying to say that what works her will work for every writer. She simply writes on her own experience, offering simple advice to the reader in the form of short chapters. Writing Down the Bones will help you take a deep breath and keep writing, and isn’t that all writers really want to do, anyway?


Style Guides

They sound dry, boring and academic by nature, but the truth is that great pains have been take in this day and age to make style guides just as engaging as they are informative. Well, maybe a little more informative than entertaining. Everyone has their favorite, but in my opinion, a person can never go wrong with The Elements of Style Illustrated for a super quick and handy reference that laymen and professionals will enjoy equally. Some of my editor friends swear that the Gregg Reference Manual is all a person will ever need; if I had to pick just one, this would probably be it. Chicago Manual of Style is, of course, the gold standard for fiction nowadays; you couldn’t go wrong with this volume if you tried. But I think my favorite academic editing book has to be the Copyeditor’s Handbook. It has everything: drama, intrigue, examples—the stuff of dreams.

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Mariah Beckman is a Seattle-based writer and editor. A transplant from the cloudless skies and arid heat of the Arizona desert, Mariah spends most of her time trying not to feel soggy. Mariah holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Arizona State University and spends much of her free time with her beau, her family, and her pot-bellied pig, Bebop. When she’s not pretending to know how to knit, she loves to run, hike, kayak, shop, snap photos, and explore the nooks and crannies of the Pacific Northwest.