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Search results for “advice for writers”

John Green’s Superb Advice to Aspiring Writers and Creators in the Digital Age

A vital reminder of the only good reason to put something into the world.

Advice to aspiring authors from successful ones seems to be a special meta-genre of literature, with notable contributions from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and a running list of literary greats. But some of the best and timeliest advice ever given comes from prolific author John Green, whose most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, became TIME’s #1 fiction book of the year. In this erratic but infectiously charming video, Green reflects on why he loves the internet and offers some invaluable advice to aspiring writers, echoing Schopenhauer’s admonition about writing for money and recasting Faulkner’s famous contention that writers write “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before” in timely light:

Every single day, I get emails from aspiring writers asking my advice about how to become a writer, and here is the only advice I can give: Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.

Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t — and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything — because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see the collected advice of great authors, then revisit 2013’s best books on writing.

BP

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about the secret of the creative life. In this mashup of Gaiman’s Nerdist podcast interview and scenes from films about writers, video-monger Brandon Farley captures the essence of Gaiman’s philosophy on writing and his advice to aspiring writers — a fine addition to celebrated authors’ collected wisdom on the craft. Transcript highlights below.

Echoing E. B. White, who famously scoffed that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” and like Chuck Close, who declared that “inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” and like Tchaikovsky, who admonished that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Gaiman argues that the true muse of writing lies not in divine inspiration but in unrelenting persistence of effort and force of will:

If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.

On the exhilarating joy of writing and the stalwart showing up that makes it possible:

The process of writing can be magical — there times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.

On grit as the driving force of creative growth, reiterating the third of his 8 rules of writing:

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

On why true creativity requires eclectic influences, wide interests, and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting:

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

Gaiman’s most important piece of advice, for the writer who has mastered basic technique and is ready to begin writing, echoes the fifth of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word:

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

Hemingway, Didion, Baldwin, Fitzgerald, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Morrison, Orwell, Le Guin, Woolf, and other titans of literature.

By popular demand, I’ve put together a periodically updated reading list of all the famous advice on writing presented here over the years, featuring words of wisdom from such masters of the craft as Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, and more.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton from our visualization of great writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.

Please enjoy.

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem
    “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”
  2. Rachel Carson on Writing and the Loneliness of Creative Work
    “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people.”
  3. Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Tips on Writing
    “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”
  4. Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers
    “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
  5. T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer
    “Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself.”
  6. Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

    Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.
  7. The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing
    “Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”
  8. Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers
  9. “Between propriety and joy choose joy.”

  10. The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Eudora Welty on Writing, Time, and Embracing the Nonlinearity of How We Become Who We Are
  11. “Greater than scene… is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

  12. The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention
    “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”
  13. Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter
    “The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.”
  14. Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers
    “A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded.”
  15. Auden on Writing, Originality, Self-Criticism, and How to Be a Good Reader
    “It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.”
  16. Stephen King: Writing and the Art of “Creative Sleep”:
    “In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”
  17. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
    “If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”
  18. Michael Lewis: Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity
    “When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.”
  19. Annie Dillard on Writing
    “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.”
  20. Susan Sontag on Writing
    “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”
  21. Ray Bradbury: How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity
    How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.
  22. Anne Lamott: Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity
    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”
  23. Italo Calvino on Writing: Insights from 40+ Years of His Letters
    “To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being… what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.”
  24. Ernest Hemingway : Writing, Knowledge, and the Danger of Ego
    “All bad writers are in love with the epic.”
  25. David Foster Wallace: Writing, Death, and Redemption
    “You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”
  26. Isabel Allende: Writing Brings Order to the Chaos of Life
    “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
  27. Stephen King: The Adverb Is Not Your Friend
    “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
  28. Malcolm Cowley: The Four Stages of Writing
    “The germ of a story is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood.”
  29. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing
    “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”
  30. Advice on Writing: Collected Wisdom from Modernity’s Greatest Writers
    “Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.”
  31. Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Rules for a Great Story
    “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.”
  32. Susan Orlean on Writing
    “You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.”
  33. Zadie Smith: 10 Rules of Writing
    “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”
  34. John Steinbeck: 6 Tips on Writing, and a Disclaimer
    “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.”
  35. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Secret of Great Writing (1938)
    “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”
  36. E. B. White: Egoism and the Art of the Essay
    “Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays”
  37. E. B. White: Why Brevity Is Not the Gold Standard for Style
    “Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”
  38. Ray Bradbury: Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection
    “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”
  39. Mary Karr: The Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word
    “Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”
  40. Kurt Vonnegut: How to Write With Style and the 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word (1985)
    “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”
  41. Ann Patchett: What Now?
    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”
  42. Mary Gordon: The Joy of Notebooks and Writing by Hand as a Creative Catalyst
    “However thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”
  43. H. P. Lovecraft: Advice to Aspiring Writers (1920)
    “A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
  44. Henry Miller: Reflections on Writing
    “Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.”
  45. Margaret Atwood: 10 Rules of Writing
    “­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”
  46. David Foster Wallace: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write
    “Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”
  47. Joy Williams: Why Writers Write
    “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”
  48. Joan Didion: Ego, Grammar, and the Impetus to Write
    “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”
  49. David Ogilvy: 10 No-Bullshit Tips on Writing
    “Never write more than two pages on any subject.”
  50. George Orwell: The Four Motives for Writing (1946)
    “Sheer egoism… Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.”
  51. Ezra Pound: A Few Don’ts for Those Beginning to Write Verse (1913)
    “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.”
  52. Ray Bradbury: Storytelling and Human Nature (1963)
    “Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”
  53. Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897)
    “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”
  54. Helen Dunmore: 9 Rules of Writing
    “A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.”
  55. E. B. White: The Role and Responsibility of the Writer (1969)
    “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
  56. Jack Kerouac: 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life
    “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”
  57. Raymond Chandler on Writing
    “The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.”
  58. Walter Benjamin: The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses
    “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself.”
  59. 28-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Four People a Great Writer Must Be
    “A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2.”
  60. 10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates
    “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.”
  61. Neil Gaiman: 8 Rules of Writing
    “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
  62. Anaïs Nin: Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity
    “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
  63. Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers
    “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”
  64. Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews
    “A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”
  65. Herbert Spencer: The Philosophy of Style, the Economy of Attention, and the Ideal Writer (1852)
    “To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.”
  66. Charles Bukowski on Writing and His Insane Daily Routine
    “Writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money.”
  67. Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness
    “Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”
  68. Edgar Allan Poe: The Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character
    “In the marginalia … we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit.”
  69. Kurt Vonnegut: The Writer’s Responsibility, the Limitations of the Brain, and Why the Universe Exists: A Rare 1974 WNYC Interview
    “We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.”
  70. Ernest Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication
    Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs.
  71. How to Be a Writer: Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors
    “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”
  72. Eudora Welty: The Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown
    “No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”
  73. Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize Interview: Writing, Women, and the Rewards of Storytelling
    “I want my stories to move people … to feel some kind of reward from the writing.”
  74. Samuel Delany: Good Writing vs. Talented Writing
    “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.”
  75. William Faulkner: Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life
    “The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”
  76. Anaïs Nin: Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook
    “It is in the movements of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”
  77. John Updike: Writing and Death
    “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
  78. Charles Bukowski Debunks the “Tortured Genius” Myth of Creativity
    “unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.”
  79. Mary Gaitskill: Why Writers Write and The Six Motives of Creativity
    The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.
  80. Vladimir Nabokov: Writing, Reading, and the Three Qualities a Great Storyteller Must Have
    “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”
  81. Joan Didion: Telling Stories, the Economy of Words, Starting Out as a Writer, and Facing Rejection
    “Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.”
  82. Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life
    “A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”
  83. William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: The Writer as a Booster of the Human Heart
    “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
  84. John Updike: Making Money, How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things for Aspiring Writers to Know
    “In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”
  85. Susan Sontag : Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives
    “To make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master.”
  86. Chinua Achebe: The Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in Society
    The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.
  87. Leonard Cohen: Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting
    “The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
  88. Ray Bradbury: What Failure Really Means, Why We Hate Work, and the Importance of Love in Creative Endeavors
    How working for the wrong motives poisons our creativity and warps our ideas of success and failure.
  89. Joyce Carol Oates: What Hemingway’s Early Stories Can Teach Us About Writing and the Defining Quality of Great Art
    On the elusive gift of blending austerity of craft with elasticity of allure.
  90. Willa Cather: Writing Through Troubled Times
    “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”
  91. Anthony Trollope: Witty and Wise Advice on How to Be a Successful Writer
    “My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”
  92. William Styron: Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers
    “For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”
  93. Madeleine L’Engle: Creativity, Censorship, Writing, and the Duty of Children’s Books
    “We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.”
  94. Saul Bellow: How Writers and Artists Save Us from the “Moronic Inferno” of Our Time
    “The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions.”
  95. Mary Oliver: The Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive
    “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter.”
  96. Schopenhauer on Style
    “Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”
  97. Flannery O’Connor: Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading
    “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”
  98. Annie Dillard: The Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories
    “Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”
  99. C.S. Lewis: The 3 Ways of Writing for Children and the Key to Authenticity in All Writing
    “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”
  100. Nietzsche: 10 Rules for Writers
    “Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.”
  101. William Faulkner: Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create
    “It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”
  102. David Foster Wallace: The Redemptive Power of Reading and the Future of Writing in the Age of Information
    The fun of reading as “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”
  103. Zadie Smith: The Psychology of the Two Types of Writers
    “It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”
  104. George Orwell: Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself
    “By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
  105. Italo Calvino: The Art of Quickness, Digression as a Hedge Against Death, and the Key to Great Writing
    “Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”
  106. Ursula K. Le Guin: Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work
    “All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”
  107. Gabriel García Márquez on His Unlikely Beginnings as a Writer
    “If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”
  108. Roald Dahl: How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor
    “I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”
  109. Robert Frost: How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay
    “The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”
  110. Lewis Carroll: How to Work Through Difficulty and His Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block
    “When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”
  111. Mark Strand: The Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe
    “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”
  112. John Steinbeck: The Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work
    “Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”
  113. E.B. White: How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Audiences
    “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
  114. Virginia Woolf: Writing and Self-Doubt
    Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
  115. Cheryl Strayed: Faith, Humility, and the Art of Motherfuckitude
    “Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
  116. Ann Patchett: Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art
    “The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
  117. Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers
    “If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will…
  118. Grace Paley: The Value of Not Understanding Everything
    “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”
  119. Jane Kenyon: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By
    “Be a good steward of your gifts.”
  120. Joseph Conrad on Art and What Makes a Great Writer, in a Beautiful Tribute to Henry James
    “All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind.”
  121. How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer
    “It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”
  122. Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers
    “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”
  123. James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing
    “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
  124. Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience
    “It’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”
  125. Elizabeth Alexander on Writing, the Ethic of Love, Language as a Vehicle for the Self, and the Inherent Poetry of Personhood
    “You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”
  126. Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths
    “See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”
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H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers: Timeless Counsel from 1920

“Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn… If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible.”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” Steinbeck admonished, “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.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In January of 1920, iconic science fiction and fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft published a short guide titled “Literary Composition” for United Amateur Press Association — a grassroots literary education collective that dubbed itself an “exponent of amateur journalism,” an early version of today’s blogs and citizen journalism. Found in the anthology Writings in the United Amateur (free download; public library), the essay offers aspiring writers technical tips and big-picture wisdom on the art and craft of the written word.

Much like Jennifer Egan did nearly a century later, Lovecraft stresses the vital osmosis between reading and writing:

No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.

Lovecraft notes the equal importance of non-reading as intellectual choice:

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.

He advocates for cultivating a love of uncommon words:

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it. The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. In reading, the novice should note the varied mode of expression practiced by good authors, and should keep in his mind for future use the many appropriate synonymes he encounters. Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.

Like Thoreau, Lovecraft finds in nature a literary muse:

For the purpose of securing epithets at once accurate and felicitous, the young author should familiarize himself thoroughly with the general aspect and phenomena of Nature, as well as with the ideas and associations which these things produce in the human mind.

He offers a meditation on fact and fiction, with a cautionary note about narrative sequence:

In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average. Development should be as lifelike as possible, and a weak, trickling conclusion should be assiduously avoided. The end of a story must be stronger rather than weaker than the beginning; since it is the end which contains the denouement or culmination, and which will leave the strongest impression upon the reader. It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be. In this way he will be able to concentrate his freshest mental vigour upon the most important part of his narrative; and if any changes be later found needful, they can easily be made. In no part of a narrative should a grand or emphatic thought or passage be followed by one of tame or prosaic quality. This is anticlimax, and exposes a writer to much ridicule.

Lovecraft enumerates the twenty most common mistakes of young authors, “aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects,” and offers a common cure for all:

  1. Erroneous plurals of nouns, as vallies or echos.
  2. Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
  3. Want of correspondence in number between noun and verb where the two are widely separated or the construction involved.
  4. Ambiguous use of pronouns.
  5. Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
  6. Erroneous use of shall and will, and of other auxiliary verbs.
  7. Use of intransitive for transitive verbs, as “he was graduated from college,” or vice versa, as “he ingratiated with the tyrant.”
  8. Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.”
  9. Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as “If I was he, I should do otherwise,” or “He said the earth was round.”
  10. The split infinitive, as “to calmly glide.”
  11. The erroneous perfect infinitive, as “Last week I expected to have met you.”
  12. False verb-forms, as “I pled with him.”
  13. Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
  14. Misuse of prepositions, as “The gift was bestowed to an unworthy object,” or “The gold was divided between the five men.”
  15. The superfluous conjunction, as “I wish for you to do this.”
  16. Use of words in wrong senses, as “The book greatly intrigued me,” “Leave me take this,” “He was obsessed with the idea,” or “He is a meticulous writer.”
  17. Erroneous use of non-Anglicised foreign forms, as “a strange phenomena,” or “two stratas of clouds.”
  18. Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest.
  19. Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
  20. Errors of spelling and punctuation, and confusion of forms such as that which leads many to place an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its.

Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter of advice, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

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