Photo by Eleanor Ball

3 Craft Book Recommendations from Someone Who Hates Craft Books

Eleanor Ball

Okay—maybe I don’t hate them, so to speak. But I have to admit I’ve rarely found them useful. In general, if I need to figure out how to do something (ex. How do I improve my pacing in revision? How do I structure a character arc in a series?), I won’t page through craft books in search of the answer; I’ll type my query directly into the search bar of 

I know many people treasure craft books, but they’ve rarely landed with me. The reasons vary from book to book, but here are some of the most common ones:

But even for me, a craft book curmudgeon, there are a few I continually think about, recommend, and reference. Over the last few years, here are the ones that have stuck with me:

Photo by Eleanor Ball

How to Be a Poet by Jo Bell and Jane Commane

As the title indicates, this is a book for beginners, but it’s a great one. When I started writing and submitting poetry last spring, this was the most frank, comprehensive guide I found to what I was getting myself into. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve often found that my writing improves far more quickly through the trial-and-error process of writing than through learning how to do something in the abstract. But I can’t trial-and-error my way into learning practical insider information from publishers and established poets on the industry, the slushpile, cover letters, querying, manuscript publication, and more—which is much of what How to Be a Poet provides. Plus, the chapters on writing poetry are written through the same practical lens. For instance, when discussing revision, Bell provides examples of her own work before and after revision and explains why she made the choices she made. I personally found this to be much more helpful than an explanation of poetic technique in the abstract.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

This book isn’t about how to write, but how to . . . write! Not what to say or how to say it, but how to sit down and put pen to paper in a way that gets to the emotional core of your ideas. For example, I appreciated Goldberg’s frank discussion of how she writes in 99-cent notebooks so she doesn’t feel bad about writing bad early drafts, and how she often has to write several notebooks full of “junk” before she can get to the good stuff—but she knows it will always click eventually. Since Goldberg’s advice revolves primarily around how to generate emotionally compelling material, this book is more likely to be useful to you if you’re drafting a new idea than if you’re doing final edits on a manuscript. I also think her advice would be most helpful to poets and flash writers, but long-form fiction writers can still glean something valuable from the book. This is one of the rare craft books I’ve read that I felt was universal across genres—I could see myself, a fantasy writer, benefiting from her advice just as much as a romance or literary fiction writer. 

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

If anything, this is the anti-craft book, so it’s no surprise I liked it so much. Salesses breaks down the idea of Western “writing craft,” analyzing where it comes from and whom it serves. He explores culturally diverse storytelling traditions and challenges many aspects of the traditional writing workshop. For example, he points out the unique harms caused to marginalized writers by the norm that writers don’t speak during workshop when their work is being critiqued; misinformed by stereotypes, their peers often don’t understand their work and give unhelpful, if not downright harmful, feedback. At the end of the book, Salesses also includes practical storytelling and workshop exercises that any writer can try right away. This is an excellent resource for both students of writing (self-taught and university-taught alike) and teachers. If you’ve ever felt excluded by the kind of work that comes out of big-name journals and writing programs or questioned the axioms we widely consider “craft,” this is the book for you. If you haven’t, this is definitely the book for you.

How to be a Poet can be purchased here.

Writing Down the Bones can be purchased here.

Craft in the Real World can be purchased here.

Photo by Eleanor Ball

Eleanor Ball is a queer writer from Des Moines, Iowa. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Bullshit Lit, Vagabond City Lit, Write or Die, and elsewhere