Here is a list of many essays, articles, quotes, and links on writing advice, tips, theory, and thought.
(from 23 Tips from Famous Writers)
“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.” ― William Faulkner
“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.” ― Joss Whedon
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ― Ray Bradbury
“One doesn’t become an artist overnight. First you have to be crushed, to have your conflicting points of view annihilated. You have to be wiped out as a human being in order to be born again as an individual. You have to be carbonized and mineralized in order to work upwards from the last common denominator of the soul. You have to go beyond ity in order to feel from the very roots of your being.” ——The Tropic of Capricorn
“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it–don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist–but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.” –Hemingway
“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” ― Alan Watts
Tell It Slant: How to Write a Wise Poem (poetry foundation): “The essence of poetry is the unique view—the unguessed relationship, suddenly manifest. Poetry’s eye is always aslant, oblique,” says poet Josephine Jacobsen. What I am arguing for is a degree of obliqueness sufficient to allow the mind to rest on something else, something unexpected. To be oblique is not the same as to be opaque. Obliqueness refers to angles and slopes, to geometry that is not parallel. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson reminds.
Czeslaw Milosz said, “To write a wise poem one must know more than what is expressed in it. Consciousness leaves every means of expression behind. Hence the regret that we will remain sillier in human memory than we were at the moments of our acutest comprehension.”
How to Be a Bad Writer (Harriet poetry blog):
Check out this post from This Recording that collects “on writing” statements from a number of writers, with some cool photos. Here are Langston Hughes and John Ashbery’s entries. Follow the link for the rest!
Patricia Spears Jones (and she loves her blues) and her BLOG
Writers on Writing: 12 Writers Discuss the Writing Process (like KNOW YOUR GENRE!):
- Donald E. Westlake
“In the most basic way, writers are defined not by the stories they tell, or their politics, or their gender, or their race, but by the words they use. Writing begins with language, and it is in that initial choosing, as one sifts through the wayward lushness of our wonderful mongrel English, that choice of vocabulary and grammar and tone, the selection on the palette, that determines who’s sitting at that desk. Language creates the writer’s attitude toward the particular story he’s decided to tell.” (January 2001)
- Elie Wiesel
“Acutely aware of the poverty of my means, language became obstacle. At every page I thought, ‘That’s not it.’ So I began again with other verbs and other images. No, that wasn’t it either. But what exactly was that it I was searching for? It must have been all that eludes us, hidden behind a veil so as not to be stolen, usurped and trivialized. Words seemed weak and pale.” (June 2000)
Advice on Writing: the collected wisdom including books on the art by famous writers (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Didion, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and other literary icons.)
“Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.” –Henry Miller
Miller begins by relaying his journey of discovery, that essential and infinite process that helps us transmute information into knowledge and wisdom:
Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become the path himself.
I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer in the ordinary sense of the word. I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on. Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself. It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process. It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic’: significance, purposelessness, infinitude.
From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware there is no goal. … With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.
“Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.” –EB White —
In one, predictably, White remains true to the book’s overarching ethos, reminiscent of David Ogilvy’s famous 1982 memo on writing, and makes a case for clarity:
Dear Mrs. –
There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky.
E. B. White
Zadie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
John Steinbeck on writing (taken from brainpickings)
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
Annie Dillard: “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.
Anne Lamott: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”
Jack Kerouac’s Belief & Techniques/Rules for Spontaneous Prose:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You?re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
(taken from LitDrift)–and I have these rules taped to my kitchen cabinet
Margaret Atwood’s 10 Ideas for Writer:
She offers inspiring writers some practical (and perhaps not-so-practical) tips:
1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but –essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a –romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Originally published in an article in The Guardian.
One thought on “Writing Tips and Quotes”