(this section remains an evolving work in progress)
Guidebooks, Exercises, Practice
What It Is by Lynda Barry: This book takes you on a tour of Lynda Barry’s writing/art teaching, making it both a wondrous exploration of the possibilities of creativity and a fun window into one writer-artist’s practice.
Writing with Power by Peter Elbow: All of Peter Elbow’s books about writing are worthwhile (I love Everyone Can Write), but Writing with Power is the one to get if you’re looking for exercises, nuts and bolts ideas, and practical advice.
Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg: A useful, practical, approachable collection of thoughts on writing and simple exercises. I have used exercises here myself and used many of them with students for 20 years now.
The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall, and David Weiss: This book presents beautiful, inspiring, beguiling bits from poets’ notebooks. The variety is what is useful here — you can see clearly that no writer is quite the same as another, that each has found the process and form that best suits them.
The Craft of Revision by Donald M. Murray: A wonderful guide, sadly out of print now. It was originally published in an inexpensive edition, then for some reason later editions became sold only to the textbook market and the price skyrocketed. There are plenty of low-priced copies on the used market, though, and this is a book worth seeking out there. It will open up your work to you in all sorts of new ways.
Writing in Flow by Susan K. Perry: The value of this book is that it synthesizes discussions with dozens of writers about their processes. You don’t need to buy into the pop psychologizing to learn a lot from what Perry reveals here.
Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer: A unique and lavishly illustrated book that is unlike any other writing guide ever created. A work of art as well as a generous, rich collection of ideas and practices. Its focus is speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror), but its ideas reach into all genres and styles. There is also a companion website filled with useful extra material available for free.
A Piece of Work: Five Writers Discuss Their Revisions by Jay Woodruff: A detailed look inside the process of five writers: Tobias Wolff, Tess Gallagher, Robert Coles, Joyce Carol Oates, and Donald Hall. If you really want to see what revision can look like, this book offers that.
Nuts and Bolts Guides
Dryer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dryer: Dryer has been the copyeditor for Random House for many years, and this book is both informative and a great joy to read. It’s a rare style guide that is just fun to pick up and read around in, but this book is. I don’t agree with Dryer about everything, and you likely won’t either, but part of the fun is seeing how his opinions match with yours, and how he can lead us all to care deeply about words, language, and writing.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: This book is unique, authoritative, and actually helpful. It’s one of my all-time favorite reference books of any sort, because not only does it cover various questions of usage, it provides historical evidence so you can make informed choices of your own. (For a full review by a writing teacher, see this blog post.)
A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum, Brett Reynolds: This is not the easiest guide to grammar, but it is one well worth having at hand because it is written by linguists rather than just random people with opinions about how other people should write — which is who writes the majority of guides to grammar and style. These authors actually know what they are talking about and provide a system for understanding and analyzing grammar that is state of the art. Maybe don’t start here, but definitely find your way here.
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams: There are countless editions of this book out there, many of them expensive textbook editions, but the one to look for is the inexpensive paperback that does not have the word “lessons” in the title. The other editions are useful, but there’s no need to pay huge amounts of money for them when the basic concepts are what matter, and those concepts are present in the simple “Toward Clarity and Grace” volume. This book is especially useful for writers who want their prose to be as clear and effective as possible. It is not a book about literary style, but rather about expository, communicative style. It is practical and logical. Throw away the awful Elements of Style and put this book in its place.
Philosophy and Theory of Writing
Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe: Short essays by fiction writers about why they do what they do.
About Writing by Samuel R. Delany: This is not a book for the beginner. This is a book to read, reread, learn from, argue with, be befuddled by, find inspiration within — for the rest of your writing life. It is most useful to writers who have some experience and want to think deeply about their craft.
Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing by Peter Elbow: A book filled with both practical and philosophical advice. All of Elbow’s books about writing are worth getting to know, but this is the best one-stop toolkit.
Teaching Grammar in Context and Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar in Context by Constance Weaver: To me, grammar is essential for teaching writing because grammar is what helps unlock every writer’s sense of possibility. I don’t think anybody needs to know all the terms for grammatical forms (I sure don’t know them all!), but a sense of what can be done and how is vitally important. Grammar and style are our toolbox. These two books give teachers thoughtful, practical advice on how to help students learn about the tools and have fun putting them into use.