Writers on the art of writing


To celebrate our 500th post, Glossophilia offers 50 pearls of wisdom — from the witty to the wise — on the craft of writing from some of its greatest masters.

“You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.” — Joyce Carol Oates

“Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Vladimir Nabokov

“Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” ― Franz Kafka

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” — Virginia Woolf

“Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.” — Margaret Atwood

“Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.” — P. D. James

“The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions.” — Saul Bellow

“Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” ― Steve Martin

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway

“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.” — Anthony Trollope

“Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” — Zadie Smith

““Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.” — E. B. White

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” ― Graham Greene

“Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.” — Annie Proulx

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain

“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” — George Orwell

“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.” — Joy Williams

“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

“Use grandiloquent words, such as heretofore, forthwith, and nevermore. A little Latin will also enhance the text.” — Edgar Allan Poe

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” — Kurt Vonnegut

“Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better.” — Jack Kerouac

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.” — P. D. James

“Half my life is an act of revision.” -– John Irving

“Sheer egoism… Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.” — George Orwell

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

“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.”
— Gore Vidal

“The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway

“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.” ― Mark Twain

“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.” ― William Faulkner

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” ― Stephen King

“The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.” — Raymond Chandler

“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

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” — Philip Roth

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” ― Charles Baudelaire

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  ― W. Somerset Maugham

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
― Thomas Jefferson

“Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.” — Henry Miller

“Concentrate on what you want to say to yourself and your friends. Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness. You say what you want to say when you don’t care who’s listening.” ― Allen Ginsberg

“Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” ― Tennessee Williams

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” — Elmore Leonard

“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

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King

“A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

“Poetry creates the myth, the prose writer draws its portrait.” -– Jean-Paul Sartre

“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.” ― Gustave Flaubert

“Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” ― Joss Whedon

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ― Saul Bellow

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” ― Virginia Woolf

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

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