It's never been a better time to be a writer --or aspire to become one.
Platforms like LinkedIn, Medium, and WordPress have placed millions of dollars of technology, and the power that once only belonged to major publishing and media firms, into the hands of millions of writers -- entirely for free.
But technology can only take a writer so far. Writing is an art and a craft that needs to be developed through deliberate practice and study over a long period of time. Fortunately, some of the world's greatest writers, the ones who mastered the craft and whose names have been passed down to us through time, gifted us not only with their stories. Many of them took time in-between the creation of their novels and short stories and poems to codify their writing philosophies, their writing strategies, and their writing habits.
Some of these authors recorded their thoughts on writing in books, some as essays, and some as letters to their friends, lovers, and editors.
If you're ever in need of inspiration or just want a few quick tips to help keep your words flowing onto the screen, just dip into the wisdom of these great authors. Here are 50 nuggets of writing wisdom from some of the greatest authors of all time:
"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect."
"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
"If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple."
--Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
"You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write."
"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."
"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."
"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."
--Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
"Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly -- they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced."
--Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."
--Henry David Thoreau
"I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."
"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
--Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades
"Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences."
--Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
"Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."
--Kurt Vonnegut Jr., A Man Without a Country
"Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly."
"I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in."
--Robert Louis Stevenson
"You can make anything by writing."
"A word after a word after a word is power."
"Tears are words that need to be written."
"You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."
"Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money."
"To survive, you must tell stories."
--Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before
"Always be a poet, even in prose."
"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."
"The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself."
"I write to discover what I know."
"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."
― John Steinbeck
"A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time--proof that humans can work magic."
― Carl Sagan
"Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish."
― Hermann Hesse
"Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing."
― Norman Mailer
"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write."
― Rainer Maria Rilke
"As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand."
― Ernest Hemingway
"A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends."
― Friedrich Nietzsche
"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."
"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."
-- Elmore Leonard
"Writers live twice."
-- Natalie Goldberg
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme."
"Words are a lens to focus one's mind."
- Ayn Rand
"I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within."
"Writing is its own reward."
"A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God."
"I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged."
"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
"Half my life is an act of revision."
"Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good."
"Almost anyone can be an author; the business is to collect money and fame from this state of being."
--A. A. Milne
"When you make music or write or create, it's really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you're writing about at the time. "
A good writing quote can give me goosebumps.
For those days when the well is feeling dry and a tad echo-y, I keep a running list of my favorite quotes—things I’ve read, things I’ve edited, things I’ve found in the WD archives, things people have said to me in interviews.
Such tiny, perfect revelations.
A couple of years ago, I posted a portion of this list on my old WD blog (around the same time we ran a great quote feature on 90 tips from bestselling authors in the magazine). Recently, someone asked if I was still collecting quotes.
Here’s the latest iteration of the list. (I’d love to expand it, too—please share some of your favourites in the Comments section of this blog post.)
Happy Friday, and happy writing.
“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
—Allen Ginsberg, WD
“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
—William S. Burroughs
“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction.”
—Steve Almond, WD
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
—Jack Kerouac, WD
“Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
“I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
—Roald Dahl, WD
“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
—Stephen King, WD (this quote is from an interview with King in our May/June 2009 issue)
“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.”
“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”
—William Zinsser, WD
“If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us.”
“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen
“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. … I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”
“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
—John Updike, WD
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
—Larry L. King, WD
“Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.”
“I’m out there to clean the plate. Once they’ve read what I’ve written on a subject, I want them to think, ‘That’s it!’ I think the highest aspiration people in our trade can have is that once they’ve written a story, nobody will ever try it again.”
—Richard Ben Cramer
“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
“Style means the right word. The rest matters little.”
“Style is to forget all styles.”
“I do not over-intellectualise the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
—Tom Clancy, WD
“The writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it and offer it to the reader. The essence will not be, of course, the same thing as the raw material; it is not even of the same family of things. The novel is something that never was before and will not be again.”
—Eudora Welty, WD
“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
—Lawrence Block, WD
“Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.”
—Leslie Gordon Barnard, WD
“If you tell the reader that Bull Beezley is a brutal-faced, loose-lipped bully, with snake’s blood in his veins, the reader’s reaction may be, ‘Oh, yeah!’ But if you show the reader Bull Beezley raking the bloodied flanks of his weary, sweat-encrusted pony, and flogging the tottering, red-eyed animal with a quirt, or have him booting in the protruding ribs of a starved mongrel and, boy, the reader believes!”
—Fred East, WD
“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”
—Leigh Brackett, WD
“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, WD
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King, WD
“Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night can never be seen again. Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and then see imitated many times by made writers.”
–Jack Kerouac, WD
“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.”
—Jim Tully, WD
“All stories have to at least try to explain some small portion of the meaning of life. You can do that in 20 minutes, and 15 inches. I still remember a piece that the great Barry Bearak did in TheMiami Herald some 30 years ago. It was a nothing story, really: Some high school kid was leading a campaign to ban books he found offensive from the school library. Bearak didn’t even have an interview with the kid, who was ducking him. The story was short, mostly about the issue. But Bearak had a fact that he withheld until the kicker. The fact put the whole story, subtly, in complete perspective. The kicker noted the true, wonderful fact that the kid was not in school that day because “his ulcer was acting up.” Meaning of life, 15 inches.”
—Gene Weingarten, WD
“Beware of advice—even this.”
—Carl Sandburg, WD
“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
—Harper Lee, WD
“I think the deeper you go into questions, the deeper or more interesting the questions get. And I think that’s the job of art.”
—Andre Dubus III, WD (this quote is from an interview with Dubus in our July/August 2012 issue)
“Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality.”
—Jack Kerouac, WD
“People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.”
—R.L. Stine, WD (this quote is from an interview with Stine that ran in our November/December 2011 issue)
“I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD
“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD
“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD
“I don’t believe in being serious about anything. I think life is too serious to be taken seriously.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
“Writers are always selling somebody out.”
“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
—Robert A. Heinlein
“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.”
“There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.”
“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”
—William Carlos Williams
“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”
“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
“You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.”
“When I say work I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
“I always start writing with a clean piece of paper and a dirty mind.”
“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
“A book is simply the container of an idea—like a bottle; what is inside the book is what matters.”
“I almost always urge people to write in the first person. … Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.”
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
“Write while the heat is in you. … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”
—Henry David Thoreau
“You don’t actually have to write anything until you’ve thought it out. This is an enormous relief, and you can sit there searching for the point at which the story becomes a toboggan and starts to slide.”
—Marie de Nervaud, WD
“Whether a character in your novel is full of choler, bile, phlegm, blood or plain old buffalo chips, the fire of life is in there, too, as long as that character lives.”
—James Alexander Thom
“Writers live twice.”
Zachary Petit is an award-winning journalist, the senior managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, and the co-author of A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block.
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