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Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Didion, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and other literary icons.

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.

Please enjoy.

  1. Marilynne Robinson: “Beauty,” Writing, What Storytelling Can Learn from Science, and the Splendors of Uncertainty
    “We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature.”
  2. 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.”
  3. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
    “If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”
  9. 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.”
  10. Ernest Hemingway : Writing, Knowledge, and the Danger of Ego
    “All bad writers are in love with the epic.”
  11. 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.”
  12. 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.”
  13. 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.”
  14. 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.”
  15. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing
    “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”
  16. 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.”
  17. 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.”
  18. Susan Orlean on Writing
    “You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.”
  19. 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.”
  20. John Steinbeck: 6 Tips on Writing, and a Disclaimer
    “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.”
  21. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Secret of Great Writing (1938)
    “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”
  22. 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”
  23. 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.”
  24. Ray Bradbury: Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection
    “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”
  25. 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.”
  26. 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.”
  27. Ann Patchett: What Now?
    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”
  28. 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.”
  29. 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.”
  30. 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.”
  31. Margaret Atwood: 10 Rules of Writing
    “­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”
  32. 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.”
  33. Joy Williams: Why Writers Write
    “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”
  34. 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.”
  35. David Ogilvy: 10 No-Bullshit Tips on Writing
    “Never write more than two pages on any subject.”
  36. 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.”
  37. 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.”
  38. Ray Bradbury: Storytelling and Human Nature (1963)
    “Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”
  39. Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897)
    “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”
  40. Helen Dunmore: 9 Rules of Writing
    “A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.”
  41. E. B. White: The Role and Responsibility of the Writer (1969)
    “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
  42. Jack Kerouac: 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life
    “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”
  43. 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.”
  44. 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.”
  45. 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.”
  46. 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.”
  47. Neil Gaiman: 8 Rules of Writing
    “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
  48. 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.”
  49. Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers
    “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”
  50. Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews
    “A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”
  51. 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.”
  52. 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.”
  53. 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.”
  54. 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.”
  55. 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.”
  56. 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.
  57. How to Be a Writer: Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors
    “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”
  58. 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.”
  59. 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.”
  60. 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.”
  61. 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.”
  62. 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.”
  63. 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?”
  64. 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.”
  65. 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.
  66. 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.”
  67. 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.”
  68. 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.”
  69. 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.”
  70. 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.”
  71. 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.”
  72. 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.
  73. 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.”
  74. 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.
  75. 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.
  76. 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.”
  77. 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.”
  78. 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.”
  79. 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.”
  80. 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.”
  81. 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.”
  82. Schopenhauer on Style
    “Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”
  83. 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.”
  84. 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.”
  85. 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.”
  86. 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.”
  87. 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.”
  88. 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.”
  89. 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.”
  90. 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.”
  91. 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.”
  92. 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.”
  93. 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.”
  94. 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.”
  95. Robert Frost: How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay
    “The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”
  96. 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.”
  97. 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.”
  98. 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.”
  99. 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.”
  100. 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.”
  101. 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.”
  102. 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.”
  103. 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…
  104. Grace Paley: The Value of Not Understanding Everything
    “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”
  105. Jane Kenyon: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By
    “Be a good steward of your gifts.”

Published May 3, 2013




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