5 Writing Books for Holiday Marking and Underlining

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My highest compliment: A marked up first edition of my book. (Photo by Jo Stougaard)

You’ll probably get on a plane soon, off to see grandma, friends or kids. Why not spend your plane time reading a how-to book?

No, not the ones about making money or dieting! I mean books about writing and publishing. Put your tray table down and furiously underline, fold pages over, add sticky notes, and fill pages with highlighter. The only hard part is adding a beverage without spilling.

It took me years to mark up my non-fiction books. Now I take it as the highest compliment when readers tell me they’ve violated Will Write for Food in the same way.

Although sometimes it sounds a little extreme. One reader told me she tore the book in half so she could read the unread part on a plane!

After the first edition came out in 2005, Jo of MyLastBite, a respected Los Angeles blogger, sent me the above two photos of my book, with an email about her mark-up system:

“My copy of your book is never far from reach. When I read books, my system for flagging specific pages are: 1) Flagged page on top means “great quote.” 2) Flagged page to the right means “action” or “get more info.”

“After I read your book (the first time), my husband made fun of me because almost EVERY page was marked with a flag on top, AND on the right.”

What a huge compliment. And I encourage you to do the same with whatever book you’re juggling on your tray table. How-to books are made for destruction, and we authors don’t mind.

Here are five books to improve your writing and knowledge of the publishing industry, from the classics to the newcomers:

1. Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. I never tire of recommending this book, just as I never tire of re-reading it. And most importantly, Lamott is the one who came up with “shitty first draft.” I never tire of using that term as a writing coach and teacher, either. It always gets a laugh, but mostly because people recognize themselves and their drive for perfection.

2.Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature, by Bill Roorbach. Blogging, particularly, is about personal stories and memories. Learn how to set scenes, develop characters, and do the exercises to blast into memories you hadn’t thought about in years. I’ve even marked up my hardcover edition.

3. On Writing, by Stephen King. I was prepared not to like this book, because I’m not into horror fiction. But hey, the guy has written more than 30 worldwide bestsellers, and surprise — he knows what he’s talking about. What I admired most is his dedication to his craft, and his approachable style. It’s a great read no matter how advanced of a writer you are.

4. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters, by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O’Shea. I always say you have a 5 percent chance of success with a book idea. These two literary agents say it’s only 1 percent! They are hard core. But they also offer tons of practical, expert advice and guidance, with samples of proposals and query letters so you can see exactly what they mean.

5. Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction — And Get it Published, by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Having been an editor for most of my career, I love this title. Editors decide what gets published. Here’s a book on understanding what turns them on, why they’d buy your book, and what happens once you get the contract.

And to be completely self-serving, I’d also be thrilled if you would get and mark up a copy of Will Write for Food. Send your photos to me at dj@diannej.com and I’ll publish them in a future blog post.

Happy marking and underlining! And don’t forget to pack a good snack or lunch for the flight.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which I receive a few cents if you make purchases.


  1. says

    I totally have a marked up version of your book! I’ll take a photo in the morning, when the light is better. Thanks for these suggestions — I love Bird by Bird, and I think I might ask for Writing Life Stories for the holidays — it looks fantastic.

    • diannejacob says

      Aha, another defacer! I love it. Yes, Writing Life Stories is fantastic. I’ve read through it many times to get ideas for writing prompts.

  2. says

    I underline and add notes over and over in the latest edition of your book. As I become more interested in writing about food, your book have different messages and levels of information for me – kind of like peeling an onion, but without the tears.

    • diannejacob says

      Hah! That’s funny. I think it’s true that you can go back to a good how-to book at different stages and get different things out of it. Thank you.

  3. says

    I love this post, Dianne, because I hesitated to take a highlighter to your book at one point. Of course I ended up attacking it with about three colors in the end. It’s currently on my nightstand!

    Thanks for the recommendations.

  4. says

    Thanks for this great list, Dianne! Your book and many of these others are well under-lined, dog-eared and fluttering with post-its. I loved seeing the visible evidence of someone else’s “technique”.

  5. says

    I still can’t mark up my books — just can’t do it. I think that’s why they invented those sticky tabs :-)

    Love this list of books — Bird by Bird is an all-time favorite.I have yet to read On Writing, but it’s on my bookshelf — soon, very soon.

    • diannejacob says

      Yeah, it took me a long time to get there. I am much more tentative about hardcovers. You will enjoy On Writing. It’s a bit of a memoir.

  6. says

    I also love and use your book–but I’m with Colette. Every time I think about putting a mark in a book I hear my mother’s voice chanting, “A book is your friend.” Post-its, on the other hand, I can handle.

  7. says

    I do this to books all the time:) It then becomes your very own personal reference guide. I will definitely be including one or two on my Christmas List.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh good, I’m not alone. It is easier to find what you’re looking for when you mark up a book, I think. Hope you enjoy whichever books you choose.

  8. says

    Great list. Thanks! I asked for your book last year for Christmas after my Food Writing teacher recommended it, and I devoured it. You’re the reason I started a blog, which is the first time I’ve ever let people read anything I’ve written. It was a huge and terrifying step for me, and I am so grateful to you for inspiring me to do it.

  9. says

    I have a very long flight and a long train ride in my future – 15 hours from Australia to Vancouver & 22 hours from Seattle to San Francisco – so I’ll have loads of time for reading. I have my copy of your book and Anne Lamotts truly wonderful “Bird by Bird” ready to be packed into my bag. I’ve read both, but only once & it’s time I sat down and started marking them!

  10. says

    Whew – I’m not the only one who defaces books I love. I read Bird by Bird every year. It convinces me that talent is oh so nice but hard work is better. Similarly, I read Will Write for Food every year also – even though I have no intention of ever being a food writer. Good writing is good writing! Stephen King’s book is on my radar – and I don’t like horror either. But I heard him speak and he was most eloquent and I was charmed. Writing Life Stories really does intrigue me – I think the cast and situation – even in a blog – makes it so much more readable. But Of course, I love stories. Maybe some would rather just get to the recipe?

    • diannejacob says

      Claudia, this is heartwarming to read. Thank you so much for this huge compliment.

      I am always awed by people who read the same book regularly. I have a hard time getting through all the new ones that wait for me on my nightstand, so it’s hard to go back.

      Yes, some would rather get to the recipe, but for them, there are recipe databases.

  11. says

    One can always tell what books I read and refer to over and over again as not only do I have a seriously dog-eared copy, but also have the kindle version on my iPad that I read when I have a moment in line, traveling, etc. etc. It’s also the mark of a great cookbook as I have some of those on there as well to refer to in the kitchen. Will Write For Food was one of the first I bought for the iPad when I got it this year – I knew I’d need to refer to it often and it was one of my best purchases :)

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you. Now, can you mark up electronic books? I know some people have been disappointed that I can’t sign them!

  12. says

    Thanks to this post, I now have a Hanukkah gift-wish list! And I have both editions of your book on my worktable next to my laptop… both.

  13. says

    I refer to Lamott’s book constantly but have never heard of Roorbach’s book. I thought I had all the books on craft. Thanks so much for the recommendations, Diane. And I’m marking up your book as I write this.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh there are so many books on craft, Darina. The hard part was all the ones I left out. Glad to hear you’re marking up WWFF.

  14. says

    Perfect timing! And so inspiring, in this age of electronic publications, and use of verbs like ‘downloading’ and ‘bookmarking,’ this “dog-earing” avid reader and writer thanks you from the bottom of her beating Italian heart.
    I have relatives coming to visit from the US for Christmas, and I will get my dad to bring over Writing Life Stories, Bird by Bird and why not’96another copy of 2nd edition Will Write for Food. Although all the books mentioned in your list should cross the Atlantic and land on my desk.
    I deserve them all.
    When out of skinny post-it notes, I cut them in strips with kitchen shears…

    • diannejacob says

      What, no snark? Okay, you’re allowed to leave a straightforward, complimentary comment. I can even be gracious and say “Thank you, GraceAnn.”

  15. says

    Love Ann Lamott and also loved King’s On Writing. And of course, I’ve faithfully read and studied your book as well! A couple that I would add to the list that I read during grad school: The Writing Life, which is a compilation of reflections of different writers and The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. Both are excellent tools.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, I have The Writing Life, an excellent book (although I think that she advised writing in a room with no windows to avoid distraction — something I can’t do). I don’t know about the other book you mentioned. Thanks! I will have to look it up.

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