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5 Legendary Writers Share Their Writing Advice

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Writers are always looking for the magical formula that will make them wildly prolific and preternaturally talented at the same time. While that’s impossible – the only way to get better at writing is to write... a lot – there are plenty of great pieces of advice and wisdom handed down from literary giants that are worth following. Here are five of our favorites.

1. “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” – William Faulkner

This is both the most counterintuitive and the best writing advice out there. Samuel Johnson put it another way: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Basically, leave out what you imagine to be your best stuff. The rationale goes that if you become overly attached to particularly precious sections, it’s probably the case that those sections are show ponies rather than moments that propel the writing forward. Your “darlings” tend to be over-written and unnecessary. Take them out.

2. “Write drunk; edit sober.” – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway probably meant this advice literally, but there’s an important takeaway even if you’re a teetotaler. There are different mindsets for writing and editing. The act of writing should take place in an altered state of mind, one where ideas are accepted wholesale – even stupid ones – and your inner critic is shushed. Write the way you tell stories when you’re drunk: with abandon and with flourish. Then, come back to the piece and edit carefully, with exactitude and even brutality. 

3. “Bad verb choices mean adverbs.” – Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is a wonderful resource for writing advice. As Dillard puts it, “Did he run quickly, or did he sprint?” The exception to this rule is the word “said.” Unless you are writing Harry Potter books (J.K. Rowling is terrible about this rule), you never need a verb for the words that come out of someone’s mouth other than “said.” If you find yourself using “whispered” or “screeched” or “proclaimed,” go back and rewrite your dialogue. 

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

You might be the best constructor of sentences in the whole world but, especially if you’re writing fiction, no one will care. Readers shouldn’t feel like they are experiencing words on a page; they should be engrossed in the world you’ve created. If linguistic flourishes and long passages of lyricism or description are getting in the way of the experience of your story, rewrite them or take them out. This doesn’t mean that lyrical language has no place in fiction; indeed, many of the best stories and novels are lyrical. It just means that too much over-writing can obscure the relationship your readers have with your characters and plot. It’s important to get out of your own way.

5. “Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.” – W.G. Sebald

Write your own way, and write for yourself. Advice can be helpful, but if you followed every directive you got from famous writers, your own work would be gobbledygook. You do you.

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