The creative process can be frustrating, especially when it comes to writing. When you’re early in your writing career, it’s easy to get discouraged. Luckily there’s plenty of great writing advice available from famous authors who’ve established their careers and figured out how to harness their creativity. Check out some of our favorites quotes and writing advice from these successful writers.
In an article for the Guardian, George Saunders talks a bit about his writing process. One of my favorite parts is when he talks about revision and specificity:
Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room….
When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.
Make sure you read the whole article for more wisdom from Saunders.
Fans of the author are lucky, JK Rowling has written an entire article with her thoughts on writing. One of my favorite pieces of advice from her isn’t specifically about the writing process.
Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.
Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?
James Patterson often says he doesn’t give out writing advice, all he does is share what works for him. In an interview with Fast Company he dives into his writing a bit:
I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip. I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you’d feel like “Stop with the description–what’s going on with Haig?” I tend to write stories the way you’d tell them. I think it’d be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that’s my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I’m an okay writer, but a very good storyteller.
He also talks about how using an outline helps his writing process (and helps him be so prolific!):
I’m a fanatic about outlining. It’s gonna make whatever you’re writing better, you’ll have fewer false starts, and you’ll take a shorter amount of time. I write them over and over again. You read my outline and it’s like reading a book; you really get the story, even though it’s condensed. Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you’re gonna get the scene, and you’re gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work.
Make sure to check out more of his advice in the article.
One of the most famous sci-fi writers of the last century, Ray Bradbury wrote hundreds of short stories in an office full of things that inspired him. Much of his writing advice is about finding inspiration and joy in your work. In his book Zen in the Art of Writing, he gives tons of writing advice perfect for aspiring writers. Here’s my favorite bit:
Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, these things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto….
…if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing, a writer should be is–excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches, God knows it’d be better for this health.
One of the most famous writers of our time, Steven King has freely shared his writing advice with fans and aspiring writers in his memoir On Writing. He gets into the nitty-gritty of dialogue, rewriting, and even research. I like his suggestions on writing description:
Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy…. If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.
In a 2015 interview with Daniel Handler, Neil Gaiman was asked what his advice is for aspiring writers. His advice is very straightforward:
Finish things…. “Write” only takes you so far. “Finish things” takes you most of the rest of the way. Write things people want to read. Write things you care about…. I get puzzled and lost when people start asking me questions about what they should be writing for the market or whatever. There is no market–there’s nobody in the whole world of marketing ever would wake up someday and say, “A Series of Unfortunate Events is exactly what the world needs.” … Things like that happen because somebody wants to tell a story and you have an idea and you think you can tell that story better than anyone else.
This is a great reminder for all those writers struggling on first novels or feeling frustrated by the slush process.