10 Great Essays on Writing, by 10 great writers

Sometimes simplifying life means taking other people’s suggestions, reaping the benefit of their efforts, and not always starting from scratch

A 10-lesson course in why we write

What a wonderful post on writing. I can’t wait to dig into all the essays. It’s food for thought for weeks–I’m grateful someone went to all the trouble to compile this! Anyone up for a weekly discussion, going through the essays, one by one?

This is from George Orwell, Why I Write:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. …”

This is Joan Didion, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. …”

Some who commented on the original post complained that there aren’t enough women writers on the list, or enough writers of color. All of that may be true, and there are some good suggestions in the comments.

But I’m happy to have this list as a place to start. Sometimes we have to take what we’re given and build from there, not try to reinvent the wheel on every aspect of our lives. Cutting down on decision making is one way of making life less stressful and more enjoyable. (For example, I’m not happy with the headline, but I can’t figure out how to change it!)


If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own…

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One thought on “10 Great Essays on Writing, by 10 great writers

  1. Susan at Resale Evangelista Post author

    Oops! A word of caution about the “greatest essays”–some might not be so great (alright, so I haven’t read them all, or all of the ones I have read!).

    Anyway, got this email from a friend who is a writer, as well as a voracious, thoughtful reader:

    “At the risk of exposing my ignorance of both man and message, I sure hope the other nine essays are more interesting than the first. I got 2/3 of the way through before the annoyance of self importance, the curious posing as insight, and the specious in place of rigor overcame me. Maybe the writer’s point was to inflame and thus incite, but I don’t think so. Worse than waste, reading that felt like theft.”

    Just so you know….



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