IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE that great authors do not spend their time writing books about how to be a great author. They are, of course, working on the next great novel. There are a few exceptions (notably, Stephen King – who is an exception to everything), but they are rare.

I think there is another reason, though. Writing is personal. The methods, the madness, and the results are personal. And no one can tell you when, how, or where to do it. You just do it and some day you may actually have something that isn’t a giant steaming pile of shit.

But there are certainly some useful bits of advice that come out every so often, either in books or through interviews. Here are a few of my favorites.


Stephen King, from On Writing:

Running a close second [as a writing lesson] was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

George Saunders, via Civilwarland in Bad Decline:

When I was in my twenties I had this plan to go to El Salvador and write about the experience. I had no money, didn’t speak Spanish, but this was “my dream.” I stopped by one day to see a friend of mine but found only his father home. I’d never spoken to this man before, not really. He was a truck driver, a father of eight, always went around in a white T-shirt and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses. But this day, we talked. I told him about my El Salvador plan, expecting him to find it indulgent. But instead he said, “You know what? You have to do it.”

“Yes, I said, with the force of revelation. “I do. I really do.”

“And you know why?” he said. “Because you know who you’re going to blame if you don’t?”

I did know.

“Myself,” I said with a knowing smile.

“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and kids.”

Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. The way I could be sure of going on the next day … [ ] … all you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Side note: Ostensibly this book is Hemingway’s account of his life in Paris, which by itself is fascinating, and takes place before he was famous. But really, it is a book about being a writer and working on your craft. The advice he dispenses is not direct, but hugely valuable to anyone who hopes to be even 10% as good as Hemingway.

Hugh Howey, from his blog:

Actors will sit in front of a mirror and go through different moods and inflections; writers should do the same. Sit down and write a car chase, a bar fight, a sex scene, someone losing their job, someone getting their dream job, someone wishing they could quit their jobs. Do these things to play with your pacing and punctuation.

Neil Gaiman:

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Kathryn Harrison, via The Atlantic:

I don’t sit there waiting for that perfect, beautiful sentence, because I know I’m going to sit there forever … start out by tripping, why don’t you? Then get up and fall over again. Just as long as you go.

Elmore Leonard, via The Guardian:

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Hugh Howey, from his blog:

A successful writer is one who finishes what they start while striving to improve their craft.

Stephen King, On Writing:

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

Raymond Chandler:

The ideal mystery [is] one you would read if the end was missing.

Whoopi Goldberg, via Quora:

Go and do whatever feels right. But realize not everybody’s gonna dig it.

Kathryn Harrison, via Joe Fassler in The Atlantic:

I teach writing, and before I taught I never would guessed the thing I say most often is: “Please stop thinking.” … It’s not that I decide what to write and carry it out. It’s more that I grope my way towards something—not even knowing what it is until I’ve arrived. … in the early stages of a book, I deal with potential self-consciousness by literally hushing the critical voices in my head.

Go and do whatever feels right. But realize not everybody’s gonna dig it.

Ira Glass:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

George Saunders, from a New York Times podcast:

Either I’m going to do the starving artist route and make these kids suffer or I’m going to suck it up and find in myself the potential to go into a job that I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking a year ago.

The point of this quote, at least to me, is that writing is a struggle. As a writer you will suffer, especially as you are working in the beginning to build your stories and your voice. But your family shouldn’t suffer along with you. If anything, you should be willing to sacrifice yourself at the intersection of your dreams and your family. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not willing to do what it takes to become a writer.

Paulo Coelho, discussing the 25th Anniversary Edition of his novel, The Alchemist:

[You] can’t live with a dream that [you] did not even try to fulfill.

Stephen King, On Writing:

if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

Jonathan Lethem, in The Atlantic:

The impulse to make the ritual safe, to put characters in play who are ultimately admirable and can be redeemed, is extremely boring and also suspect. There’s something that you’re protecting yourself from—and why bother? Damage is in the mix, and it should be…Your damage and your dismay are the best things you’ve got going, and you’ve got to open yourself to it.

Joss Whedon:

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.

Kurt Vonnegut, via The Paris Review:

When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell my students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time … when you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are … and you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other … it is the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all.

Dorothy Parker:

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.

Ethan Canin, via The Atlantic:

I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.

In other words, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge.

Jack London:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Stephen King:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.

Joshua Wolf Shenk:

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.

Lydia Millet, via The Atlantic:

In the end, I think a bit of shamelessness is called for.

Lev Grossman:

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.


And some of mine:

Stop complaining about writing, about the lack of time, about how you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. For god’s sake, just stop talking about it, and fucking write.

If you give a shit what people think of your writing and you wonder whether it’s any good, then go ahead and get a job as a copywriter. After you realize how fucking horrible of a job it is, you’ll get back to what you’re supposed to be doing.

Keep a journal. And not one of those ‘dear diary’ things. Use it to remind yourself what was great about yesterday, what’s going to be great about today, and how the hell you are going to make it happen.


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