Have you ever wondered how famous writers make such beautiful words flow from their pens (or their word processors)? Do they know some special trick, or use some clever technique? What separates them from the rest of us? In this article, I’ll show you what some of the most well-known writers of the century have said about how writing is done. You might be surprised. You might be inspired. If nothing else, though, you’ll have a fun and semi-excusable way to procrastinate before you get back to work on that essay you’ve been avoiding.
People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
– Harlan Ellison
Great writers say the quality that differentiates successful writers from unsuccessful ones is hard work, not innate talent. Those less experienced in writing may attribute the skill of more-experienced writers to some magic knack, but in reality, skilled writers are skilled because they have worked at it for longer. They have honed their ability over the years through long, hard work. And anyone has the potential to do the same, whether they want to make a career out of writing, or just to become a better writer in their chosen profession.
I write nearly every day. Some days I write for ten or eleven hours. Other days I might only write for three hours. It really depends on how fast the ideas are coming.
– J.K. Rowling
A good writer writes regularly but senses and adapts to conditions. If you can tell that the ideas just aren’t flowing at a particular time, because you’re tired or your mind is on something else, it’s okay to take a break and come back to it later. However, it’s important not to make this an excuse for procrastination. If you do give yourself a break when the ideas aren’t flowing, the flipside is that you need to put in more time when the ideas are flowing, to make up for it. Take full advantage of the moments when you’re in your most productive state of mind. Find your own natural rhythms and follow them; don’t try to fight against them.
[The young writer] must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph.
– William Faulkner
Faulkner exhorts writers to learn to cut ruthlessly. An old saw commonly heard from writers is “Kill your darlings.” This isn’t an invitation to murder, but rather a reminder that writers often have to let go of passages that they are fond of, simply because those passages don’t fit well with the rest of the piece. A writer must be coldly unsentimental about his or her own writing.
Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
– Ernest Hemingway
By “architecture,” I think Hemingway is referring to the aspects of a piece that are critical to its construction, such as focus (Is the main point of each paragraph clear, as well as the overall argument of the paper? Is everything relevant to the argument?), organization (Are ideas grouped into paragraphs with clear main points? Do the paragraphs give us the pieces of the argument in a logical order?), and development (Is there enough evidence and analysis to justify your claims?). In the writing world, we refer to these kind of things as “higher-order concerns”—higher because they are more important to the success of the piece, in the same way that the structural integrity of a building is more important than the color of paint chosen for it. Writing is not mainly, or even largely, about moving words around or choosing the right words. The quality of a piece of writing depends more upon the larger structural concerns than on small, superficial flourishes like using a more sophisticated vocabulary word.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
– Anne Lamott
This is one famous writer’s conceptualization of the stages of the writing process. The first phase is about generating ideas; the second phase is about honing and refining those ideas; the third phase is about fine-tuning the details through sentence-level editing. While every writer has his or her own different methods within each of those phases, most follow some version of this basic progression. It’s only logical—you don’t put the finishing touches on before you’ve explored and refined all your ideas—or, using Hemingway’s idea, you don’t decorate a space before you’ve built it. If your ideas change, then you’ll have to do the finishing touches AGAIN.
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is; they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have; they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.
– George R.R. Martin
At first glance, this quotation might seem to contradict Hemingway’s and Lamott’s, but on closer examination, I don’t think they are in disagreement. Hemingway emphasizes deeper structural issues over more superficial concerns, and Lamott recommends starting with those deeper concerns. Martin, however, is talking about two different ways of composing. Some writers work better by planning out a piece using tools like outlines or conceptual maps before they draft. Other writers work better by drafting the piece without much planning. For this kind of writer, the first draft functions as a kind of brainstorming exercise—they need to write it out to see what they really want the piece to be about. After drafting, though, they will still have to go back and check that the “architecture” of the piece is sound—that it has a logical structure, ample development, clear focus, etc. Even “gardeners” need to become “architects” at some point—it just comes later in the process for them.
You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.
– Stephen King
Giving a draft time before you come back to it to edit is important. To approach a piece of writing with the ruthless editing mentality, it’s helpful to allow yourself to gain some distance from it. This means that you need to start working on a piece of writing early, far before the due date, to give it time to sit before you begin to revise it. Not only will you be able to see the piece’s flaws more clearly, you’ll also be able to see its strengths more clearly. That’s why King says it can be an “exhilarating” experience. You may come back to it and be surprised by what you managed to get down.
The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.
– William Faulkner
Even famous writers feel their writing doesn’t match up to the vision they have for it. One of the paradoxes of writing is that the better you become at it, the more ambitious your vision will become, so that it always seems like you are falling short. It makes sense that skill and ability follow vision, being dragged along behind it. This is an unfortunate but also heartening fact about writing. Once you realize this, you can let go of perfectionism and create something that’s the best approximation of the vision you’re able to achieve at this time. And whatever that is, if you truly gave it your best, you should be proud of it.
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
– Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci was primarily a visual artist, not a writer, but his quotation speaks to writers just as well. The quality of a piece of writing has no ceiling—the more you work on it, the better it will become. There is no such thing as a perfect work of art. At some point, the writer needs to say it is “good enough” (according to her own personal standard, or to satisfy an external standard or deadline) and stop working on it.
Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.
– Orson Scott Card
While Orson Scott Card was presumably talking about fiction, his words apply to other kinds of writing as well. I think the point is that the best writers are the most observant people, the ones who pay close attention (to texts, to lectures, to everyday experience) and notice interesting things about their subject.
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people's parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
– Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Famous writers experience dissatisfaction with their efforts and undergo emotional ups and downs while they are writing. Writing is a struggle for everyone; if it feels easy, you’re not doing it right. Even a writer as brilliant as Virginia Woolf struggled with feelings of inadequacy. Recognize that thoughts like these are a normal byproduct of the difficulties of composition, and then tune them out and get back to work.
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March 01, 2016