19 Writing Tips & Techniques from Famous Writers That You Can Use Right Now
Every so often, I run into these long lists of writing tips and quotes from famous authors on sites like Thought Catalog, Buzzfeed, and others. And they're wonderful. Always interesting to read advice from the greats.
But sometimes I wonder... what's the point?
These quotes tend to swing wildly between craft, motivation, business, life, and everything in between. The only way to get anything out of them would be to print out the ones that resonate and pin them on your wall so they're there the next time you need them.
So what I've done is, I've gone through basically every curated list of famous writing quotes and distilled them down into ones you can use right now, today, this second, to make your work better.
Go get 'em!
1) "Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass." - David Ogilvy
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nasos
How to Use It: Read back over the last thing you wrote. Did you use any strange words you found hidden deep inside the thesaurus? Or, more to the point, did you use any words just because you've seen them used in similar pieces of writing and not because you thought they were a good fit?
A big vocabulary is not the hallmark of a great writer. Instead, strive to take complex, fascinating ideas and make them universally accessible
2) "Write drunk, edit sober." - Ernest Hemingway
Photo courtesy of Flickr user CEBImagery
How to Use It: You can write drunk if you want, but I think what Hemingway was getting at here was this: writing and editing were not meant to occur at the same time.
They require totally different states of mind. When you write, you should be loose, ambitious, and open-minded. Follow your creative instincts. Let the words flow. Let the story take you where it wants.
When editing, you need to get tough. Scrutinize your work. Find the heart of the story and carve away everything else. Be brutal.
Always keep these processes separate. Stop editing as you go.
3) "The first draft of everything is shit." - Ernest Hemingway
Photo courtesy of Flickr user thomashawk
How to Use It: Similarly, Hemingway knew that sometimes it takes more than a little whiskey to free your brain from its creative shackles. This idea, that first drafts always suck, is amazingly freeing once you internalize it.
Give yourself permission to suck. No one has to see your work until you decide it's ready. Get that shitty first draft out of the way so you can start to sculpt it into something that resembles quality work.
4) "Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting." - Jonathan Franzen
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Silliman
How to Use It: There is an EXTREMELY fine line between using colorful language and making your writing overly complicated -- especially when it comes to verbs. As noted above, avoid spending too much time digging through the thesaurus for gems like, "canter", "hotfoot", and "smoke" when "run" will do just fine.
What is the simplest verb available that will properly express the action? It doesn't have to be "run". "Scamper" could imply a sense of franticness. "Lope" could describe an awkward sort of gait. Just don't get fancy unless the more advanced verb actually adds extra context and meaning.
5) "Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." - Anton Chekhov
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert Burdock
How to Use It: Everyone knows about "Show, Don't Tell", but there's still so much telling going on in our writing, I'm not sure if we've really stopped to think about what it means.
On first glance, it might seem like "the moon is shining" IS showing. But it's really only scratched the surface of the scene at hand.
Drill your writing down to the deepest details. They're often the ones that hold the most power and meaning. And don't be afraid of getting too detailed. You can always trim back later.
6) "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." - Elmore Leonard
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Drumm
How to Use It: Exclamation points are a funny thing. They can be excellent at adding emphasis or expressing surprise, shock, horror, etc. But when you start to see them too often, or used poorly, nothing makes you roll your eyes faster.
I'd default to not really using them at all. It will make the moment that much more powerful when you come across a scene that truly calls for one.
7) "Grammar is the grave of letters." - Elbert Hubbard
How to Use It: A funny thing you'll notice the more time you spend around people who write: those who are insane sticklers for perfect grammar are rarely great writers.
Guys, writing is about storytelling. It's about ideas. It's not about who can follow all the rules and syntax to the letter.
Know enough grammar to be able to communicate properly. But if you're going to spend time studying something, or obsessing over something, make it story, voice, theme, character, or dialogue.
8) "A good title is the title of a successful book." - Raymond Chandler
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bertalan Szürös
How to Use It: Now more than ever, headlines matter. With so much competition (in every medium), people are forced to be much more selective in what content they choose to consume.
Some argue that you should spend at least as much time on your title or headline as you do on the writing itself.
A good habit to get into: don't commit to your first idea. Brainstorm at least a dozen different options to see if you may be overlooking a gem.
9) “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” - Stephen King
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tojosan
How to Use It: He walked slowly. She exclaimed happily. They spoke quickly.
Adverbs are used to describe or modify verbs, adjectives, or even other adverbs. And, when not wielded properly, can be the hallmark of an amateur writer.
Seek them out in your writing and see if they can't be replaced by either a) subbing in a stronger verb or b) better setting the context before the adverb sentence.
Bonus tip: King is particularly critical of adverbs used in speech attribution:
"Put it down!" she shouted menacingly.
Stay far away!
10) “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.” - George Orwell
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Luca Cerabona
How to Use It: Struggling to find something to write about? Then this quote should hit home for you.
I've always felt like writing should really be about something. Not just to show off skill or craft. It's why I've never been a huge fan of writing prompts as anything but a throwaway creative exercise.
Before you write your next piece, ask: what's wrong with the world? What makes me angry? What NEEDS to be written about?
11) “If you tell the reader that Bull Beezley is a brutal-faced, loose-lipped bully, with snake’s blood in his veins, the reader’s reaction may be, ‘Oh, yeah!’ But if you show the reader Bull Beezley raking the bloodied flanks of his weary, sweat-encrusted pony, and flogging the tottering, red-eyed animal with a quirt, or have him booting in the protruding ribs of a starved mongrel and, boy, the reader believes!” - Fred East
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bill Gracey
How to Use It: "Show, don't tell" works for characters too.
There's an old adage from the screenwriting book Save the Cat! that suggests you show your main character doing something admirable, heroic, or kind in the opening scenes of your movie in order to get the audience on his or her side.
When working with anti-heroes, often the trick is to just make the bad guy behave EVEN WORSE by comparison.
You can argue the advice, but the point is, show us with action who we're supposed to love and who we're supposed to hate.
12) “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” - Elmore Leonard
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Zennie Abraham
How to Use It: For reference, here's a short list of things that are "writerly":
Long, elaborate scene description. Flowery, romantic dialogue. Enormous vocabulary words. Phrases that set out to be deep and profoud.
It can be hard to catch this stuff in your own work, which is why it's really important to have others read your stuff. But, as Leonard says, if it sounds too much like a writer wrote it, rewrite it.
13) “Always be a poet, even in prose.” - Charles Baudelaire
How to Use It: This is a trap that's exceptionally easy to fall into, especially when writing "content" as opposed to "creative work". But it's advice we all need.
Why settle for the most plain way of expressing an idea? Try injecting a little artistry into what you do. Try rewriting your intro in three or four different ways, coming at it from different angles each time. Try different endings. Different word choice. Different dialogue.
Make it beautiful.
14) “You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.” ― Richard Price
Photo courtesy of Flickr user ambimb
How to Use It: Here's "Show, Don't Tell" again. Only this time we're talking about theme.
Theme is quite a beast. Use too heavy of a hand and you'll make people vomit. Too light, and they'll miss it completely.
Where theme really shines is in specific imagery, actions, and moments in your writing. It's not so much about breathless pontification so much as exploring many different angles of your theme through powerful details.
Do you have spots in your writing where you openly spell out the theme, moral, or lesson? Think about showing us, instead.
15) “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” - William Faulkner
Photo courtesy of Flickr user malias
How to Use It: This has to be one of the most brutal truths about writing that there is. What Faulkner's talking about here is the unavoidable moment in which you have to cut your favorite line, or joke, or description, or plot point from whatever you're writing.
It's bound to happen. Because, ultimately, writing isn't there to look pretty and appease your ego. Every word you write has to serve the goals of the larger piece. If it doesn't, you have to let it go.
Hard as it may be.
16) “You can fix anything but a blank page.” - Nora Roberts
Photo courtesy of the Vernon Area Public Library on Flickr
How to Use It: Starting is almost always the hardest part.
One of the best things I've read about this struggle recently is a piece called "Starting Sucks" by Matt Fairchild. In it, he talks about how ruining things can be a heck of a lot easier than building from scratch:
As I stood there with a blank page bullying me, she walked over and wrested the charcoal from my hand. Leaning over the table, she made one long and noisy swipe, gashing the paper with a thick vein of black that stretched from corner to corner.
“Now go,” she said, and left to help another student.
It worked. With the pristine paper already ruined, I got started. I whittled away the gash, erasing it in parts and adding in others. The thick line drove my composition and lead to idea after idea. The final piece ended up looking nothing like it, but that hardly mattered.
So, if you're stuck staring at a blank canvas, make it unblank. Any way that you can. Then fix it.
17) “Write about the emotions you fear the most.” - Laurie Halse Anderson
Photo courtesy of Flickr user theunquietlibrarian
How to Use It: God, this is good. If you're stuck not knowing what to write about, this is it.
It's not supposed to be easy. Great writing tends to reveal uncomfortable truths. Sometimes about you.
18) "If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that." - Stephen King
Photo courtesy of Flickr user quimby
How to Use It: Stephen King nailed it. If you're having trouble writing or coming up with stuff to write about, maybe it's because you haven't been reading enough.
Reading other great work comes with a host of benefits. It inspires you to achieve great heights with your own writing. It activates your creative mind by stirring up themes, issues, and plots inside your brain. And it teaches you about the craft of storytelling.
You should read the classics, of course, but I'm also a big fan of reading modern published writing to get a better understanding of the current market.
19) “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” - Neil Gaiman
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sam Javanrouh
How to Use It: This is huge: Sometimes, the blank piece of paper is going to win.
No sense in continually banging your head into a brick wall. If it's not happening one day, it doesn't mean you're a failure. Step away. Go for a walk. Spend time with your family. Live your life.
Tomorrow will be a new day.