They say the best writers are masters of mimicry, and that you won’t get far in the craft without learning from the greats that came before. Indeed, understanding the (sometimes excruciating, sometimes joyful) experiences of fellow writers is a powerful rite of passage for budding writers. It’s a lesson that helps remind us of the basics — i.e., don’t let your ego get in the way of your work — but also one that illuminates the power of the written word, a thought that is easily squashed under the burden of heavy deadlines and endless revisions.
What makes writing such a desirable craft is its pure accessibility. From the time early scribes had access to writing utensils, humanity was recording its experiences, memories and reflections on life. By the ink of the quill and then the fountain pen, some of humanity’s most significant works were recorded. Therein lies a lesson of its own: Everyone is a writer, whether they claim to be or not, so the real work is in perfecting the craft. Let’s take a look at some of the best advice on writing, as dispensed by some of history’s canonical writers.
The Canon of Books on Writing
It shouldn’t surprise you that some of the quintessential works on writing were written by successful writers. From William Strunk Jr.’s classic style guide covering fundamentals of grammar and clarity to Annie Dillard’s modern work characterizing the mysterious life of a writing professional, some of the most important lessons we can learn — handed to us directly from some of the literary world’s best voices — are found within the pages of the following books about writing, written by writers:
- “The Elements of Style,” Strunk & White
- “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott
- “On Writing,” Stephen King
- “Zen in the Art of Writing,” Ray Bradbury
- “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard
- “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser
- “Stein on Writing,” Sol Stein
- “Page After Page,” Heather Sellers
- “How to Write Bestselling Fiction,” Dean Koontz
- “Naked, Drunk, and Writing,” Adair Lara
- “The War of Art,” Steven Pressfield
- “On Writing,” Charles Bukowski
- “The New New Journalism,” Robert Boynton
10 Important Lessons from Legendary Writers
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: Murder Your Darlings
Ask any “classically trained” writer — that is, anyone with an MFA — and they’ll tell you that the most oft-dispensed piece of writing advice in the writing world is as follows: Murder your darlings. The tidbit, which is often attributed to William Faulkner but was actually first uttered by English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, essentially means to be ruthless in your revision process. In other words, no matter how much you love a piece of your work (your “darling”) sometimes it doesn’t serve the work at all, so sometimes it’s got to go.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
At its core, this quote serves as a reminder that the best writers are those that can detach themselves from their work and not take negative feedback personally. It also stands as a reminder that, even though a section of writing may be well done, it doesn’t always fit in with or enhance the larger piece. Additionally, it may be interpreted as encouragement to enter the editing process callously, with a metaphorical hatchet, ready to cut anything and everything that just doesn’t feel right.
Anton Chekhov: The Gun on the Wall
Often referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” this one is less a piece of advice and more a writing rule. The roots of the rule can be traced back to a conversation between Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and his friend Ilia Gurliand. “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must be fired in the last act,” he said to Gurliand. Chekhov reportedly echoed the sentiment many more times, with some variation, throughout his career.
Sure, the quote stands as a reminder that everything you place in your story serves as an allusion — and, indeed, readers seek out allusions — but also that, quite simply, everything you put in your work should serve some a purpose. Historians quote the author as saying later: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
William Zinsser: Trim the Fat
“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose,” Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Mark Twain had a similar piece of advice to writers: Every time you feel inclined to write the word “very,” replace it with the word “damn.” “Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be,” he said. Writing with intent and brevity is a skill even the best writers work at until the bitter end.
Mary Heaton Vorse: Keep Your Butt in the Chair
In Heather Sellers’ 2009 book, “Page After Page,” the decorated fiction writer says that the most important piece of advice for young writers is simple: “Butt in chair.” In other words, if you want to be a writer, you have to write, and writing requires sitting in a chair, staring at an empty notebook or computer screen for hours on end. The advice can be traced back much further than Sellers’ book — it’s been attributed to Sinclair Lewis, Nora Roberts, Oliver Stone and even Stephen King — but the truth is that writer Mary Heaton Vorse first gave the advice to a young Sinclair Lewis in 1911.
Why the confusion? Writers, not limited to Vorse and Sellers, have shared this piece of advice thousands of times throughout history. Stephen King echoed this sentiment in his memoir, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” by saying, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Flannery O’Connor is reported as saying once, “I don’t know if the muse is going to show up or not on any given day, but by golly, I’m going to be at my desk from 8 to 12 every morning in case she does.” The simplest version — “butt in chair” — appears to be the one that has prevailed and will probably continue to.
Anne Lamott: Don’t Strive for Perfection
Lamott said it best in her canonical work “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions in Writing and Life”:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
What Lamott is trying to say is that striving for perfection is a waste of time, one that will ultimately hold you back rather than propel you forward. It’s also something that tends to stall otherwise prolific writers. If you find yourself knee-deep in a dozen unfinished works, try letting go of your desire for perfection. You just might find it liberating.
José Saramago: Good Writers Read
It’s simple: you can’t be a good writer without being a good reader. It all goes back to the fact that writers — or any crafters really — learn by example. When asked about his daily writing routine, Portuguese Nobel prize winner José Saramago told The Guardian, “”I write two pages. And then I read and read and read.” The piece of advice isn’t original to Saramago — it’s been reiterated time and time again by the best writers, including English crime writer P.D. James who said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
“The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing, and it will enlarge your vocabulary.” – J.K. Rowling
Strunk and White: Put Yourself in the Background
There’s a good reason why “The Elements of Style,” the 1918 writer’s guide originally published by William Strunk Jr. and then revised by E.B. White in 1959, is often considered the writer’s bible. The pages of the 100-year-old resource concentrate on usage and grammar — things like using the active voice and omitting needless words — while the newer parts, added by legendary “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” author E.B. White, broadly approach style and voice.
The writer penned the concluding chapter, “An Approach to Style,” to include in the 1959 edition. The first section of that chapter is titled “1. Place yourself in the background.” White’s advice, concisely, is as follows: “Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author… The first piece of advice is this: To achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background.”
Stephen King: Let Revisions Guide You
Legendary horror author Stephen King is one of those writers who has no qualms with letting burgeoning writers in on his process, and he’s left dozens of thoughtful, powerful tidbits for us to devour. He speaks often about the importance of revising — see the “kill your darlings” quote above — and talks often about how good writers take the time not only to draft, but also to allow themselves the space and time to fail.
“The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising,” he once said in an interview with The Writer’s Digest. He also wrote, in “On Writing”: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” He meant that good writers should leave the door — and the mind — open during the editing process.
Philip Roth: Finish, Finish, Finish
The prolific American novelist Philip Roth was rather famously quoted in The New York Times Book Review as saying, “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” In retrospect, the author probably meant to say that his half-finished works are the ones that haunt him the most. He later told The Paris Review that he doesn’t even let others read his work until it’s finished. “It’s more useful for my mistakes to ripen and burst in their own good time. I give myself all the opposition I need while I’m writing, and praise is meaningless to me when I know something isn’t even half finished. Nobody sees what I’m doing until I absolutely can’t go any further and might even like to believe that I’m done.”
J.K. Rowling: Write What You Know
The mastermind behind the Harry Potter series has plenty of advice to give wannabe writers. She surprised the world when she admitted that she used pen and a paper to write the first Harry Potter book rather than a computer or a typewriter. But perhaps one of Rowling’s most valuable pieces of advice is this one, which she gave during an “Authors on the Spot” interview with the BBC:
“Write what you know: your own interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets will be your raw materials when you start writing. Develop a fondness for solitude if you can, because writing is one of the loneliest professions in the world!” – J.K. Rowling
Interpreting Writer’s Advice
At the end of the day, it helps to have a few tips in your arsenal in case you get stuck, and there’s no better advice than that of the world’s best and most prolific authors. As writers and creators, we are lucky to have the insight of these great minds from which to learn, and we should all strive to share our secrets for a better, more productive world.