The best books to read if you want to learn how to write nonfiction like a motherfu*ker

Who am I?

In high school, I went from writing (insanely bad!) poetry to dreaming of a career in fiction. When it came time to declare a major in college, I opted for journalism, thinking it would foot the daily tab of my life while I worked on the novels and short stories. But then as an intern at National Geographic and subsequently a newspaper reporter, I dipped a toe into writing about the real world—and discovered that all the brilliant literary goods are right there in front of you. A career as a magazine editor and writer has taught me that truth is indeed stranger than fiction … and a hell of a lot of fun to write, not to mention read, when done well. 

I wrote...

The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms

By Zachary Petit,

Book cover of The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms

What is my book about?

So you want to be a freelance writer. Great! But now you're faced with a laundry list of questions: Should I freelance full time or part-time? Should I write for magazines, newspapers, or online markets? How do I dream up the perfect article idea, and how do I pitch it successfully? How do I negotiate contracts, foster relationships with editors, and start getting steady work while avoiding financial panic attacks and unpleasant ulcers?

The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing answers all of these questions—and much more. From breaking in to navigating the basics of the business, this book is your road map to a fruitful and rewarding freelance life.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson,

Book cover of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Why this book?

Any book by Larson would be a fit for this list, but I’ll stick with the one that brought me to the ball in the first place. When I first read Devil in the White City, I was blown away by how Larson is capable of taking an absolute mountain of dry research and shaping it into a page-turner that reads like the best fictive thriller. Larson so deftly recreates the past, you’ll begin to feel like you’re experiencing the sights and sounds of turn-of-the-century Chicago all around you. Even if only a fraction of the literary lessons rub off on you, your work will be better for it.


By Mary Roach,

Book cover of Stiff

Why this book?

Mary Roach isn’t afraid to dive into the subjects of her books headfirst—and she doesn’t hide the fact that she does. While many nonfiction authors believe it to be uncouth to include themselves on the page, Roach hits the ground and reports from the scene, offering firsthand observations—and her perspective is what makes her work so brilliant. Especially because that perspective offers a human, and often hilarious, side to topics that often aren’t. Which is why I omitted the subtitle of this book until now: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. With Stiff, Roach proves that no subject is immune from her witty, wry, and ultimately fascinating reporting.

How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir

By Saeed Jones,

Book cover of How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir

Why this book?

Jones first emerged in bookstores with his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise. While some may have been expecting another volume of poetry as a follow-up, he released a memoir—an utterly powerful telling of his life, “written at the crossroads of sex, race, and power.” While Jones’ journey alone makes for intense reading, his prose makes the experience wholly unique; a poet to the core, Jones imbues his sentences with such singular voice and style that you’re left in awe of his command of language—and the possibilities to reimagine your own sentences.

Detroit: An American Autopsy

By Charlie LeDuff,

Book cover of Detroit: An American Autopsy

Why this book?

If there is a spiritual successor to Hunter S. Thompson, it’s LeDuff, whose blood pumps gonzo. As Publishers Weekly poignantly put it in a starred review, “Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist LeDuff writes with honesty and compassion about a city that’s destroying itself—and breaking his heart.” Seeking to make sense of his hometown, LeDuff gets his hands dirty—and returns to the page to document it with the gripping bravado of a barroom brawler.

The Orchid Thief

By Susan Orlean,

Book cover of The Orchid Thief

Why this book?

The genesis of Orlean’s modern classic is a literary lesson in and of itself. Stashed in the seat pocket of an airplane, she found a copy of The Miami Herald, and a news brief about a man who had been arrested for stealing orchids from a swamp. The New Yorker agreed to send Orlean down to snoop around—and an article, and subsequently book, was born. The piece is equal parts character and subculture study, and Orlean masterfully brings telling details to the page that illuminate both in the most brilliant of ways. 

The book would go on to inspire the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation—a fantastic reminder to always keep your radar for story firing on all cylinders. After all, it all started with a tiny newspaper clipping. It just takes the right writer to find it.

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