The world is full of people who want to give writing advice, but not everyone’s qualified. The only people who truly understand writers and the writing life are writers themselves. We’ve compiled twenty quotes from famous authors with some of the very best advice on living the writing life, the craft itself, and the only way to make a piece of fiction come alive—thoughtful and thorough editing.
The Writing Life
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. —Neil Gaiman
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 is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window. —William Faulkner
The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page. —Anne Enright
Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money. —Johnathan Franzen
The Craft of Writing
Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page. —Margaret Atwood
Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. … I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. —Joss Whedon
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. … Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue. —Elmore Leonard
If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech. —John Steinbeck
Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. —Esther Freud
Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do. —Kurt Vonnegut
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. —John Steinbeck
Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed, and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways. —Sarah Waters
Editing Your Writing
The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE. —Joyce Carol Oates
Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. —Elmore Leonard
Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter. —Annie Proulx
Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless! —Joyce Carol Oates
Ask a reading friend or two to look at your book before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. —Margaret Atwood
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.’ —C.S. Lewis
Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count. —Diana Athill
Keep going. Remember that you must finish the novel for it to have a chance in this world. You absolutely must complete it. And of course, as soon as I do I think of new things. I go back, refining, adding a little. And when I stop feeling the urge to do that, well, I know it’s really finished. —Anne Rice
Every Epic Journey Begins With Inspiration
Kick-start your creativity and lock out writer's block with 120 hand-picked writing prompts – yours to download for free.
Featuring prompts focused on Mystery, Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Romance, plus a genre-agnostic selection, there's something to help no matter what you like to write.
Pick one, or pick a few and combine them for pre-built twists and turns or a mega genre mash-up. The choice is yours!