The Art of Great Writing Part 2 - 125 More Tips from 20+ All Time Great Writers

Posted on October 25, 2016 By thesuccessmanual Topic: Remarkable, Quotes

In The Art of Great Writing - Part 1, I included advice from George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Heinlein, Elmore Leonard and Stephen King. I am humbled by the response to it, 50000+ pageviews so far. As a token of thanks, here is part 2, including writing advice from great writers including John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, JG Ballard, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, V.S. Naipaul, Truman Capote, Bertrand Russell and more great writers along with tips on the writing business from Seth Godin. Hope you will found this useful.

[ This compilation is inspired by The Success Manual, 600+ pages of compiled wisdom on 125 important traits, skills and activities. You might also want to check out Rules for Writers, a compilation of writing wisdom from great authors and some highly useful books on writing.]

An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
- Benjamin Franklin

Mark Twain's Rules of Writing
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.
8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

An author should
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple, straightforward style.

- Adapted from Mark Twain's scathing essay on the Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper

Anton Chekhov's 6 principles that make for a good story
1: Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature;
2: Total objectivity;
3: Truthful descriptions of persons and objects;
4: Extreme brevity;
5: Audacity and originality (flee the stereotype);
6: Compassion

VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners
1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.
2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

John Steinbeck on Writing
1. I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor."

2. I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances..
3. The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules.
4. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it.
5. The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true

JG Ballard's Rules
1. Self-discipline is enormously important . You can't rely on inspiration or a novel would take ten years.
2. I always prepare a very detailed synopsis before I start writing.
3. I always go for a walk by the river at the end of the day to clear my mind.
4. I wouldn't recommend writing. You can be a successful writer and never meet another soul. I'm not sure that's a good thing.
5. I try to write about 1,000 words a day in longhand and then edit it very carefully later before I type if out.
6. I don’t give much thought to style, which is probably a fault.
7. Yes. I’m not really interested in characterisation, I’m much more interested in psychological roles.
8. I’ve always loved case histories. The sort of things you get in textbooks
9. The fiction is already there. It is up to us to invent the reality - We live in a world of entertainment culture that’s informed by relentless television, hundreds of channels, by advertising, by politics conducted as a branch of advertising, by consumerism as a whole. It’s seen as a reality because people are quite serious about it, but it’s completely devoid of real elements.
10. We are living in a giant novel.

11. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of J G Ballard. [he was a widower]
- Helen Dunmore

Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prose
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
4. Be in love with your life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Write it damn you, what else are you good for?
- James Joyce

Zadie Smith


1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
2. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.

When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.
- Raymond Chandler

Will Self
1. The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement — if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.
2. (I Follow) D.H. Lawrence's practice to write straight through to the end, without going back, and then to read your work and then to rewrite it

Margaret Atwood
1. Hold the reader’s attention. This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.
2. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

What I did have, which others perhaps didn’t, was a capacity for sticking at it, which really is the point, not the talent at all. You have to stick at it.
- Doris Lessing.

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
- Henry David Thoreau

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you’re rewriting a novel you will never be stuck.
- Hemingway

The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.
- Walt Whitman.

A few places are especially conducive to inspiration – automobiles, church – public places. I plotted Couples almost entirely in church – little shivers and urgencies I would note down on the program, and carry down to the office Monday.
- John Updike

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis.”
- Jonathan Franzen

David Hare
1. Write only when you have something to say.
2. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.
3. If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

Non Fiction

HL Menchen

The Mencken Style - My style of writing is chiefly grounded upon an early enthusiasm for [Thomas Henry] Huxley, the greatest of all masters of orderly exposition. He taught me the importance of giving to every argument a simple structure. As for the fancy work on the surface, it comes chiefly from an anonymous editorial writer in the New York Sun, circa 1900. He taught me the value of apt phrases. My vocabulary is pretty large; it probably runs to 25,000 words. It represents much labor. I am constantly expanding it. I believe that a good phrase is better than a Great Truth--which is usually buncombe. I delight in argument. not because I want to convince, but because argument itself is an end.

E.B. White's Writing Tips
1. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other; and he should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style--all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.
2. A great deal of writing is not "plotted"--most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, "Who cares?" Everybody cares. You say, "It's been written before." Everything has been written before.
3. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the faeces out of Lake Erie.
4. A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull"accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
5. (in a letter) You asked me about writing--how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed.

Bertrand Russell's Writing Rules
1. A style is not good unless it is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing.
2. There are some simple maxims-not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me-which I think might be commanded to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.
3. Your writing is never as good as you hoped; but never as bad as you feared.

James Thurber's Rules
1. I admire the person who can write it right off. Mencken once said that a person who thinks clearly can write well.
2. I have never written more than a dozen pieces that I thought could not have been improved. Most writers who are any good have this belief about their work.
3. (On Editing)
Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, "How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?" and avoid "How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?"
- In a 1959 memo to The New Yorker.

Joan Didion.
1. What’s so hard about the first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
2. My writing is a process of rewriting, of going back and changing and filling in. In the rewriting process you discover what’s going on, and you go back and bring it up to that point. Sometimes you’ll just push through, indicate a scene or a character, leave a space, then go back later and fill it in.

Hunter Thomson On Writing
Hunter Thomson reportedly used to copystories from Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck on his typewriter. He said it helped him to develop his own style.

1. A word to the wise is infuriating.
2. If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.
3. I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language - and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.

Truman Capote's rules
1. Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.
2. What I am trying to achieve is a voice sitting by a fireplace telling you a story on a winter’s evening.
3. I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.

Malcolm Gladwell's Writing Rules
1. Put in your time (practice, practice, practice). (aka Gladwell's 10000 hours rule, from his book "Outliers")
2. Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head – even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be. (Preface to preface to What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures)
3. When you write a book, you need to have more than an interesting story. You need to have a desire to tell the story. You need to be personally invested in some way. If you're going to live with something for two years, three years, the rest of your life, you need to care about it. (from A Few Thin Slices of Malcolm Gladwell)

Michael Lewis's Writing Rules
1. I write from memory, as if I were writing a novel.
2. I begin writing - I'll write something, but it won't be the beginning or the middle or the end -- I'm just getting an idea out on the page. Then, as the words accumulate, I start thinking about how they need to be organized.
3. If you wait for that "perfect moment" you're not going to be very productive.

Nobody wants to read your shit…they are just too busy.
…Reduce your message to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.

- Steven Pressfield

The Writing Business

Seth Godin Rules for the Writing Business

1. The No. 1 thing a writer should be doing right now to establish a readership:  Be generous. Spread ideas. Give things away. Write, share and repeat.
2. Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don't expect much.
3. The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you'll need later.
4. Don't try to sell your book to everyone: go after the little micromarkets.
5. Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn't, you wouldn't need a book... you could just email people the text.
6. Blurbs are overrated.
7. Blog mentions, on the other hand, matter a lot.
8. If you've got the patience, bookstore signings and talking to book clubs by phone are the two lowest-paid but most guaranteed to work methods you have for promoting a really really good book. If you do it 200 times a year, it will pay.
9. Most books that sell by the truckload sell by the caseload. In other words, sell to organizations that buy on behalf of their members/employees.

Think Over Your Writing
Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.
- Diana Athill

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially.
- A. Bronson Alcott

Finally, 8 Timeless Writing Rules
1. Start in the middle. [aka In Medias Res]
2. Read a lot, Write a lot, Edit.
3. Show, don’t tell.
4. Write about what you know.
5. Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.
6. Learn to kiss gatekeeper arse; kiss it early and often
7. Most important rule for the 21st century writer: Don't watch more than thirty minutes of TV per day
8. "Whatcha doing in my class? Why aintcha y'all at home writing?" - What a great writer told his writing class students)
[The last 3 rules are from this Guardian story, from the comments]

Related Reading
The Art of Great Writing: 60 Writing Tips from 6 All-time Great Writers

Also Read: The Be Remarkable Series | The Great Books Series

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