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Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck

On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice.

If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve been right on course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no-nonsense tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers.

Now comes Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) with six tips on writing, originally set down in a 1962 letter to the actor and writer Robert Wallsten included in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Steinbeck’s advice on falling in love.

Steinbeck counsels:

  1. 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.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, 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. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

If you’re bold enough to defy Steinbeck’s anti-advice advice, you can do so with these nine essential books on more and writing. Find more timeless counsel on the craft in the collected wisdom of great writers, then see how Steinbeck used his diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt.

Open Culture


The Laws of Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

What Charles Dickens has to do with equilibrium and entropy.

In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a young girl at the turn of the nineteenth century turns to her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and subtly describes the second law of thermodynamics while examining her breakfast:

When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

Perhaps it is odd for a twelve-year-old girl to consider the state of entropy decades before its invention, but in Stoppard’s play, all of its characters seem to obey some property of physics, bouncing around like molecules in two closed systems, heating up, dissipating, and eventually reaching equilibrium.

That’s not thermophysics, that’s thermopoetics.

Energy is eternal delight.” ~ William Blake

Professor Bari J. Gold takes this very idea, that characters and plots can obey the laws of physics, and extends it into nineteenth-century literature in ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. The result is an extraordinary reconsideration of Victorian novels, plays, and poems pierced by time’s arrow, in which the works of Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde are bound up with energy conservation, the paradox of heat, engines, the grand unified theory, and of course, entropy.

Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system, also commonly used to describe an inevitable decline into social disorder. A closed system, like the worlds of Dickens novels, will develop towards a state of total entropy — disorder will never decrease, unless acted upon by forces from the outside.

What is life but organized energy?” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The most familiar example of this in Victorian literature is Dickens’ Bleak House, where the endless Jarndyce case grinds on steadily, mixing its characters like jam into pudding. To survive the Courts of Chancery one must embrace entropy, and those that were caught up in its system had a “loose way of letting bad things alone take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world could go wrong, it was in some offhand manner, never meant to go right.”

Another Dickens work, A Tale of Two Cities, might also be recognized as a thermopoetic novel of equilibrium, in which the best of times are balanced by the worst of times, each character has a spiritual double. Or consider that Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray has created in this painting a heat sink, which absorbs the degrading age of its main character, allowing Dorian to remain a youthful constant.

All of this isn’t to say that Charles Dickens had entropy on the brain when be was writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 — the concept wouldn’t be developed thoroughly until five or six years later. Instead, ThermoPoetics creates a new kind of law, one that recognizes that science and art are not two separate systems, but instead that the rules that govern both fiction and physics are borne out of the same world — something beautifully aligned with Jonah Lehrer’s concept of “the fourth culture” of knowledge.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.


Alan Turing’s Reading List: What the Computing Pioneer Borrowed From His School Library

What Alice in Wonderland has to do with electromagnetic theory, relativity, and Pluto.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” it’s been said. Since creativity is combinatorial, the architecture of mind and character is deeply influenced by the intellectual stimulation we choose to engage with — including the books we read. There is hardly anything more fascinating than the private intellectual diet of genius — like this recently uncovered list of books computing pioneer and early codehacker Alan Turing borrowed from his school library. Though heavy on the sciences, the selection features some wonderful wildcards that bespeak the cross-disciplinary curiosity fundamental to true innovation. A few personal favorites follow.


Sidelights on Relativity, published in 1922, is a two-part book based on a series of lectures Albert Einstein gave between 1920 and 1922. It begins with “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” explores the nature of ether and the idea that the universe is not mechanical through the lens of Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz’s work, and the implicit contraction of “space without ether.” The second part, “Geometry and Experience,” considers the concept of infinity through Euclidean geometry.

The book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.


The follow-up to Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (also on Turing’s reading list), Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There — one of the best classic children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — has a palpable philosophical undercurrent running beneath the seemingly nonsensical dialogue and situations, inviting the reader to extract his or her own conclusive existentialism.

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” ~ The Queen

A study in contrasts and opposites, the book is as much escapism from reality as it is a journey into our most authentic, uninhibited selves.

Also in the public domain, the book was the 12th text to be digitized by Project Gutenberg.


Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, originally published in 1925, is one of the seminal texts of modern science, presaging nearly a century of cutting-edge discoveries by examining science in the richer context of culture and the humanities as a force of social progress — a conceptual predecessor to what Jonah Lehrer has termed “the fourth culture”.

Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies. It is its function to harmonise, re-fashion, and justify divergent intuitions as to the nature of things. It has to insist on the scrutiny of the ultimate ideas, and on the retention of the whole of the evidence in shaping our cosmological scheme. Its business is to render explicit, and—so far as may be—efficient, a process which otherwise is unconsciously performed without rational tests.”

The Internet Archive has a free download.


English astrophysicist Sir James Jeans was an early champion of “popular science.” In The Universe Around Us, he set out to make cosmogony, evolution, and the general structure of the universe “intelligible to readers with no special scientific knowledge” by rewriting and reforming lectures and “wireless talks” he had given to academic audiences.

In the second edition of the book, Jeans added a discussion of “the new planet Pluto,” whose planetary status has since been revoked, as well as the rotation of the Milky Way and “the apparent expansion of the universe.” By the fourth edition in 1943, Jeans had distilled the discovery of atomic nuclei, suggesting it could “not only give a satisfactory account of the radiation of the sun and stars, but can also explain many hitherto puzzling stellar characteristics.” In a way, the changes across the four editions offer a fascinating footprint of some of the most important discoveries in modern science, narrated in near-real-time by a scientist who made it his life’s work to foster a popular understanding of the scientific method.


In 1876, pioneering physicist James Clerk Maxwell, best-known for formulating electromagnetic theory, penned Matter and Motion — the first comprehensive guide to the fundamental principles of elementary physics, pulling the curtain on the logic and rationale of the concepts his work built upon, presented in order of complexity in an effort to build a layered understanding of the timeless laws of physics.

Physical science, which up to the end of the eighteenth century had been fully occupied in forming a conception of natural phenomena as the result of forces acting between one body and another, has now fairly entered on the next stage of progress – that in which the energy of a material system is conceived as determined by the configuration and motion of that system, and in which the ideas of configuration, motion, and force are generalised to the utmost extent warranted by their physical definitions.

To become acquainted with these fundamental ideas, to examine them under all their aspects, and habitually to guide the current of thought along the channels of strict dynamical reasoning, must be the foundation of the training of the student of Physical Science.

The book is available for free in multiple formats, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

Alex Bellos has the full list. Many of the books are now in the public domain and are thus free.


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