Four Writing Guides for the Writing Guide Phobic by Elizabeth Ferris

I’ve always been a bit nervous around writing how-to books. I know that many writers find them indispensable, but they can also leave us feeling weighed down and confused by sometimes contradictory rules. Here are four writing “guides” that I think even the most rules-phobic writer can enjoy.

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1. The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

Richard Hugo was a poet and writing teacher who worked for many years as the director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana. He is also the source of one of my all-time favorite writing quotes.

The Triggering Town is not a writing guide per-se, but a collection of some of Hugo’s most popular lectures and essays from his long career in teaching. It’s aimed at beginning poets, but I have returned to its wisdom and warmth again and again, though I don’t write poetry. The topics range from Hugo’s “nuts and bolts” of writing, to close readings of poems by Roethke. What I love about this book is Hugo’s obvious passion, as well as his humility in front of the work of writing. I think the spirit of Hugo’s collection is best captured by this passage from the end of his introduction:

Above all, I hope you’ll not take the book more seriously than it was intended. Some of it, though obviously not all, is written in a sense of play. But it is play directed toward  helping you with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems. I don’t know why we do it. We must be crazy. Welcome, fellow poet.

2. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro is one of those rarest-of-rare things in today’s age: a writer who has managed make a bill-paying career out of writing books. So obviously she’s easy to hate! But that dedication and success has given her a lot of know-how, which she shares generously and gently in this book. (As an aside: I just love the book’s subtitle: “The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.”)

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Still Writing is actually one-hundred-and-some-odd short craft pieces and reflections on writing arranged cleverly into three parts: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Some are purely technical, like her piece “Five Senses,” which I read often with my classes, while others tackle emotional or even spiritual topics like “Scars,” “Astonishment,” and “Exposure.” Shapiro’s approach in the book is direct, approachable, and candid—the same traits that have made her a much-beloved memoirist and novelist.

3. The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard

Okay, so I might be a teensy bit biased here, but even if I didn’t adore Valley and love her life-changing classes, I would still pick this book. In fact, I’d only taken one class with Valley before buying The Halfway House for Writers and devouring it in one sitting.

Writing is inherently vulnerable, and regardless of our writing goals, big emotions like shame, guilt, embarrassment, and frustration are part of the process—so it is such a relief to read a book on writing that talks about all that with bravery, compassion, and humor.

The Halfway House for Writers begins with a summoning and invitation for wounded writers: “This is a handbook for writers who are afraid to begin and writers who have begun but are afraid to continue. This is a handbook for anyone haunted by writing, writers who long to write but fear it, writers who are afraid to call themselves writers.”

Haggard weaves stories from her own writing journey with lessons and themes she’s learned over her years as a writing teacher. It’s part instruction, part salve for the wounded. It’s a book I would shove (nicely!) into the hands of anyone ready to give up on writing or afraid to begin.

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4. Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process edited by Joe Fassler

This is the least writing “guide-y” book on the list. Light the Dark is an outgrowth of an essay series that editor Joe Fassler started for The Atlantic called “By Heart.” For the series, Fassler asked well-known writers pick their favorite passages from a work of literature and talk about the personal as well as artistic impact of the lines. Light the Dark is a collection of 46 of those “By Heart” pieces.

There’s something inherently inspiring about peering into the mind of the writer as a reader. It’s both affirming (famous writers are also people who love to geek out over books!) and instructional—many of the pieces have helped open my eyes to what works about great pieces of writing. The book is also filled with lots of wonderfully unexpected moments. In possibly my favorite piece in the collection, author Nell Zink talks about her past working as a female bricklayer. The collection is made all the lovelier  illustrations by artist Doug McLean that accompany each piece.


Elizabeth Ferris is the executive editor for Life in 10 Minutes Press. She has edited for Vanderbilt University Press and freelance clients including journalists, educators, novelists, and memoirists. When not editing, Elizabeth contributes regularly to Richmond magazine. She received a BA in English from The College of William and Mary and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. Find a list of her upcoming classes at Life in 10 Minutes here.

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