Writers On Writing

Here are some words straight from the horse’s mouth, from one writer to another. Some are tongue-in-cheek, but all are true. Just remember: “Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously” (Lev Grossman).


“I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it. Just think of the work you’ve set yourself to do, and do it as well as you can. Once you have really done all you can, then you can show it to people. But I find this is increasingly not the case with the younger people. They do a first draft and want somebody to finish it off for them with good advice. So I just maneuver myself out of this. I say, Keep at it. I grew up recognizing that there was nobody to give me any advice and that you do your best and if it’s not good enough, someday you will come to terms with that.”  ~Chinua Achebe

“I like good strong words that mean something.”  ~Louisa May Alcott

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘The cat sat on a mat. That is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the must is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll come.'”   ~Maya Angelou

“I write because it helps me make sense of the world.” ~Laurie Halse Anderson

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”  ~Isaac Asimov

Margaret Atwood has the following advice:

  • “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.”
  • “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

“The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy.”  ~Chris Baty

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  ~Saul Bellow

“I think writer’s block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out.”  ~Roy Blount, Jr

“Believe in your idea. Full Stop.” ~Ted Botha

Advice from Ray Bradbury:

  • “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
  •  “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

“Dig until you hit rock. Then take out that jackhammer and go a little deeper.”  ~Allison Brennan

Terry Brooks has some good advice:

  • “This is for writers yet to be published who think the uphill climb will never end. Keep believing. This is also for published writers grown jaded by the process. Remember how lucky you are.”
  • “If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical.”
  • “The muse whispers to you when she chooses, and you can’t tell her to come back later, because you quickly learn in this business that she might not come back at all.”
  • “If you are ever completely satisfied with something you have written, you are setting your sights too low. But if you can’t let go of your material even after you have done the best that you can with it, you are setting your sights too high.”
  • “If you do not hear music in your words, you have put too much thought into your writing and not enough heart.”
  • “I see something happen, read or hear about an event, and the first question that pops into my mind is, How can I use that in a story?
  • “Trying to explain in rational, analytical fashion how we come up with our plots and our thematic structures threatens in an odd sort of way to reveal that we are all just humbugs hiding behind a velvet curtain”
  • “Fiction writers are strange beasts. They are, like all writers, observers first and foremost. Everything that happens to and around them is potential material for a story, and they look at it that way.”

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
 ~Octavia Butler

“Don’t put your characters on a treadmill. They need to go new places, face new challenges, and do new things.”  ~Ally Carter

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, 
but the music words make.”  ~Truman Capote

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  ~Anton Chekhov

“I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.” ~G.K. Chesterton

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”  ~Agatha Christie

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”  ~Calvin Coolidge

“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.”  ~Robert Cormier

“If you’ve FINISHED writing a novel you are amongst the elite!!! You ARE NOT A FAILURE IF YOU CANNOT LIVE OFF YOUR BOOKS. You only fail by NOT TRYING.”  ~Nadia Cornier

“Two hours of writing fiction leaves this write completely drained. For these two hours, he has been in a different place with totally different people.”  ~Roald Dahl

“All writers are crazy. So never mind what the editors and your 
family and your critique group tells you. Submit your 
manuscripts and keep submitting until you get an offer. 
Then you can be crazy, with a paycheck.”  ~MaryJanice Davidson

“I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen–whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book–it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”
 ~Jeffery Deaver

Annie Dillard has this to say:

  • “A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight… it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’”
  • “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place … something more will arise for later, something better.”

“Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.”  ~Cory Doctorow

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining–researching–talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”  ~E. L. Doctorow

“Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.”  ~Helen Dunmore

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  ~Albert Einstein

“If your ship hasn’t come in–swim out to it.”  ~Mary Engelbreit

Anne Enright has a couple of pieces of advice for you:

  • “Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.”
  • “The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.”

“Just tell the damn story.” ~Ken Farmer

“Read, read, read. Read everything-trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the most. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”  ~William Faulkner

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe”  ~Gustave Flaubert

“Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.”  ~Esther Freud

Words from Neil Gaiman:

  • “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
  • “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”
  • “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
  • The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

“The first 8 drafts are terrible.” ~Malcolm Gladwell

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.” ~William Goldman

“I carry a notebook with me everywhere. But that’s only the first step. Ideas are easy. It’s the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats.”
 ~Sue Grafton

“Until you understand why you write, you’ll have a hard time figuring out who you are as a writer.” ~James Grippando

“A one-page breakthrough starts an avalanche.”  ~Nancy K. Haddock

“Create a character who is both proactive and sympathetic, someone with a hole in her life, but who is willing to risk all for her goal. When readers care, you can get away with almost anything.”  ~Bonnie Hearn Hill

“Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.” ~Lillian Hellman

“Just about everything I learned about writing a good book I learned from reading lots and lots of good books.” ~Joe Hill

From the great Ernest Hemingway:

  • “The most essential gift for a good writer is a 
built-in shockproof shit-detector.”
  • “The first draft of everything is shit.”
  • “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
  • “Write drunk, edit sober.”
  • “There is nothing to writing: all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

“There is no agony like having an untold story inside you.”  ~Zora Neale Hurston

P.D. James advises:

  • “Don’t just plan to write—write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.”
  • “Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.”

Craig Johnson‘s 10 Tips for Beginning Writers:

1. Write.
2. Write with your heart.
3. Write every day.
4. Write about things you care about.
5. Write about things that are true.
6. Write about things that will change the world.
7. Write to understand yourself.
8. Write to understand others.
9. Write, but think about what you’re going to write before you do.
10. Write with your pockets full of inspiration so that you have supplies for the long journey.

“The hardest thing is believing in yourself in the notebook stage. It is like believing in dreams in the morning.”  ~Erica Jong

“Believe in yourself and in your own voice, because there will be 
times in this business when you will be the only one who does. Take 
heart from the knowledge that an author with a strong voice will 
often have trouble at the start of his or her career because strong, 
distinctive voices sometimes make editors nervous. But in the end, 
only the strong survive.”  ~Jayne Ann Krentz

Stephen King on writing:

  • “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ 
I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’”
  •  “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
  • If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.

“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”  ~Barbara Kingsolver

“I believe that writing is derivative. I think good writing comes from good reading.”  ~Charles Kuralt

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”  ~Harper Lee

From Elmore Leonard:

  • “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”
  • “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
  • “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

“There is only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself that second-best is anything but the second-best.”  ~Doris Lessing

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”  ~Jack London

“I never had any doubts about my abilities. I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this.”  ~Cormac McCarthy

“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.” ~Robert McKee

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”  ~Hilary Mantel

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.”  ~Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  ~W. Somerset Maugham

“Work according to the program and not according to mood.” ~Henry Miller

Michael Moorcock advises:

  • “Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.”
  • “Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.”

“It takes a village to write my books.”  ~Catherine Morris

“You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.”  ~Toni Morrison

“Literature was not born the day when a boy crying ‘wolf, wolf’ came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him.” ~Vladimir Nabokov

“Write your heart out.” ~Joyce Carol Oates

“Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t 
wait to get to work in the morning. I wanted to know what 
I was going to say.”  ~Sharon O’Brien

“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”  ~David Ogilvy

“You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.” ~Susan Orlean

George Orwell’s advice:

  • “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with 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.”
  • “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

“Write something that people might not “enjoy” but will never forget.” ~Chuck Palahniuk

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”  ~Dorothy Parker

“If you want to write, write it. That’s the first rule.”
 ~Robert Parker

“If you feel like you have to convince your reader to believe your story, then you’re doing it wrong.” ~Jason Pere

“I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from someone. I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up until it’s finished.”  ~James Patterson

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ~Sylvia Plath

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”  ~Edgar Allen Poe

“[The] Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare. The answer: plunge in.”  ~Steven Pressfield

“If you are a genius, you’ll make your own rules, but if not–and the odds are against it–go to your desk, no matter what your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper–write.”
  ~J. B. Priestly

“People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”
 ~Anna Quindlen

“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.”  ~Anne Rice

“You don’t find time to write. You make time. It’s my job.”  ~Nora Roberts

“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences.  In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”  ~Meg Rosoff

“It is important to remember that we all have magic inside us.”  ~Joanne Kathleen Rowling

“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”
 ~Paul Rudnick

“Actually ideas are everywhere. It’s the paperwork, that is, sitting down and thinking them into a coherent story, trying to find just the right words, that can and usually does get to be labor.”
 ~Fred Saberhagen

Will Self shares some tips:

  • “Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in… The edit.”
  • “Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”
  • “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.”
  • “You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”

“When I’m writing, I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.”  ~Anne Sexton

“Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.” Joshua Wolf Shenk

“The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.'” ~Helen Simpson

“What I like in a good author isn’t what he says, but what he whispers.”  ~Logan Pearsall Smith

“I write 2,000 words a day when I write. It sometimes takes three hours, it sometimes takes five.”
 ~Nicholas Sparks

“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.”  ~John Steinbeck

Anne Stuart offers some advice:

  • “It never enters my mind that I can’t do 
something I set out to doing.”
  • “If we don’t risk it all, we may as well not write at all.”

“Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.”  ~Amy Tan

“Notice how many of the Olympic athletes effusively thanked their mothers for their success? “She drove me to my practice at four in the morning,” etc. Writing is not figure skating or skiing. Your mother will not make you a writer. My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home.”  ~Paul Theroux

“Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
 ~James Thurber

Mark Twain’s thoughts:

  • “Keep away from people who try to belittle your dreams. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you too, can become great.”
  • “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
  • “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
  • “My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water.”

“If you are drawn to write what’s uncomfortable, it may help to recognize that you are allowed to write for yourself, and that any decisions about seeking publication are separate from that first, fundamental decision (and freedom).” ~Jeff VanderMeer

Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules of Writing (and one extra bit of advice):

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
  • “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
 ~Mary Heaton Vorse

from Sarah Waters:

  • “Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.”
  • “Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.”

“The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” ~Billy Wilder

“There were days when I wondered if I was a glutton for punishment or simply delusional. However, my writing must have been improving because one day I found myself with three agents interested in my latest manuscript.”  ~Lois Winston

“If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do.” and “Be True To Yourself And To The Culture You Were Born Into. Tell Your Story As Only You Can Tell It.”~William Zinsser

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