Writing tips from the masters

Writers always want to know how other writers write: what their routines are, what recommendations they have, how they come up with their ideas, and what tips they've picked up over the years. While famous writers undoubtedly get sick of being asked these questions, there's also a layer of "been there; sympathetic to that" to any writer's experience. Whatever the inspiration, writers writing about writing makes up an entire sub-genre in the history of writing. 

Today's blog exists because I love reading these lists. They can be nuts-and-bolts practical one moment and eye-opening the next. They're a reassuring reminder that writing is effing hard even for the masters. And they add new layers to our understanding of how and why each of these writers wrote what they wrote. 

I recently came across an excellent compilation of various writers' tips put together by the Gotham Writers Workshop. While I encourage you to explore more fully whichever of the 21 lists catches your fancy, today's blog shares some of the tips I like best. 


Kurt Vonnegut

While the immortal Vonnegut — a novelist without peer — utters many wonderful truths in his list, I'll choose this one to share: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of." (As a writer, I will be fighting my innate niceness my whole damn life.)

Billy Wilder

Wilder, a writer/director of countless timeless films, is focused on careful plot construction and making sure your audience will be willing to follow you. He writes, "The audience is fickle. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go." Like any successful screenwriter, he thinks in terms of "acts," and he reminds would-be screenwriters that it's all connected: For example, he says, "If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act." To my mind, however, the best (and occasionally hardest-to-remember) tip is this: "A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever."

Joss Whedon

Screenwriter, director, and producer Whedon advises writers to believe in themselves and BE themselves. He gives a "no duh" but profound reminder about the importance of remembering that your voice is pretty much the only thing that makes you unique. He says, "Believe in your concept. Time travel is a concept that has been done and so is every other thing you will ever think of. So the thing that makes it worth saying is only going to be you." He also says, "Embrace your weirdness. Whatever makes you weird is probably your greatest asset."

Margaret Atwood

Unsurprisingly, novelist Atwood's list reminds writers not to whine. She writes, "Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but — essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."

P.D. James

Crime fiction writer James keeps it simple, addressing in two neatly assembled tips the two primary malaises that ruin many writers: procrastination paired with lack of execution, and writing for reasons that aren't their own. She writes, "Don't just plan to write — write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style." She also says, "Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell."


George Orwell

Orwell, a novelist, was passionate about writing rules. That passion translated to fairly strict discipline, including golden rules such as "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out," and "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Indeed, The Economist style guide uses Orwell's "six rules" for writing as its base credo. For business writing, I'm a massive fan of Orwell. For personal and creative writing, however, I just think some words are too much fun to be left out. 

Jack Kerouac

It will be unsurprising to most that stream-of-consciousness, in-love-and-lust-with-the-insane-beauty-of-ALL-THE-WORDS Kerouac has always been one of my singular writing muses. Kerouac's novels always drew on his life — specifically, on the parts of his life he wanted to celebrate and examine. So Kerouac's guidance to "Be in love with yr life," "Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition," "Write in recollection and amazement for yourself," "Blow as deep as you want to blow," and "Believe in the holy contour of life" have inspired and driven me as a writer for 25+ years. 

Zadie Smith

Novelist Smith speaks to the travails of modern times, advising us to "Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet" and "Protect the time and space in which you write." She also reminds us of the importance of acknowledging our own limitations without needing to justify or defend them: "Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt."

Henry Miller

Miller, a novelist, wants you to write with equal parts joy and discipline. He says, "Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand," as well as "Don't be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only." He also cautions that, sometimes, writers are better-served by focusing on what's already on the page rather than what else still needs to make its way in, advising, "Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers."

Joyce Carol Oates

Novelist and short story writer Oates starts and finishes her list with what it all boils down to if a writer plans to get anywhere with anything: "Write your heart out." She also gives the following piece of advice which I myself really need to be reaaaally careful about: "Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." (Hey, remember what Smith said about acknowledging your own limitations?)

Elmore Leonard

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Leonard, known for his crime fiction, doesn't appear to see eye to eye with me on certain things, given he doesn't feel one should "go into great detail describing places and things." But he and I absolutely agree on exclamation point usage: "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." (To my mind, this guidance applies well beyond the confines of novels. If that email you just wrote has more than one exclamation point, it has too many.)

Annie Proulx

Proulx, a novelist, says, "Proceed slowly and take care. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you." This seems like smart guidance, since typing is often one and the same with rushing. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the ability to write by hand in anything other than all caps, so if I were to heed Proulx's advice I fear that it would always seem I'm yelling at myself. I'm not convinced that's going to work. But for those of you who can still write both lowercase and uppercase letters, this technique may be worth considering. 

Michael Moorcock

While I've never read the work of science fiction writer Moorcock, I'm going to let him have the last word here, because in the end, he's dead right: "Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say." Even the scrupulous Orwell agrees, giving a sixth rule that acts as a giant caveat over the first five: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

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All this to say, writers can learn much from other writers. But writers wouldn't bother to put any words at all down on the page if they didn't have some idea of why they wanted them there. So I guess what I'm saying is this: All this advice from these writing luminaries? It really amounts to just this: If you want to write, write. Do it your way. It's the only way you're going to get anywhere.