99 Quotes About Writing by the World’s Greatest Writers

By C M Taylor

Have you ever wondered what advice your favourite author would give to a debut writer? Here are 99 quotes from some of the World’s most successful writers! Enjoy.

The quotes and aphorisms gathered together below range across more than 2,000 years of the practice of the craft. Within these quotes you will find agreement on what constitutes good writerly practice, but you will also find a decent slice of disagreement. One writer plots it all out, right down to the finest details before embarking, while another writer could not begin to work if they knew beyond the next scene. One writer works out meticulous biographical histories of their characters, for another writer it is enough to close their eyes and picture their subject.

Some of these quotes below contradict or dispute each other. That’s deliberate. That’s fine. Many ‘story gurus’ or ‘formula writers’ might wish you to believe that their approach to story is the one, that they have cracked the secret and if you follow their approach – and buy their book – your work will be bestselling. But writing is not like that.

There are many ways to arrive at the same destination. If there were one single successful approach then literature would be all the poorer for it. The application of formula to practice tends to make results more formulaic. The resulting work would be samey and bland.

What are offered below are tools not rules. If a quote strikes a chord with you then think about it, use it. If the quote intuitively offends how you wish to proceed with your work then you are entitled and right to discard it. It is not right for you – someone has offered you a hammer when you need a spade. Only you will know when you read something and think, ‘That’s it! That’s what I’ve been looking for.’

Each writer must collect the twigs to build their own nest and no nest is the same. Don’t feel anxiety because you disagree with Anton Chekov’s approach, or Colette’s approach. What made them Chekov and Colette will not make you into you.

Rejoice in the venerable writers and quotes below, enjoy, relax and I hope you find some twigs for your nest.

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Good writing

Here’s a diverse collection of musings and advice on what makes good writing from many of the best practitioners who have trod the path before you. See if any ring your bell.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King (about)

“Write quickly and you will never write well; write well, and you will soon write quickly.”

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (about)

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekhov (about)

“Sooner or later every writer evolves his own definition of a story. Mine is: A reflection of life plus beginning and end (life seems not to have either) and a meaning.”

― Mary O’Hara (about)

“Comparisons deplete the actuality of the things compared…”

William S. Wilson (about)

“A good story is a dream shared by the author and the reader. Anything that wakes the reader from the dream is a mortal sin.”

Victor J. Banis (about)

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

― Mark Twain (about)

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
William Faulkner (about)

“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

― C.S. Lewis (about)

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

E. L. Doctorow (about)

“Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.”

Robert McKee (about)

“Good writing is like a windowpane.”

George Orwell (about)

“In good writing, words become one with things.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (about)

“All good writing leaves something unexpressed.”

Christian Nestell Bovee (about)

“I believe that writing is derivative. I think good writing comes from good reading.”

Charles Kuralt (about)

“It may be observed of good writing, as of good blood, that it is much easier to say what it is composed of than to compose it.”

Charles Caleb Colton (about)

“The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself… alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

William Faulkner (about)

“Good writing can be defined as having something to say and saying it well. When one has nothing to say, one should remain silent. Silence is always beautiful at such times.”

Edward Abbey (about)

“You do an awful lot of bad writing in order to do any good writing. Incredibly bad. I think it would be very interesting to make a collection of some of the worst writing by good writers.”

William S. Burroughs (about)

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

Roald Dahl (about)

“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.”
Richard Price (about)

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”
G.K. Chesterton (about)

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Thomas Jefferson (about)

“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

Ray Bradbury (about)

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne (about)  

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.”

Voltaire (about)

“It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.”

T.S. Eliot (about)

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

― Stephen King (about)

“Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”

Grace Paley (about)

“What is the essence of the art of writing? Part One: Have something to say. Part Two: Say it well.”

Edward Abbey (about)

99 quotes from famous writers

Character

How can collections of words on a page approximate to the living, breathing complex ambiguities that people present in real life? Every writer knows it’s a tough job to even try, but that try we must…

“Let’s face it, characters are the bedrock of your fiction. Plot is just a series of actions that happen in a sequence, and without someone to either perpetrate or suffer the consequences of those actions, you have no one for your reader to root for, or wish bad things on.”

Icy Sedgwick (about)

“The one common thread in all of the books that are falling apart on my shelf? Characters—flawed ones with desires and needs who spend most of the story tripping over their weaknesses in an effort to get what they want.”

Becca Puglisi (about)

“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”
Joss Whedon (about)

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

Ray Bradbury (about)

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.”
Milan Kundera (about)

“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!”

Anton Chekhov (about)

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

― Kurt Vonnegut (about)

“Fictional characters are made of words, not flesh; they do not have free will, they do not exercise volition. They are easily born, and as easily killed off.”

John Banville (about)

“Everyone here seems to have some weird secret or other.”

Iris Murdoch (about)

“When I am writing, I’m very much on the ground, on the same ground my characters are treading.”

 Graham Swift (about)

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away. ”

Kurt Vonnegut (about)

“Action, reaction, motivation, emotion, all have to come from the characters. Writing a love scene requires the same elements from the writer as any other. ”

Nora Roberts (about)

“The real story is not the plot, but how the characters unfold by it. ”

Vanna Bonta (about)

“My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. ”

Harold Ramis (about)

“Almost all great writers have as their motif, more or less disguised, the passage from childhood to maturity, the clash between the thrill of expectation and the disillusioning knowledge of truth. ‘Lost Illusion’ is the undisclosed title of every novel.”

Andre Maurois (about)

Plotting

A plot is just a string of events, sure, but if it reads like just a string of events then your book is dead in the water. Here, a range of writers offer advice about how make your events meaningful to keep readers turning the page.

“A lack of narrative structure, as you know, will cause anxiety.”

John Dufresne (about)

“What I’ve learned about writing is that sometimes less is more, while often more is grander. And both are true.”

Richelle E. Goodrich (about)

“The novel cannot submit to authority.”

Julian Gough (about)

“Of course, the writer can impose control; It’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however… that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.”
Stephen King (about)

“I once tried to write a novel about revenge. It’s the only book I didn’t finish. I couldn’t get into the mind of the person who was plotting vengeance.”

Maeve Binchy (about)

“Character is plot, plot is character.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald (about)

“… plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

Grace Paley (about)

“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

Ursula K. Le Guin (about)

“What monster sleeps in the deep of your story? You need a monster. Without a monster there is no story.”

Billy Marshall (about)

“Don’t resist the urge to burn down the stronghold, kill off the main love interest or otherwise foul up the lives of your characters.”

Patricia Hamill (about)

“An author must learn the principles of good storytelling only in order to write better from the heart. ”

Uri Shulevitz (about)

“The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.”
Blaise Pascal (about)

“[T]he success of every novel — if it’s a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “What are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. ”
P.G. Wodehouse (about)

99 quotes from famous writers

Editing

You spend the whole first draft being delighted at getting more words down on paper, then as soon as you’ve finished you spend the next few months trying to take word out. As all writers know, editing is a tough game…

“If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what’s left.”

Alexander Mackendrick (about)

“The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang.”

Annie Dillard (about)

“Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counselling 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?”

James Thurber (about)

“No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.”

J. Russell Lynes (about)

“The best advice on writing was given to me by my first editor, Michael Korda, of Simon and Schuster, while writing my first book. ‘Finish your first draft and then we’ll talk,’ he said. It took me a long time to realize how good the advice was. Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix.”Dominick Dunne (about)

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

H.G. Wells (about)

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Shannon Hale (about)

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”

Don Roff (about)

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Colette (about)

“Whatever in a work of art is not used, is doing harm.”

C.S. Lewis (about)

“I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.”

George Saunders (about)

“Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (about)

“It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained.”

Diana Athill (about)

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Blaise Pascal (about)

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

― Colette (about)

“No iron can pierce the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time.”

Isaac Babel (about)

99 quotes from famous writers

Inspiration

Whoever you are, no matter how motivated or disciplined, sometimes the well is dry. Here’s a collection of quotes from other writers that might help to get the wheels turning again.

“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.”

Philip José Farmer (about)

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London (about)

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

― John Steinbeck (about)

“Write what should not be forgotten.”

Isabel Allende (about)

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”

Alan Wilson Watts (about)

“One should use common words to say uncommon things”

Arthur Schopenhauer (about)

“He asked, “What makes a man a writer?” “Well,” I said, “it’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge.”

Charles Bukowski (about)

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

Octavia Butler (about)

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann (about)

“Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things–childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves–that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”

Salman Rushdie (about)

“The difference between real life and a story is that life has significance, while a story must have meaning. The former is not always apparent, while the latter always has to be, before the end.”

 ― Vera Nazarian (about)

“A good writer refuses to be socialized. He insists on his own version of things, his own consciousness. And by doing so he draws the reader’s eye from its usual groove into a new way of seeing things.”

― Bill Barich (about)

“Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.”

 ― George Orwell (about)

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

― Henry David Thoreau (about)

Motivation

Writing relies hugely on internal resources and personal fortitude and whoever you are you’ll have days when those things are in short supply. Here’s some wisdom to help keep the fires burning…

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

― Robert Hughes (about)

“Writing is about resilience and faith. Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

Cheryl Strayed (about)

“Art is only the means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.”

Henry Miller (about)

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Robert Frost (about)

“There is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments—moments of sustained creation—when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.”

E.B. White (about)

“A writer who is a pro can take on almost any assignment, but if he or she doesn’t much care about the subject, I try to dissuade the writer, as in that case the book can be just plain hard labor.”

Sterling Lord (about)

“A novel takes the courage of a marathon runner, and as long as you have to run, you might as well be a winning marathon runner. Serendipity and blind faith faith in yourself won’t hurt a thing. All the bastards in the world will snicker and sneer because they haven’t the talent to zip up their flies by themselves. To hell with them, particularly the critics. Stand in there, son, no matter how badly you are battered and hurt.”

Leon Uris (about)

“Writing is a manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.”

John Gregory Dunne (about)

“Never ever forget that you enlisted in the ranks – you weren’t press ganged or drafted. Nobody owes you anything – least of all respect for your work – until you’ve earned it with what you put on the page.”

T.F. Rigelhof (about)

“Before I start a project, I always ask myself the following question. Why is this book worth a year of my life? There needs to be something about the theme, the technique, or the research that makes the time spent on it worthwhile.”

David Morrell (about)

“Work like hell! I had 122 rejection slips before I sold a story.”

 ― F. Scott Fitzgerald (about)

“Since I became a novelist I have discovered that I am biased. Either I think a new novel is worse than mine and I don’t like it, or I suspect it is better than my novels and I don’t like it.”

― Umberto Eco (about)

“I can’t blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I’ve spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds. I did it before the Internet, and I’ll do it after the apocalypse, assuming we still have helium and weak-gripped children.”

Colson Whitehead (about)

There we have it, 99 quotes from some of the World’s most successful authors. What did you think? Have you got any memorable quotes of your own? Head over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know!

C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). He’s also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which was filmed in 2014 and premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival, and he continues to be commissioned to write scripts for TV and film. C M Taylor also works with Jericho Writers as a book editor.

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