Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one
Words of writerly wisdom from letters of the greats
As someone who attempts to write in short bursts on a regular basis, I find the process of placing and arranging words on the page to be torturous and intimidating, so I can only imagine the anguish felt by actual writers, who must constantly summon their powers to create something out of nothing, at length, for public consumption. If that sounds like you, read on; and if it doesn’t sound like you, read on. Because below, plucked from the letters of those who’ve fought and conquered these same demons, is some invaluable writing advice, often but not always sent to aspiring authors in need of guidance, and I’m hoping that at least one of them may ease your pain.
(There’s a bonus at the bottom that isn’t from a letter at all, but I think deserves a place.)
I can only say that I kept reading and reading and your book never fucking began. You just kept telling the reader how extraordinary your leading character was. You obviously have talent, but what is the good of it if most of your readers (as I suspect) will either read you uncomfortably or stop altogether. This won’t be because they are not necessarily up to the mark but because of the glittering vanity with which you put your sentences together. I would never tell you that you don’t have talent. You are in a peculiar position of having too much felicity with words and, therefore, do not seem ready as yet, to get into the hard and often dreary literary mechanics of writing novels and editing them. These are harsh words, but you are bright enough and I would like to encourage you to take the art of novel writing more seriously than your enjoyment of yourself.
Letter to John Kriegsman
21st July 2006
(Source: Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon
Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country—in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality—you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it—we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.
Sarah Orne Jewett
Letter to Willa Cather
13th December 1908
(Source: The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell)
A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialog and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn't even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn't push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
Letter to Frederick Lewis Allen
7th May 1948
(Source: Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank McShane)
For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.
Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald
28th May 1934
(Source: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker)
For a writer, a feeling for words—for language—must be the principal thing—the central endowment. Without such a feeling it is useless to apply oneself to the hard, hard tasks which face the writer, throughout his or her career. You have this feeling for language, but you have not developed it very far. For you do not write, as we say, “in form.” You write free verse. At seventeen, if you are to go on writing poetry, you must not only begin to acquaint yourself with the effects of formal verse, but you must begin to use these effects. You can begin by imitating this poet or that as long as you admit that you are imitating. You must begin to practise—as a pianist practises (only you are practising creatively, of course-not merely performing). You show a slight tendency toward form, in these poems of your manuscript, but not consistently. I should say, from present evidence, that you might very well turn out to be a writer of prose—a novelist, say, if you have any storytelling ability.
So try writing all sorts of things! And look into some textbooks on prosody2. Poetry Handbook, by Babette Deutsch (Funk and Wagnall) is a valuable, recent such book, that has received high praise from many people, including myself. Any book store will order it for you.
Write and read! Read and write! Those are the two rules.
Letter to an aspiring poet
6th April 1984
(Source: What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer)
Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
Memo to his colleagues
17th September 1982
(Source: The Unpublished David Ogilvy, edited by Joel Raphaelson)
Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.
Let me preach again for one moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Letter to his daughter
20th October 1936
(Source: A Life in Letters, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli)
You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.
Letter to her niece
9th September 1814
(Source: Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Dierdre Le Faye)
There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published, save for a couple of short items in St. Nicholas. If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing, write about it. A great deal of writing is not “plotted”—most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, “Who cares?” Everybody cares. You say, “It’s been written before.” Everything has been written before.
E. B. White
Letter to Miss R.
15th September 1973
(Source: Letters of E. B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth)
When authors write best, or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master—which will have its way —putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature, new moulding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.
Letter to George Henry Lewes
12th January 1848
(Source: The Brontës: Life and Letters, edited by Clement Shorter)
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.
Letter to Robert Wallsten
14th February 1962
(Source: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten)
Keep writing and profit by criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped.
Write, and print if you can; if not, still write, and improve as you go on. Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown.
Louisa May Alcott
Letter to Mr. J. P. True
24th October (year unknown)
(Source: Louisa May Alcott: Her life, letters, and journals, edited by Edna D. Cheney)
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
C. S. Lewis
Letter to Joan
26th June 1956
(Source: Letters of C. S. Lewis, edited by W. H. Lewis)
Do be careful of your adjectives – do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details. Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line. . . try to be terse and in some way original – the world abounds with new similes and metaphors.
D. H. Lawrence
Letter to Louise Burrows
Source: The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol.1, edited by James T. Boulton)
[F]rom its exposition through its agon3, to its unraveling a plot should be a living organism, and its central intelligence, the voice which manipulates and dialectically arouses, fulfils and frustrates my expectations, and which ultimately rewards me with a perception into the meaning of all the sound and fury that makes up a story, is one into whose hands I have surrendered my own intelligence, imagination, and sense of life. And when that central intelligence assumes such responsibility and authority but fails to deliver, he violates my trust and embarrasses the author for whom he acts as surrogate.
Letter to Horace Porter
29th February 1986
(Source: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan & Marc Conner)
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
Letter to the students of Xavier High School
5th November 2006
(Source: More Letters of Note)
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
100 Ways to Improve Your Writing
You can buy a limited edition print that features this Hemingway quote—designed for Letters of Note by the amazing Stanley Chow—over here.