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How to Write

“If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” —George Orwell

It’s easy to have an opinion without fully understanding why we have it. We experience things and they imprint a certain feeling within us, a feeling we can express with a few words, but that come up lacking when we try to express them at length and with supporting evidence. 

Writing is great way to test your opinions. When you spill your mind on paper you have to structure and elaborate on your ideas, and doing that can make you very aware of where they fall short. Things you thought you knew might not look so good in text, which is great, because it gives you a chance to improve. 

“People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”David Ogilvy

I think we could all do with some more writing. We should learn to express ourselves more effectively. To that end, I thought it would be a nice idea to gather a few writing tips from some of our greatest writers. I hope it will inspire you to write something.

Finding Your Story

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”Ernest Hemingway

“Write about the issues that really upset you.” Chuck Palahniuk

“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.”Rachel Carson

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”Kurt Vonnegut

“It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.”Michael Lewis

Do Your Research

“Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.”A. L. Kennedy

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”P. D. James

“If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.”Neil Gaiman

“Try to be accurate about stuff.” Anne Enright

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Stephen King

Work Hard

“Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.”Charles Bukowski

“Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.”A. L. Kennedy

“Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.”Esther Freud

“Nothing any good isn’t hard.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph.”Roddy Doyle

Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.”Geoff Dyer

“When you don’t want to write, set an egg timer for one hour (or half an hour) and sit down to write until the timer rings. If you still hate writing, you’re free in an hour. But usually, by the time that alarm rings, you’ll be so involved in your work, enjoying it so much, you’ll keep going. Instead of an egg timer, you can put a load of clothes in the water or dryer and use them to time your work.”Chuck Palahniuk

Mundane tasks like clothes washing can come in handy in more ways than one, as Chuck continues:

“Alternating the thoughtful task of writing with the mindless work of laundry or dish washing will give you the breaks you need for new ideas and insights to occur. If you don’t know what comes next in the story… clean your toilet. Change the bed sheets. For Christ sakes, dust the computer. A better idea will come.”

Paper First

In a podcast with Tim Ferriss, Neil Gaiman suggests to first write on paper before copying your work into a computer. Once you’ve scribbled things down on paper, deciding not to type something feels like saving yourself work. If you type first you tend to write everything, and deleting it afterwards feels like wasted work.

“Writing in pencil first gives you one third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter.”Ernest Hemingway

“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” John Steinbeck

The Right Environment

“There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”Stephen King

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Jonathan Franzen

“Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.”Roddy Doyle

Keep it Simple

“Use short sentences and short paragraphs.” David Ogilvy

“‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. … Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’ Kurt Vonnegut

“Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no ­inessential words can every essential word be made to count.”Diana Athill

“Never use a long word where a short one will do” & If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.George Orwell

“Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”Arthur Schopenhauer

Sound Like You

“No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.”Kurt Vonnegut

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.” David Ogilvy

The Audience

“Forget your generalised audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader.”John Steinbeck

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”Kurt Vonnegut

“Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself.” T. S. Elliot

“Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.” Joyce Carol Oates

Getting Feedback

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”Neil Gaiman

“Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.”David Hare

Know When to Stop

“Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.” Neil Gaiman

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” Anne Lamott

“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish … then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” John Steinbeck

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Published in Connecting the Dots

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