The Best Writing Book I’ve Ever Read

I don’t think writers should abandon reading in their genre, but I love reading books about writing.

writing book

Photo by ShutterHacks (creative commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

I’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.  I learned the writing craft from books about writing nonfiction and fiction, plays and poetry, and even screenwriting (by the way, if you want to write for the silver screen, Save the Cat is the essential guide).

But yesterday, I finished the best book about writing I’ve ever read.

Finding the Best Writing Book

I ran across Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, in the syllabus of a Stanford writing class and thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Stanford, I might as well skim it.”

Have you ever read a book that makes you realize how little you actually know about a subject? I thought I knew something about the writing craft. After all, I’ve been studying it since I was seventeen and writing about it on this blog for the last two years.

This book made me realize how much more I have to learn.

Here are three reasons I loved Stephen Koch’s A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:

1. Write Your Story in One Sitting

John Steinbeck said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.”

When writing a story, whether a short story a story in a novel, write the first draft in one sitting, says Koch. I’ve heard the rule to write your first draft quickly, but honestly, I’d never thought of applying this advice to short stories. This works because it harnesses the natural storyteller in you. Every storyteller hates to get cut off before she gets to finish telling her story, and you will write faster and longer in order to get the end.

The day after reading this advice, I wrote a 2,000 word story. I normally write very slowly, rarely more than 1,000 words a day, but the next day I wrote a 3,000 word story. Same with the next. Finally, on the fourth day, I wrote a 3,500 word story that I’ve been trying to write for two months.

2. Quotes… Hundreds of Quotes

Nearly every writing book has an authority problem. “That’s how you write, but who are you anyway?” Koch was a professor at Columbia University, one of the country’s top writing programs, but he rarely stands on his own authority. Instead, he lets the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed authors in the 20th century speak about the craft themselves, filling the book with hundreds of quotes from dozens of authors.

I especially liked when he pitted these authors against each other, showing how they disagreed, for example, about point of view or how to write a first draft. It was like being in a giant conversation—one that occasionally broke out into arguments—with the best writers of the century.

Here are just a few writers involved in the conversation: Michael Crichton, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, John Le Carré, Truman, Capote, John Gardner, and Mark Twain.

3. Fast Drafts, Slow Drafts

“As we have said, you may be someone who does your first draft very quickly,” says Koch. “If that is true, your second draft should probably be slow moving…. If the one draft is fast and reckless, the next should probably be slow and painstaking.”

Writing quickly gives confidence and allows you to make daring experiments and intuitive leaps. Writing slowly, on the other hand, allows you to thoroughly define your characters and their voices, to develop the setting, and fill in holes in the plot.

Most professional writers, Koch explains, write three drafts. The first draft is usually fast, though not always. Some writers, Gabriel García Márquez, for example, write very slow, complicated first drafts, full of tangents and false starts. For these writers, a fast second draft can unify the story and bring vitality to the prose. For fast first drafters, a slow, laborious second draft brings depth and subtly. Fast draft, slow draft; slow draft, fast draft: a good practice.

A Guide to Fiction

Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop isn’t one author’s guide to creative writing. As I mentioned before, it’s a conversation between the best authors in the world about what it means to write and how to do the job well. If you’re looking for a good writing book, I highly recommend it.

How about you? What is the best book about writing you’ve ever read?


Write a story in one sitting. Write as quickly as you can, and if you get bogged down, just skip that part and move on. Just make sure you get to the end.

When you’re finished with your fast draft, post a section (no more than three paragraphs) the comments section. And if you post be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

Have fun!

(Note: Some of the links above are affiliate links.)

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Joe this sounds like a good one. Always glad to hear about a book that advances craft

  • Will order it today. Thanks Joe!

    • Great, Bryan. I think you in particular will like it.

  • I hadn’t heard of this book, but you can bet I’ll be getting it now! Thanks for the writeup.

    • You’re quite welcome, Julie. I hope you enjoy it.

  • Wow, that recommendation was so good, I just bought the book!

  • Grace Peterson

    Very interesting. Perhaps the message is, there are as many different ways to write as there are writers. We all go about it slightly different. I think I would enjoy this book, especially reading the “discussion” between authors.

    • Yes and no. The nice thing is that they agree on quite a lot, which provides a standard structure so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or the writing life, anyway. Still, the things they disagree about are fascinating.

  • 1. I’m stuck here right now. I love rereading my own work (is that vain? Joe, don’t answer that. It’s a literary term called a rhetorical question) which often prevents me from moving forward.
    2. I would love to hear a conversation between those folks.

    • 1. Yes, it’s vain (I don’t care about your silly literary terms), but that makes me vain as well.
      2. Me too. I’ll settle with reading it though. 😉

    • Ha! You two just made me laugh out loud!

      • Thanks, Giulia. Getting to banter with @JoeBunting:disqus is the best part about being on The Write Practice team. 😉

  • poohhodges

    Thank you Mr. Bunting for suggesting a new book for me to read. My favorite book is Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird. I should write a book on writing, and call it “Mouse by Mouse.”

  • This is a great article. Thanks for sharing the book, it’s one I haven’t heard of.

  • mariannehvest

    Antoinette didn’t like horses. She didn’t like dresses. She didn’t like dolls. But, her mother ignored all of that. Louise McGill-Lynne continued to dress her darling, like a little girl, a princess, a cutie-pie, and she continued to buy her doll after doll after doll, hoping that her daughter would fall in love with at least one of them. Antoinette didn’t. She only liked a stuffed Minnie Mouse whom she dragged thought the dirt in the backyard. The Minnie Mouse’s name was Favorite. When Louise laundered Favorite the enormous metal cartoon eyes were scratched in the dryer and Louise was afraid that Antoinette would be upset, but Antoinette didn’t seem to mind. In fact she didn’t seem to notice.

    When Antoinette was about to turn four, she and Louise were in the backyard playing in their new sandbox. Louise showed Antoinette how to draw the floor plan for a house in the sand and decorate it with peony petal furniture. Antoinette picked twigs from the grass for fences that she wanted to put in the bedroom to corral horses. While they were making their house in the sand, Louise saw a friend from work coming out of her backdoor waving and hollering.

    “Hey Louise, hey Antoinette, I brought you something. Your husband told me you were out here.

    Louise placed one last petal in the imaginary living room and stepped out of the sandbox trying not to disrupt the house. She was surprised to see her co-worker, and she didn’t like to see anything from work on the weekends.

    Kathleen held out a small box wrapped in pink to Antoinette. “I got you something honey. It’s a present. Antoinette did not get to her feet, nor did she smile. Kathleen frowned and said, “Don’t you like presents honey.”

    “She doesn’t like to be called honey. She funny about things,” said Louise in a low tone of voice, the tone of voice one uses when they don’t want a child to pay attention.

    “Doesn’t like to be called honey. Why not?” said Kathleen to Antoinette.

    Antoinette drew her brows down and tucked her chin in.

    • Ruth

      I want to know what was in the gift! I enjoyed reading your story so far…

      • mariannehvest

        Thanks Ruth.

    • Missaralee

      I love that she is named Antoinette and hates dolls. Such a girly name for such stubborn miss. This piece is really great; it feels like it came straight from a completed work. Your style is lovely as usual, Marianne.

      • mariannehvest

        Thank you very much Missaralee. I like that you said that about her hame. I’m going to have her give herself a nickname in protest I think.

    • I enjoyed reading this and I too would like to know what the gift was. I like Antoinette, she seems quirky.

      • mariannehvest

        Thanks Karl. I like her to. She is one of those characters that just seemed to show up in my mind personality in place. I hope she stays interesting.

    • All right, I’m burning with curiousity to find out what that present is, and what Antoinette was going to say. If anything…I’m just dying to know the rest.

      • mariannehvest

        Thanks, I think it’s another doll or something girly which Antoinette won’t like.

  • mariannehvest

    I’ve been looking for another good book on writing so I’ll try the one by Koch. Another thing that’s good to use for writing advice is Glimmer Train’s “Writer’s Ask”. It is arranged by topic using the answers that various successful authors have used given in interviews. That doesn’t explain it very well but it’s well worth reading IMO.

    • I like Writer’s Ask, too, Marianne. Thanks for mentioning that.

  • Angela

    I’ve added it to my list. At the moment I’m busy with Stein on Writing, has anyone else read it? I’m really enjoying it so far 😉

    • I’ve heard of it but haven’t read it. Glad to hear it’s good.

    • I love On Writing. It is one of my favorite writing books. Bird by Bird is also wonderful, as is On Writing. The remarkable thing about each of these books is the very different voice and perspective that each author brings to his/her craft. I look forward to adding Do the Work and Guide to Fiction. While I write non-fiction, I always find new approaches and tools in any book about writing.

  • Missaralee

    That sounds like a great book! I like this writing in a dash concept. The practice below ballooned to 3000 words in one go and it might just hit 10,000 if I get time to really finish it today.
    She had lived in the big old house with her grandmother for twenty years. Never straying through the garden gate, never going farther than the barn to feed the animals, or harvest them up for supper. Tonight she sat on the roof, her face thoughtful as the
    greens, yellows and pinks of the northern lights played across her cheeks and whispered sweet nothings to her ears. The lights had always told her to come out and catch them. So many evenings on the roof she wanted to slide down from the roof rail to land in the hawthorn bushes and tear herself away from the farm, from the turf, from the house and her ailing grandmother. Her grandmother. The only reason she disobeyed the northern lights was her grandmother, sick and frail. She had been practically catatonic since her husband had died 15 years back. Occasionally she would brighten up and ramble about wedding cakes and fancy candies she had made and sold in town. A diligent young woman, she had kept the farm afloat through droughts, depressions and pestilence by selling her handiwork and designing the polyresin domes that made life in the north possible. She was clever with her hands, a natural artist. She had passed the gift on to her granddaughter. The walls of every room were covered in paintings and designs. No wallpaper could ever be as beautiful as the tattoos Lindy had lovingly sketched out and painted floor to ceiling in every room. Some featured giraffes and monkeys on parade. Others shooting stars and wind whistling through pine trees.
    Lindy dreamed. Sitting in the musty house, making tea for her grandmother, tending the garden, cooking the meals, it was all done in a dream. Far away from there she was a maid in an emperors household. She was a geisha entertaining lords. She was a famous archeologist, digging up priceless artifacts as she removed the stones from the garden plots. Not a day in that house, was she really there, except that one day. The one where the butcher’s son had come calling after Tulip had been lamed stepping into a gopher hole in the pastures. Lindy was furious that day. Grieved. Beside herself. Tulip was her last friend in the northern cage. And now the boy had come to collect her to line his shelves with meat and glue. Lindy had made tea for the boy, Tinder. She’s brought out lemon-iced biscuits studded with currents. She kept back the fine cocoa dusted truffles she’d made after grandmother’s recipe. She had been determined to be civil, but that didn’t mean she had to treat him like a treasured guest. He afterall was not at fault for Tulip’s leg.

    It had been gophers who’d signed her sale papers, and you had best believe that Lindy took after them good. They too had gotten treats today. What a merry funeral feast they would have before the poison took them. Serves them right living off her potatoes and nibbling the tops off her squash. Tinder was a well-built boy, strong from years of working in his father’s shop. Lindy had been impressed, despite herself, by his muscular arms and wide shoulders.
    “I’m truly sorry about your mare” he said quietly. “It’s a wrong sort of thing to lose a fine worker” he blushed as he dipped his biscuit into the tea, “and friend” he finished.

    “Thank you” said Lindy, suddenly shy. “I think I have some chocolates in the pantry, if you’d like.”

    • I love the description in this piece. It’s beautiful.

      • Missaralee

        Thanks Giulia 🙂 I saw a picture of an old house under the northern lights a few days ago and this story grew as I kept imagining those colours and the feeling the sadness of it.

        • It’s funny how looking at a picture can inspire a story. I remember doing that in my writer’s craft class in high school.

    • mariannehvest

      It sounds like the beginning of a love story. She is so lonely that you hope she will find someone.

    • Beverly Stout

      It’s a well written excerpt. I want to read more. Very good work, Missaralie!

  • Oh wow this is so intimidating! I usually take over a week and countless sittings to finish just one draft. I’ll need to prep myself mentally for something like this. Phew. I’m sweating already.

    • You can do it! Just walk away from the computer and do something else and something will come to you. Walking away always helps me. I used to actually pace when I got stuck in the middle of an English paper back in my university days to get myself unstuck.

  • Darn it, I misread the pracitce. I just spent fifteen mintues taking a part of piece I speed wrote the other day, the ghost story with the twins, and doing a slow second draft. Grr. I’m posting it anyway. Mostly I went through this scene, was dialogue heavy and added in a lot of detail and narration that I had left out the first time.
    My Practice:

    “Tom,dear…please, is something wrong?” Cassandra asked the question carefully,
    glancing at Adam.

    Tom downed his wine and gave anironic laugh. “The love of my life is dead and you have the nerve to ask me that?” He stood suddenly, the movement lithe and violent. His eyes had a diabolical gleam. The hazel colour of his once bottle green eyes, eyes that had been identical to hers, shocked Cassandra; they had darkened even more just a few hours. “Stop staring at me!” Tom snapped, “I’m not insane you know!”

    “Tom, calm down,” Adam said

    “Why should I?” shouted Tom and threw the glass of wine against the wall. “How can I? Do you not see what’shappening?” He ran out of the room and soon they heard a door slam upstairs.Cassandra let her head fall into her hands and bit her lip until she tastedblood. What was happening to her twin? Why were the colour of his eyes changing?

    She found she couldn’t sleepthat night. Her skin felt stretched too tight and she tossed and turned, hermind whirling. Tom, she felt certain, was slipping away. She was losing her brother. With a sudden thumping her in chest, she rose out of bed and slipped down the hall into Tom’s room. He slept face down, his breathing heavy and though the room was cold, he had kicked off the blankets and his skin was hotto the touch. Cassandra murmured to her twin, worrying he had a fever, but he slept soundly on. She moved to climb into bed with him, to sleep with him like
    they had when they were children, but even as she lifted the blanket to pull
    over herself, it was wrenched away.

    “No!” Tom cried with wild, dark eyes. “No, he is mine!”

    Cassandra pulled back with a horrified gasp, for the voice that came from her brother sounded nothing like his own. She let out a scream as Tom suddenly collapsed back on the bed, limp and lifeless.

    He jolted upright almost in the next instant.

    “Good God, Cassie, what are you doing here?” he asked hoarsely. “Why are
    you screaming?”

    “The lights!” Cassandra grasped at the wall, flicking on the lights overhead. She grabbed her brother’s face between her hands. “Your eyes!”

    “What’s wrong?” Tom asked again.

    “Your eyes were nearly black—and look at them now, they are not green at all Tom, look.”

    Tom pulled her hands from him gently. “ I know,” he whispered, “I know Cassie.”

    Cassandra frowned, feeling fear swell in her heart. “But what is it?”

    “It’s her,” he said after a moment in which he swallowed convulsively. “Don’t you see it’s her?”


    “Yes.” The word was uttered sorrowfully.

    “She’s-haunting you?”

    He nodded, “yes.”

    “But…Tom, what do we do? What does she want?”

    His laugh was hollow. “Me,” he replied. “She wants me.”

    • Carmen

      Oooh I want to read more! Where can I read more 🙂

      • Currently, only in my notebook 😉 I’m glad you liked it.

    • mariannehvest

      That’s pretty dramatic. I thought he was going to turn into a werewolf or something. I want to know what happens.

      • Thanks Marianne, I might actually finished revising the entire story slow later on.

  • I look forward to reading this book, Joe. AND…let me share the best writing book I ever read, just last year. DO THE WORK, by Steven Pressfield, well-selling author of historical fiction,and The Legend of Bagger Vance, and the terrific nonfiction book, THE WAR OF ART.
    After reading DO THE WORK, I sat down and spent two hours writing a brand new synopsis of the script I just sent off. It’s a little book, available on Amazon for $7.00. I give copies away now, to anyone who’s “struggling” to write. It will kick you in the block. The Premise: On the field of the Self stand a Knight and a Dragon. You are the Knight. Resistance is the Dragon..

    • I love that book, Eric. Thanks for mentioning it!

    • mariannehvest

      I’ve heard of “The War on Art” and “Do the WorK” sounds great too. I’m going to get them too.

    • mariannehvest

      I need to get back to this entry and say. I got the book by Koch’s book and the one by Pressfield mentioned below and I love them. I’m writing much more confidently. Thanks again Joe and Eric for your recommendations.

      • I’m so glad to hear that Marianne! I found the same.

  • wendy2020

    My library system is down, so can’t check to see if they have it and if they did, I can’t check it out until they are up an running again. But thanks so much Joe for the heads up on a great resource.

    • Robert Lee

      I just ordered the book from my library and just received an email notification that it is ready to be picked up. I can hardly wait until tomorrow.

  • Madison

    I guess I’ll apologize for some of my crude language, but these are teenagers. I’m a teenager. It’s how we talk.

    The best time I had ever was March two years ago. There was me, Ly, Jude, Mercy, Miliani, and Dempster. After school, every day, we all stayed at my house until it got dark and my parents got home. We’d bullshit our homework, listening Bing Crosby’s Christmas album, and then sit in either silence or talk about how much our lives suck.

    “Would you rather rob a bank or kill a guy?”

    “Shut up, Ring.”

    “I’m genuinely asking.”

    “Neither. It’s not worth my freedom.” Dempster.

    “My conscience would eat me alive,” Mil insisted.

    “What if there were no consequences?”

    “It would have to be a big bank in a city. This town’s too small to steal from.
    Everyone knows everyone,” Ly said in a whiney tone. I don’t blame her. This
    place makes me sick.

    “You guys are awful. Why steal from anyone? Those people could have families. You could be stealing from some kid’s college fund.” Mercy was always such a tight-ass. I don’t even know why she hung out with us.

    “Yo, yo, Mercy.”


    “Suck a dick.” I always gave Mercy a hard time, it was hilarious. “Lights. Lights,
    go.” My parents never knew about the group. They thought I didn’t have any
    friends, and I wanted to keep it that way since my parents seem to ruin
    everything that crosses their path, so when we see headlights, everyone grabs
    their bags and hops our fence and makes their way to the road and home. (We all
    lived pretty close to each other, so they were cool.) “Jude, you never chimed
    in. What about you?”

    Jude, his legs over both sides of the fence, seemed to think about it for a second
    but just said, “Naaahh, man. No. No.” He laughed a little, imagining what it
    would be like if he had the balls to actually rob a bank, but he doesn’t.

    “Alright, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

    “Yeah, Ringo. I’ll see yuh.”

    March, I think, we learned a lot about each other and ourselves and how far we’d go to satisfy ourselves. I don’t know, man… but that shit was cool.

    • I’m fascinated. Why are teenagers having this conversation? What’s Jude hiding? I have a feeling he’s hiding something big. And what else do they learn about each other in March? Very well written.

      • Madison

        I was actually doing homework on Macbeth when I was writing this, which had a lot to do with their personalities. I don’t know these character’s very well, but I think I’m gonna keep writing and find out. One thing I did find out about Jude, though, is that his is a coward. I think he’s hiding something big, too. Maybe trying to suppress his black thoughts like Macbeth did. You’ve just made me really excited about these guys. Thank you for the complement and commenting! 🙂

    • Paula

      I loved it.

  • Deanna

    Thanks so much for your post Joe. It really resonated with me as one of my 2013 writing goals is to continue to expand (and read) my collection of books about writing. I actually started Koch’s book one afternoon in the library, checked it out, and ended up returning it unfinished. I will add it to my to buy list! As others have mentioned, Bird by Bird is a fantastic book. I love her voice! Thanks again-

  • Marty Gavin

    I m almost halfway thru the book and while I am not done yet, I already feel this is a winner of a book for nybdy who writes.

    Having read so many writing books over the years, I can see this one taking its place along the “greats” like Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s, On Writing, and a few others.

  • I have three favorite books on writing:

    1) The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Rebecca Puglisi ( This one really helps me with showing emtions (funny thing, eh?). I used to always go with “character x grinned” or something similar. Now, I write, “His cheeks curved up and his eyes sparkled.”

    2) Robert’s Rules of Writing by Robert Masello ( This one really influenced my writing. The biggest things I took away from this book is rules that may work for you may not work for me and write what you read.

    3) Ink by R.S.Guthrie ( This one taught me what was meant by “Show, Don’t Tell. I didn’t really understand it before, but I think I have it now.
    I hope others find these as useful as I do.

    • Susan

      I love the “character X grinned” versus “his cheeks curved up and his eyes sparkled” example. I think that will stay with me a long time and hopefully inform my writing. Thanks.

    • Jack Strandburg

      I use 1) extensively in my writing and just finished reading 3). Haven’t seen 2) yet, but might consider it – thanks!

  • Robert Lee

    An inspirational book on writing is William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”. I also enjoyed Stephen King’s book on writing, as well as James Frey’s.

    • Hannah

      All hail the King!!!

  • Hannah

    Writing a story in one sitting can be quite a sad thing, I
    rarely do it because once you stand up the story is over, the characters are finished…
    but still there is always that hope for a future greater story to be bloomed
    from it. I wrote one story once, back in February I think, a fantasy story of
    course. It was called Candlelight, a magical five hundred word romance full of
    sweet sorrow. I wrote it in about half an hour, the characters started
    whispering in my head and then like an exhale of breath, they appeared on the
    page. Really breathtaking. Haha, but yeah, it was actually about four months
    later that I looked back at it, thinking that it was inspired by my forbidden
    lover, but then looking deeper (and falling once again for my Love that so
    easily gets away), I realized it was partly inspired by him and I, the one who
    keeps getting away, I mean and it was actually written on the day that he asked
    me for my number and we started talking, pondering all the Universe together in
    our budding Platonic love. Taken aback, I sent it to him, he saw it too. Sigh,
    I’m not sure where he is now, but we will find each other again. We always do….
    But anyways, I do love Stephen King’s On Writing and find his radical
    resentment for adverbs hilarious and somehow understandable. Only F. Scott
    Fitzgerald could pull their excessive off gracefully, anyone else, good luck
    and may your rest in literary pieces. JK. Lol.

  • Susan

    After finishing my Linguistics masters ( a long process for me), I wanted to expand my writing beyond the academic (which I handle quite well). Around that time, order to avoid airline miles expiring, I had to make an on-line purchase before midnight. A cooking book? A photography book? A self-help book? No…I thought..a WRITING book. Yay!! I had a short time to peruse the options, and happened upon Writing Down the Bones..Freeing the writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: aaahhhh..I just received Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. Some of the words elevate above the page, lifting to my eyes. I started reading the book and it brings me such peace. Natalie said to “giver [her] a moment to engage in some writing. I love her work already. I feel such peaceful energy and “permission” to write in my own voice, newly forming.

    THANKS FOR ALL TE BOOK SUGGESTIONS. Looking forward to exploring them.

  • Andrea Paolo
  • I’ve got a stack of writing books on my book shelf. Some are my favourites for constant reference, but Stephen Koch’s Book is my favourite of favourites. It’s really gets down to the nuts and bolts of writing a story. After reading it you feel like you’ve been in conversation with the author.

  • FritziGal

    One of the best books about writing I’ve ever run across, and one I would highly recommend is: “Reading Like A Writer” by Francine Prose. A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. FritziGal

  • Rosie Fairfo

    I started reading the article above, but a pop up covering the article came up, asking me to join your mailing list. I struggled to get rid of it, but eventually managed to by reloading the page. Just wanted to feedback how offputting it was.