Books For Writers Who Don't Have The Time (Or Money) For Workshops

by Charlotte Ahlin

Look, I know that in a perfect world every aspiring writer would have workshops full of peer reviewers, and infinite funding for their MFA, and a golden typewriter. But unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, in which most writers work three or more day jobs and survive off of dry pasta and mug cakes. Never fear, though: even if you don't have the time or funds to enroll in a high-end writer's workshop, you can still pick up a few tips on how to write well. Writers love nothing more than to write about writing, after all. So here are a few books to read if you don't have time for a writing workshop.

Everyone has a slightly different opinion of the "right" and "proper" way to learn how to write. Some people believe in years of rigorous schooling, so that you can adorn the walls of your study with multiple degrees. Others argue that school is overrated, and the best method is just to read as much as humanly possible. Still others might suggest living alone in a forest, or selling your soul at the crossroads, or giving up on writing and getting a so-called "real job." I think we can all agree that the best path to being a writer is just... to write.

But no matter which path you follow, these books will help you hone your craft, even if you have to spend the rest of your time paying the bills:


'The Elements of Style' by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

An oldie but a goodie. If you're in the market for some timeless advice on how to string a sentence together, The Elements of Style has got you covered. It's a standard manual on how to write elegantly, it's been used for almost a century now, and yes that's the same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte's Web.

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'On Writing' by Stephen King

You don't have to be a horror fan to appreciate Stephen King's thoughts on writing. He's a fantastically prolific, incredibly successful author, and he has a whole lot of thoughts on writing well. On Writing is part memoir of his own experience with writing, especially while recovering from a serious accident, and part advice to all writers, at every stage of life.

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'Writing Magic' by Gail Carson Levine

If you ever read Ella Enchanted as a kid, you need no convincing to pick up Gail Carson Levine's book on writing. She shares her secrets on coming up with ideas, writing witty dialogue, crafting plot arcs, and everything in between. If you've ever wanted to write a novel, especially a YA novel with a heaping helping of magic, this is the book to read.

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'Bird by Bird' by Anne Lamott

Sometimes you just have to take things bird by bird. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of writing an entire book and getting it published and running a pithy author Twitter account and paying the bills and just being a human person in general, Anne Lamott is here to talk you off the edge. Her book is all about approaching your writing in small, manageable steps. One bird at a time.

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'The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers' by Betsy Lerner

Writers like to write about writing, and dole out advice to young writers as thought they've got things all figured out, but it's editors who really know what's up. The Forest for the Tree is writerly advice from the editor's perspective, and its invaluable. For straightforward advice on how to write clearly and concisely, check this one out.

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'Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected' by Jessica Page Morrell

Rejection is a part of life. Sure, we all have that one friend who married their high school sweetheart, but for the rest of us life is a carnival of rejection and crushing disappointment, especially for writers. Jessica Page Morrell offers reasonably kind, no-nonsense advice on turning your oft-rejected manuscript into the next bestseller (or at least, on avoiding common writing mistakes).

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'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' by Haruki Murakami

Sometimes you don't need grammar tips and punctuation guidelines from your fake writing workshop, though. Sometimes you just need to go for a run. For the athletic writer, or the writer struggling with stress and writer's block, Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a lovely rumination on life, writing, and, of course, running.

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'Zen in the Art of Writing' by Ray Bradbury

As Bradbury puts it, "Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces back together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!" Zen and the Art of Writing is a practical manual on how to write and how to do it well. But it's also a celebration of the art of writing! Writing is kind of fun, you guys! You got this! Bradbury mixes useful tips with pure inspiration for doubtful writers in this classic book of essays.

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'The Writing Life' by Annie Dillard

This slim book is a treasure trove of wisdom when it comes to living the "writing life." Author Annie Dillard isn't here to tell you how to write so much as how to be a writer. And not just how to put "writer" on your resume, either, but how to be the type of person who spends days obsessing over a single sentence, or who wrestles with the dragon of writer's block.

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'Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose' by Constance Hale

Let's be honest: if you're going to a writer's workshop, you're going to want to walk away with some next-level sentence crafting abilities. This witty, wickedly smart book will teach you how to use alliteration fearlessly, how to commit to verbs, and how to add some flair to your everyday prose. It's as good as several workshop sessions, with a much lower time commitment.

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