Hemingway on writing; “as a writer you should not judge. You should understand”

No one could say Hemingway lived a half-life. He enlisted as a World War 1 ambulance driver, was a foreign correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War, was present at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, kept six-toed cats at his house in Key West, married 4 times and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. His back catalogue includes A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls as well as a trove of advice to writers (er, don’t drink as much?). I particularly love the advice he gave in his acceptance speech:

For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”

We can all hope.


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Jack Kerouac on writing; “be in love with yr life”

He gave us On the road and Big Sur, but Jack Kerouac’s technique for modern prose are really lessons on life. Er, number 3, “Try never get drunk outside yr own house” is brilliant. As a list, they’re a little less prosaic than other authors’ techniques and harder to decipher as a result. “Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea” is prose itself, while “Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind” is what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it? And here’s one for everyone, “You’re a Genius all the time”. If Jack says it, it must be true. Right?


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Henry Miller on writing; “work on one thing at a time until finished”

In the 1930s when working on Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller set down his work commandments, which later went into his book on writing. He seems a little schizophrenic in his instructions.”Keep human. See people, go places, drink when you feel like it” is a little contradictory to “Write first and always. Friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.” It sounds like he was always trying to focus – “work according to program and not according to mood” but – “forget the program when you feel like it. But go back to it the next day.” Hilarious. He was right of course. Starting a book is easy. Finishing it is the hard part.


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“Mad Man” David Ogilvy on writing; “write the way you talk. Naturally”

In 1982, the original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy sent a memo to all his advertising agency staff declaring that “woolly people write woolly memos, letters and speeches” and “good writing is not a natural gift”. So there’s hope for us all, eh? He laid down some pointers that are just as useful to writers as to ad men, notably, to “write the way you talk. Naturally” and “to use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs and never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification,attitudinally, judgmentally.” He deemed them hallmarks of a pretentious ass. And he reminds us all of that age-old pearl of wisdom, “never send something on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.” Maybe just as useful for anything we write, whether it’s our burning bestseller or a note to our Mum.


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Zadie Smith on writing; “work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet”

I love Zadie Smith’s rules of writing, which first appeared in The Guardian, because most of them are just so bloody practical. Her most famous novel White Teeth appeared on Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list (how many have you read?) and it’s really good advice, particularly the part about the internet. Most writers could do with using it for watching YouTube a little less… well, I could at least.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.


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John Steinbeck on writing; “abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) offered a lot of advice to aspiring writers, like this from 1963 or to his son on falling in love from 1958. Author of classics such as Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath (which won him the Pulitzer), he offered writers six invaluable tips on writing when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. They’re just as useful today. Continue Reading

Elmore Leonard on writing; “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it”

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) opens this new series of “writers on writing”. Known for crime fiction and thrillers, many of which became Hollywood movies (Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and 3:10 to Yuma), he published his 10 rules of writing in the NY Times which were canonised by writers everywhere. Gritty and realistic, he took liberties with grammar, told it as it was, and firmly believed that “using adverbs is a mortal sin”. Continue Reading