The Best Advice on Writing

Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might.

– William Saroyan

I keep a collection of rainy-day quotes, e.g. little bits of inspiration or appreciation or encouragement that remind me why writing and trying is so worthwhile. Jon Wikonur does the same thing, only his is in a book—a rather inspiring, comprehensive book at that. Advice to Writers—Wikonur’s very public and very ISBN swipe file—is just that: advice, from writers, quoted directly and organized into categories that cover the huge scope of writing from agents and authorship to motivation and self-esteem. Here are some of my favorite bits.

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Writers are rare

Almost anyone can be an author, from anthologists to autobiographers, diet doctors to financial gurus. Authors are a dime a dozen. Writers are rare.

Stanley Elkin on writing

I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.

P.J. O’Rourke on writing

It has just occurred to me that there is, however, the dreadful possibility that your book is supposed to be serious.

Samuel Johnson on writing

Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at only one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.

Jean Kerr on writing

Confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence? Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write “I had a fun time”? Was he ever arrested for burglary? I don’t know that you will prove anything this way, but it is perfectly harmless and quite soothing.

An awesome description of writing

(Writing is) the scribbling business …

On discouragement

In the burning core of what I believe to be true about the art and craft of writing, I know that one cannot discourage a real writer. Like von Kleist, “I write only because I cannot stop.”

Samuel Butler advised a young man “who wanted to write” that he was too late: Writers are born.

On passion

If you speak with passion, many of us will listen.

Brenda Ueland on writing

This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.

On belief

Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it, if necessary, by pure willpower.

E.L. Doctorow on writing

Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Kenneth Atchity on writing

When people ask them, “Where do you find the time?” they wonder, “Where do you lose it?”

Annie Dillard on writing

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 in the book, or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on writing

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Samuel Beckett on writing

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The best writing rules Ernest Hemingway ever learned

Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English, Be positive, not negative. Eliminate every superfluous word. Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.

On beginning writers

Beginning writers always use too many adjectives and adverbs and generally use too many dependent clauses.

Mark Twain on writing

Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial “we.”

William Safire on writing

When “whom” is correct, recast the sentence.

On prepositions and conjunctions

Avoid all prepositions and conjunctions that consist of more than one word.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Shirley Hazzard on writing

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of.

Jack Kerouac on writing

What a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for ..

The writer open his mouth & yap it like Shakespeare and get said what is only irrecoverably said once in time the way it comes, for time is of the essence.

Cyril Connolly on writing

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self.

Raymond Chandler on writing

I have made three rules of writing for myself that are absolutes: Never take advice. Never show or discuss a work in progress. Never answer a critic.

Thomas Carlyle on writing

’Tis the utmost thou has in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.

Henry Miller on writing

Write with a smile, even when it’s horrible or tragic.

John O’Hara on writing

People die, love dies, but life does not die, and so long as people live, stories must have life at the end.

Edna O’Brien on writing

Hemingway gave a great piece of advice about writing, which I follow. He said always finish when you’re in a little bit of a flow, for the next bout.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on writing

Sometimes you can lick an especially hard problem by facing it always the very first thing in the morning with the very freshest part of your mind. This has so often worked with me that I have an uncanny faith in it.

You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.

Go to a bookstore and decide where your book would be shelved.

Wilkie Collins on writing

Make ’em laugh, make ’em wait, make ’em cry.

Carlos Fuentes on writing

One wants to tell a story, like Scheherazade, in order not to die. It’s one of the oldest urges of mankind. It’s a way of stalling death.

Mark Twain on writing

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Don’t tell your stories before they are written. If you do, you will get your “reward” in advance—the listener’s delight and fascination. This can prevent you from ever telling your story on paper.

Maureen Dowd on writing

The best way to learn to write is to read books and stories by good writers. It’s a hard thing to preach about. As Thelonious Monk once said, about his field, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Advice to Writers

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