Great Writing Advice from Great Writers

writingbookspicStraight from Jo’s bookshelf, here are some time-tested pieces of advice (in no particular order) from great writers on the writing process, and why we should approach it with care:

•”If you don’t think cheaply, then there at least won’t be the quality of cheapness in your writing . . . Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.”—Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners

•”How do you find those telling details, the earned fact, and then convey them? It involves two opposite sets of skills. While reporting, you must lose control so you can accumulate the facts. While writing, you must exert maniacal control over those facts. You begin by being laid-back and hanging out. Take the great inhale so that when you exhale, you will have among your notebooks that detail that conveys so much, so economically. Weave that detail into the warp and weft of your hard facts.”—Katherine Boo, “Difficult Journalism That’s Slap-Up Fun” in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers Guide from the Nieman Foundation

•”An artist is a nourisher and a creator who knows that during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not create alone.”—Madeleine L’Engle, “Icons of the True” in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

•”The only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community, to be oneself part of the community, and then to serve the work, without giving the community another thought. Then the work will endure, because it will be true to itself. It is the work that serves the community; the business of the worker is to serve the work.”—Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” in Letters to a Diminished Church

•”Begin with whatever gives you the impetus to begin: an image, a fantasy, a situation, a memory, a motion, a set of people—anything that arouses your imagination. The job is only to get some or all of this into words able to reach and touch an unknown, unseen somebody ‘out there’ known as the Reader. You must plunge into it. And you must do it now.”—Stephen Koch, The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop

•”Creativity is like an impish spirit. It is a magician, a prophet, a shape changer. You’ll think you’ve got the plot figured out. Then all of a sudden your writing brings you to a door that you’re fool enough to open, and there’s a whole room of unforeseen stuff that you must deal with now. Get used to this. The wonder of the creative life is that it is connected to a spiritual life in which forces besides you are operating.”—Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life

•”Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. ‘Up’ in ‘free up’ shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”—William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

•”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 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, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life