Six Useful How-To Books and Guidebooks For Writers

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I know. If we’re going to talk about books, you want cookbooks, preferably with luscious photography. Fine. Here are two lists of favorite cookbooks of 2012 from The Washington Post and The Kitchn.

Now that you’ve got that out of your system, we can get on with today’s post. In the past few weeks I’ve paged through and marked up six how-to books sent to me, at my request, by inquiring publishers. I’m here to report on how or whether they’ll help you improve your writing, freelancing, photography, book promotion and public speaking.

Despite reading an essay on how writers don’t need to read how-to books and attend conferences, I am a big fan of how-to books (and conferences). Whenever I read one, I find something valuable I can immediately use to improve myself. Besides, people learn and progress in different ways. Some read books and practice with exercises. Some take classes and attend workshops. And some just stumble through, learning by doing. That’s what writers always say in interviews, right? “If you want to be a writer, write.” I’ve heard it a hundred times.

Well yes. But some of us need help, encouragement and inspiration. We need to learn from people who have been there or done that. We need new skills, like how to write literary narrative, photograph food, promote books, and pitch articles. So if you’re the type who learns by reading, here’s a handful of books that came across my desk recently:

1. Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling, by Helene Dujardin of Tartlette. Shame on me for not recommending this book as soon as it came out. Dozens of luscious photographs will lure you into understanding how Dujardin works her magic, and how you can do it too. This is a full-color book full of photos that teach you how to set up a shot, find the light, diffuse it, understand non-automatic camera settings, be an effective food stylist and other subjects valuable to food bloggers.

2. Talk Up Your Book: How to Sell Your Book Through Public Speaking, Interviews, Signings, Festivals, Conferences and More, by Patricia Fry. Finally, someone had the courage to join the two topics writers dread most: promoting their books and public speaking. Fry, the author of 35 books, gives practical no-nonsense advice in a friendly manner, covering how to find opportunities, make the best of them, attract more people to your events, and even how to land speaking gigs at conferences. Even though I’ve been speaking and teaching for years, I found inspiring new ways to improve my talks and workshops.

3. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by Christina Boufis. For people who want to write personal essays and narrative non-fiction, including memoir, this book guides you through the process, including finding the story structure, doing research, how to revise, and how to get your essays published. It covers travel writing, profiles, and literary journalism, in addition to a few other genres. The author, who directs the writing program at the San Francisco Art Institute, sprinkles little boxes called “Pitfall Ahead” throughout. Here’s a sample that resonated for me, based on memoirs I have edited and my own struggles to write life stories:

“One problem that befalls beginning nonfiction writers is writing episodically. That is, writing a series of true-life episodes, one after the other, with no larger purpose tying them together. To avoid this problem, include only the events that have an important causal relationship: one event happens because of the next. You’ll find it easier to make a plot this way — and to structure these events into a story.”

4. The Business of Writing: Professional Advice on Proposals, Publishers, Contracts, and More for the Aspiring Writer, edited by Jennifer Lyons. I’ve got about 20 ear-marked, highlighted pages in this anthology, which covers lots of valuable advice from agents, publishers and writers about the publishing process, branding, and sometimes just encouragement. My favorite part comes from writing teacher Liza Monroy:

“Remember that you write because you need to, and talent can never be taken away. In a business so heavily reliant on subjectivity, where publishing trends come and go and business goes up and down as the economy does its thing, keep in mind that you became a writer in the first place out of your love of the written word and of books that changed or impacted you in a way you’ll never forget. You can’t control the business, and the life of a writer is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. What you can control is whether or not you read and write and how much to ensure this interesting and unpredictable path will be a long one. Practice consistently. Believe in yourself and your work, and eventually the right agent, editor and readers will, too. And remember, you are in it for life.”

Every writer needs to tape this to his or her wall for those dark days when you think you’re no good. We’ve all been there.

5. 2013 Guide to Literary Agents, edited by Sam Buchino for Writer’s Digest Books. Wondering how to find agents who represent cookbooks? This guidebook lists about 85 agencies that say they do, detailing how agents like to be contacted, which writer’s conferences they attend, and which cookbooks they’ve sold. The first hundred pages tell you how to write a query or proposal, how agents work and whether you need one. Profiles of writers who got a first book deal by using an agent explain how they did it and what they learned.

6. 2013 Writer’s Market, from Writer’s Digest Books. Because this is a comprehensive guide, I expected extensive listings of food magazines, detailing what they pay, and how to contact them. But the consumer Food and Drink section lists only eight magazines, most of them obscure. The trade magazine section does better with categories such as Beverages and Bottling and Groceries and Food Products, but there are no restaurant magazines.

On the other hand, all kinds of magazines publish stories about food, and this book is lists hundreds of them. So if you’re serious about freelancing, there’s tons of good resource material here. Also included are lists of literary agents and book publishers, and advice about pitching publications, running a freelance business, and entering contests.

Two more: If you’re a new blogger or want to start a food blog, please see my review of Food Blogging for Dummies. Many commenters said they wish it had been around when they started their blogs. And (cough), since I wrote a how-to book, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Will Write for Food.

And here’s a post I wrote last year about my favorite writing books.

Now, what I’d like to know is whether you find these kinds of books useful, and if not, why not? What did you think of the article I linked to about just writing, and to heck with distractions like books and conferences?

(Disclosure: Some links go to an affiliate program, where I can make a few cents if you make a purchase.)



  1. says

    Some great suggestions here, thanks Dianne. I’ve already got the wonderful Plate to Pixel and will be hunting down one or two of the others, especially The Business of Writing. It seems to me that when we(eventually) get the words down on paper or the screen, it’s hard to know what to do next and any guidance in that direction is useful for us all.

  2. says

    I agree with Lori (above) that Matt’s new book is great, and I love Helene’s book as well – they’re both wonderful how-to’s for photography and so, so much more. It’s taken me years! to absorb (some) of Helene’s book, re-reading it as the years go by, letting concepts sink it; and who would have thought that to be a food writer/food blogger that you’d need to be a photographer, too, to be competitive :)

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, good books like that have staying power, where you can revisit and still learn something each time — or slap yourself in the head for not remembering a particularly good tip.

      There are still tons of writers who aren’t photographers, Averie, like freelance writers and cookbook authors. In some ways I can’t blame them for not wanting to add anther skill that takes years to master.

    • says

      Thank you Diane for the feature. I am honored to be on this list!

      Averie, I had to smile at your enthusiasm and constant support but years to absorb and re-read my book?!! :) it was released May 2011…not that old !!!

  3. says

    If readers are interested in a pitch guide in lieu of the Writer’s Marketplace, has one with currently 14 food and cooking magazines, but also 52 “lifestyle/culture” magazines and 30 women’s magazines, many of which accept food and recipe pitches. Membership is around $50 per year.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, this is a good avenue as well. There’s also a list of pubs that takes personal essays, and interviews with magazine editors that are often eye-opening.

    • diannejacob says

      The cookbook lists seem to be more about fantasy — you fantasize yourself making all these incredible dishes to rave reviews. But then the question is whether we actually do make them.

  4. says

    Great list, Dianne! I’ve just recently acquired (and devoured) “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, which is on writing and life. It’s general, not specific to food or cookbook writing but so wise and funny. It’s a classic for any writer. Also recently discovered “If You Want to Write” by Barbara Ueland. Originally published in 1938, Barbara’s wisdom is timeless. This is one I’ll read again and again.

    Finally, I’m a frequent reader but seldom commenter. As long as I’m typing away, I should say I really enjoy your material. Thanks much and keep it comin’!

    • diannejacob says

      Nice to hear from a new commenter, Alicia. I forgot to include in the post that I had written a list of great writing books last year around this time. Guess what the number one book was? Yes. Bird by Bird.

      I’ll just looked up “If You Want to WriteIf you Want to Write.” It must be timeless, as it was written almost 75 years ago and it’s still selling. Thanks for letting me know. Guess what it’s pared up with on Amazon? Yes. Bird by Bird.

      • says

        That reminds me. You know what else I love about both of these books? The wisdom applies to writing but also to life in general. Brilliant and inspiring…and hence timeless! Great to hear all these other suggestions from your readers, too.

    • diannejacob says

      Wonderful, Alyssa. That sounds quite ambitious, to read a few of these, but you can do it! I hope you will find them worthwhile, just as you did with Plate to Pixel.

  5. says

    What a great list! Thanks for this terrific round-up. This will help a lot. I’d like to add to this list your own “Will Write for Food” which has been a tremendous teacher to me! Thanks for that. Happy Holidays!

  6. says

    I agree with you on #2, Dianne. So hard to understand how to properly make sure people know what you do & how you can help without being overbearing.
    I also love “My So Called Freelance Life”- by Michelle Goodman- gets into the nitty gritty of being a freelancer, from inspiration, networking working at home, to money.
    thanks for sharing.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, it can be hard to balance content and promotion in a talk. Been there, many times. But I assume you already do that online, and you are certainly not overbearing!

      I didn’t know about this book and looked it up. Fantastic. Thanks, Kirstin.

  7. says

    I love how to books and will definitely add Talk Up Your Book. I have five notebooks full of notes and downloaded articles on how to use social media, etc. The challenge for me is to create a master list of what I need to do and in what order. I’ve been working on one since I read Will Write for Food, a book I return to again and again!

    • diannejacob says

      Oh that is wonderful, Judith. Thank you.

      A master list sounds overwhelming, but I suppose you need to go through those notebooks and implement some of the advice so you’ll feel like it was worth all the note-taking. Sometimes I’m amazed by what I find old writings and printouts. I hope it’s a rewarding process.

  8. says

    Thanks for this great list Dianne! Am off to look at the ‘Talk up your book’ one, this is the part about writing a cookbook that I know I’ll struggle most with! Thanks again xx

    • diannejacob says

      Good. I thought this was a particularly good one for people in our business. Writers are not known for their promotional skills, most of the time; and since most are introverts, it’s particularly hard to speak publicly. I hope you enjoy it.

  9. says

    Dianne, I thought it was fantastic that you included Stephen King in your favorite books on writing from last year’s list! I’m curious to know if you’ve attempted to read any of his fiction since then, since you stated you don’t like horror? I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but he has written pieces that aren’t horror.

      • says

        I suggest Different Seasons, which contains four stories, and go straight to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the original title that the movie The Shawshank Redemption was based. Even though the movie was fantastic, the book is sooo much better! I also suggest The Dead Zone, (which was also made into a very decent movie) and even though the title sounds ominous, it isn’t horror. It’s such a touching story. They’re both short reads so you won’t have to invest a lot of time. Enjoy!

        • diannejacob says

          Fantastic! Thank you so much. I saw the Shawshank Redemption and The Dead Zone, so it will be fun to read these stories.

  10. says

    Great post, Diane. Okay, going to buy most of these now! I love how-to books (beauty, writing, commercials, TV, getting rich and what you want:)) You name it.

    I love attending conferences, too, but only a few. Some for networking, some for learning. Only so much money and time budgeted for that.

    On my phone at the gym right now. so answers short. Most of my time spent on book promo right now. Book just went to second print run!


    • diannejacob says

      Wow, you’re buying most of these? You must really love how-to books. And they’re quite a bit less expensive than attending conferences, which can run into the thousands.

      Congrats on your second print run. That’s very satisfying.

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