If you spend a lot of years writing, you’ll hear a lot of advice. In addition to writing books and the features and lists of tips on Internet sites like NPR, Flavorwire, The Millions and Brain Pickings, Facebook and Twitter supply advice. I visit these sites every week to keep up with books, authors and publishing for my Book Bits blog of links to reviews, author interviews, book news, and “how to” articles for writers.
Some wise and/or humorous words about writing have been around for so long, they’ve become almost lame, yet each new generation of readers and writers discovers them and posts them in writing blogs and Facebook. You’ve probably seen a few of these before:
- “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” – Red Smith, Ernest Hemingway and Paul Gallico have been credited with versions of this one.
- “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King and other authors tell us that if we don’t read, we can’t possibly write. (Aspiring writers have enjoyed King’s advice in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”
- “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 master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” - It’s not surprising that William Faulkner’s version of that advice is longer.
- “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain’s version of this age-old wisdom is memorable.
- Professional writers don’t sit around every day waiting for their muses to contact them or for imagination to strike. They sit down and write. – So many people have said this, it would take the rest of this post to list them all here.
Famous Authors often Dispense Advice in Lists
- “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham – Okay, this is actually a non-list and probably not very helpful.
- “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips.
- “Write the way you talk. Naturally.” – from David Ogilvy’s ten tips. Actually, most people don’t talk like anything I want to read, especially if they use the words “you know” ten times in each paragraph.
- “Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.” – Jack Kerouac’s advice from his thirty beliefs and techniques, most of which are as unclear as this one…even if it’s true.
- “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.” – from John Steinbeck’s six tips. . .this one probably annoys writers who begin with an outline and a list of character traits and motivations for each character.
- “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” – from Henry Miller’s eleven commandments
And then there are the random gems
- “Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” – Virginia Woolf…probably true, though most of us try to keep some semblance of love in it.
- “The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway…typical Ernest.
- “Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.” ― Meg Cabot…this sounds reasonable, though it has a sting to it for those of us who like reading James Joyce.
- “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” ― Flannery O’Connor…this seems more true today than when Flannery said it.
- Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it. – Russel Lynes…Russel is obviously more cynical than Flannery.
- “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald…this one ends my lists on a more practical note while also serving as another example about why we shouldn’t write like we talk.
What are your favorite tips, even the ugly ones?
Malcolm R. Campbell, who used to dispense writing tips as a college journalism instructor, has turned his talents over to the dark side of writing paranormal short stories and contemporary fantasy novels.
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