Some Savvy Writing Advice from Famous Authors

Now that I’ve posted a number of quotes from famous authors on the writing craft that I disagree with, to redeem myself, I am going to share some great advice from other famous authors that I heartily agree with. Last week, I talked about the need for writers to develop their intuitive response to their own writing in order to assess whether any advice (or criticism) given should be heeded. Everyone is subjective, and so each person will react to a particular piece of writing differently.

It’s often difficult for writers to stand back and see the flaws in their story, and not every bit of advice is going to be right on. In fact, a lot of advice from even the smartest, well-meaning, and honest critique partner can steer us wrong. It’s up to each writer to get in touch with that place inside that confirms or convicts regarding the wisdom of the advice given.

In a Multitude of Counselors There Is Wisdom

If you’re not sure some specific advice is right on, and your body just isn’t “telling you” one way or another, you can usually bet that if more than a few test readers or critique partners point out the same issue in your manuscript as being problematic, they are probably onto something. There may be numerous ways to fix that problem, though, and again—you need to go with the solution that feels right to you. Be open and receptive to ideas, but own your story.

So now I’m going to share some tips from famous writers that I think are great. You are free to disagree. But hopefully some of you will see the wisdom in these words. May they encourage you in your writing journey!

  • “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write. Simple as that.” ~ Stephen King. I’m a big advocate for reading. This is huge to me. Writers should read a lot and widely. They should read different genres, not just the one they are writing in. Read with an aim of learning technique and craft. Highlight passages (if you don’t mind desecrating books) and take notes on how the writer achieved some effect that impresses you. Jot down vocabulary words you like and want to use. See how a great writer balances narration, backstory, dialog, action. View reading as your homework assignment, unless you are just reading to relax and escape (and that is important to do at times). Discovering a great book is like unearthing a rare gemstone. Don’t miss the opportunity to study it carefully and understand why it’s such a great book. Sometimes the most brilliant books seem like they were effortlessly written. They weren’t. And by desconstructing or taking scenes apart one by one, you can get to the craft underlying the magic.
  • “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page a day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” ~ John Steinbeck. I totally relate to that feeling of surprise every time I finish a novel. I ask, “How in the world did I get here? How did the end come so quickly?” To a new writer, the idea of writing an entire novel is daunting. Instead of letting the hugeness of such an endeavor stymie your creativity, take it one page at a time, one scene at a time. My husband used to say this to our daughters when they were overwhelmed with a big school project they had to tackle: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Break the elephant down into bite-sized bits. Steinbeck’s advice of ignoring the finish line is a great way to psyche yourself out. Set small goals for yourself when you sit down to write. My goal is often to write one scene. I pick up the index card for the scene I next need to write and I write that, however long it takes. If I get it done sooner than expected, I might write another scene or two. And then I’m very satisfied with my day’s work. Somehow, after a number of weeks, I’m on that last scene and I write “The End.” It really happens.
  • “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created—nothing.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I’m a stickler for genuine, unique characters. One of the most common flaws I see in the manuscripts I critique and edit is the lack of originality of characters. So many are stereotyped and shallow. Real people are complex, contradictory, confusing and often confused and conflicted. If you want some tips on how to create some really original characters, read my posts on the topic here and here and here.
  • “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” ~ Herman Melville. Okay, some of you are going to disagree with this. Some people write some great novels without any themes running through them. Some novels, as I’ve discussed in past posts, are written solely for fun and entertainment, and that’s perfectly valid. But if you want to write a compelling, unforgettable novel or short story, you really need a theme or two. Themes elevate your story from basic plot to deep significance. Melville’s Moby Dick proves the truth of his advice. The themes evident in that novel have made it a classic for more than 150 years. Want your novel to become a classic that stands the test of time? Go big with theme. For more thoughts on infusing your novel with themes, read this post and this one.
  • “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ~ Robert Frost. This is all about putting your passion into your writing. I recently wrote some posts on this topic here and here.
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” ~ William Faulkner. A lot of great writers advise you turn off your internal (infernal) editor and just write. You will never become a great Ping-Pong player like Forrest Gump if you never pick up the paddle and hit a lot of balls. Practice may not always make perfect, but it does make better. Not surprisingly, Getting good at writing requires you actually write. Journaling can be a great way to let the writing juices flow if you are having trouble with that critic on your shoulder. If you know what you are writing may never be seen by anyone else, you often give yourself permission to be creative and go a bit crazy. Sometimes magical things happen when you let loose your creativity. Freewriting in the voice of a character just for fun can often reveal neat things about your character and his voice you never expected. Trust that your subconscious has a lot of chops. You need to let it out of its cage from time to time. This has proven great advice to me.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts on great writing advice. Maybe you have a few gems of wisdom about writing you’d like to share with other authors. Let’s hear them! Maybe what works for you will work for someone else. And someday, if you become super famous as an author, you can give out pithy advice that others will follow. Hopefully, though, they’ll follow it because it works for them.

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  1. Agree with all of them, but the idea that you have to read like crazy doesn’t work for me. To be a great mechanic, you don’t have to drive lots of different cars all the time. To be a great doctor, you don’t have to try all the different diseases out on yourself. To be a great priest, you don’t have to sin widely and often. Driving doesn’t make one good at fixing engines. Being sick does not make one an expert on becoming well. And sinning does not make one pious.

    Reading IS important, but I think the devotion to “voracious” reading is the worship of a false idol. Read really outstanding books and study them. Understand what makes them great. I think it’s far more important to dive deep into good writing and contemplate it than to just read lots and lots and lots of stuff.

    1. Hi Peter, I believe a writer should read a lot. Most great teachers will say that. And a great doctor needs to be up on a lot of wide medical knowledge. She might be a specialist in a field, but needs to know a vast array of knowledge about medicine and physiology. A car mechanic can’t just know one kind of car, but to be a good diagnostician should be well “versed” in lots of different cars. Only reading one genre truly limits a writer. You can glean so much from reading other genres. Don’t read a lot just to read a lot but to learn new things, techniques, approaches, ways of constructing dialog, creating worlds, developing voice and style.

  2. Susanne …. I follow your writing posts regularly, and always find them helpful, and sometimes genuinely amusing. Loved this one, as each one of your suggestions seems relevant to the “polishing” of my nearly completed novel. But unlike Peter Dudley above, I particularly resonated with the one on reading. I don’t think a literary fiction writer needs to read sic fi or horror, but if you don’t read widely in your own or related genres, you are missing out on a lot of potential inspiration.

    Thanks, and keep this series coming!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I actually disagree though with your disagreement. if writers only read one genre, even if the one they want to write, they are limiting their world. So much can be gleaned by a foray into other genres–character developments, plot structure and concept, use of language. Reading widely is excellent advice given by many writing teachers. And if you only ate apples your whole life, you would never know what a peach tasted like.

  3. I particularly like the Frost quote. I’m happiest when my books surprise me because then I know they’ve truly come alive. I cry regularly when re-reading them, which has always been a good sign to me. Great post!

  4. It’s always good to read your posts. I also disagree with Peter Dudley (above). I think reading is absolutely essential to writing…and it should cross genres, too. Read mainly your interest, but read some of what else is out there. You shut yourself off from ideas and character developments. His only point I CAN agree with is about reading outstanding books, and study them. The only problem I see with his outlook is: who decides what is outstanding?

    1. Hey, I think it is GREAT to read lousy books. Why? Because what doesn’t work stands out and can teach us a lot! I make it a point to read some really awful books–well, at least a few chapters. You don’t have to pay for the delightful experience, as you can usually read a portion with a Look Inside on Amazon. What is interesting to me is some of these horrible books are best sellers in their genre. A person could emulate that bad writing and probably sell a lot of books. Many people do it. But really, it is good to read some badly written books at times to study what went wrong and how you might have done better if you had written that scene.

  5. I especially agree with Faulkner’s quote. I tend to switch projects a lot, because I get stuck a lot. As long as I keep writing, even if it’s something that’ll never be published, or just a blog essay about watching all 23 James Bond movies in order, it’s still SOMETHING, and that is better than nothing. Keep that Muse on her toes! My standard goal is 1,000 words a day, so any week I put up more than 10,000 words is a good week. My all time record was 45,000 words in one week, but I don’t expect to do that often while I still have the day job. Pity, that. Still, it adds up amazingly if you keep at it, and quantity has a quality all it’s own, even if a lot of it is not for publication. I just crossed the 900,000-word mark for just the background info on my fantasy setting (, and as I read back through a lot of it, fixing the many many errors, it still impresses me to have compiled so much, and more, the research required to get it all straight. No wonder I have no spare time.

  6. I agree – read great books, read lousy books, and dissect why they did or did not work. If they are best-sellers in their genre, figure out why. Even if the writing mechanics are bad, maybe the voice is real and compelling. There’s always something to learn.

    Thank you for the article!

  7. I like a lot of what you say. The thing that fizzes me right off is this “send me your first fifty and I might get back”. I mean how many great writers have a soft start? Ignoring the incredible first scene in Bleak House, even Dickie had a soft next fifty! Or maybe these grapes are going a bit sour over here? Anyways I’ll plug on because everyone who gets past fifty, tells me they loved the read!

    Stay lucky,


  8. Great post. Thanks. Was it Mark Twain who said the three keys to writing were (1)write (2)write and (3)write. But he also read a lot too.

  9. I think there is wisdom in all of these. Thanks for sharing! It is nice to be affirmed in what we are doing right and challenged to do what we should.

    I am a new author; I just fineshed my first fiction noevel but I am still editing and using feedback from beta readers. My biggest challenge is time. I want to be writing and editing, but I also know I should be reading to study how others build characters and develop plot. With a full time job I feel like I can’t do it all. I hope someday to get to a point like S. king where my writing is bringing home the bacon!


  10. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I agree wholeheartedly! As a Christian non-fiction writer, this statement resonates so deeply within me. After all, you can hardly expect your readers to feel something you did not feel when writing your book.
    Great job

  11. I do not agree with the Steinbeck quote, at least for me. I start with (in my mind) a character in a mentally visualized scene with an understood situation background, a theme to go with that background (Strongly agree with Melville) but I also have visualized a scene either at the end, or, if I decide to kill that character off near the end, that scene, and I have a firm reason, consistent with the theme, why he must die. I think you have to know how the book will end, at least in general, before you start, because on a journey you can really only get to somewhere if you now where it is.

  12. Thanks for pointing out to the the fact that writers should read a lot. Actually we do, but I have the feeling we just don’t read different genres. I personally end up reading always about business and about the stuff I am writing. I think one should not confuse with reading to learn with reading to change your scope and get inspiration.

  13. I agree with everything that everybody has said here 🙂 except –
    The one argument that left me cold was the suggestion not only to read widely but to dissect and study and analyse the writings of favourite authors.
    No indeed. What is most important to any writer is his/her own unique voice.
    Know what works for you in your readings, but when you write, say it YOUR way. Sometimes when I’m editing my stuff I find blah sentences, and I may rework one line eleven different ways until it flows, until it is clear as glass, until that metaphor is no longer an absent-minded cliché, but new and precisely right for the situation of that moment.
    My best compliment came when a friend said that in her head she heard my voice reading my novel to her – while she was reading it.
    VOICE is what makes a writer unique. Not another writer’s voice, but one’s own. I think the best way to find your own writer’s voice is to sit down and talk to the blank page. Just talk in writing. Then when you finish the first draft, go back and clean it up while retaining that original voice.
    MOO. (My Opinion Only)

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