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20 of the Most Instructive Quotes About Writing

quotes for writersI’ve been really into writing quotes lately. Many of the posts I write are inspired by great things I read from other authors, so I decided to go on a hunt through my archives and find twenty of my favorite instructive quotes about writing.

There’s so much wisdom to be found in our fellow writers. And because writers are, well, writers, their wisdom is usually framed in incredibly beautiful and eloquent terms.

I hope you enjoy these insights from twenty great minds, covering everything from the specifics of the craft to the challenges of the lifestyle to the power of the calling.

1. Writing When Life Is Busy

I have four kids and my life is very demanding, loud, messy and chaotic. I had to get into these spaces mentally where I was creating and visualizing scenes while cutting vegetables, driving in a car pool or waiting for somebody’s soccer practice to be finished. If I found myself thinking about things that were not really important, I would stop myself and envision a scene.—Julianna Baggott

2. Telling the Truth

The thing that I absolutely live by is you have to tell the truth. I know that sounds very simplistic. But I think that … if you’re enjoying yourself too much and if you’re intruding too much on a character or the voice of a character, [or] if you find that you’re stepping back from that character and that situation and you’re commenting on it–you’re not doing your job. You need to be as true and as empathic to that moment as possible. You can’t be at a remove.—David Margulies

3. Punctuating

I tell my students: If you are a writer, you have more power than the greatest tyrant in the world because of punctuation. You get to tell people how to breathe.—Alicia Anstead

4. Writing Surprising Prose

…think about language by its degree of strangeness…. [I] don’t want the sentences to feel entirely familiar, either. If I find myself describing a character’s eyes, for example, I’m probably going to try to avoid verbs like “glint,” or “sparkle” because those are verbs a reader has seen paired beside “eyes” many times before—maybe so many times that they have lost some of their original power.—Anthony Doerr

5. Creating Dimensional Characters

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.—Robert McKee

6. Finding the Human Story

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.—Willa Cather

7. Separating Theme From Message

Theme is also not the same as message. A message, by my definition, is a political statement. It is a principle that concerns people in a particular situation and is not universally applicable to any member of the audience.—Michael Hauge

8. Separating Verisimilitude From Reality

Is realism what people read novels for? No. A novel must have verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context of the world created by the book. But realism?—William Bernhardt

9. Reading

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.—Lemony Snicket

10. Balancing Humility and Confidence

Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.

The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.—Orson Scott Card

11. Writing to Reveal Not Conceal

…words are a means to reveal, not something to hide behind. One of the great mistakes of writing is to think of it as a way to impress people in order to escape or obscure our own personal shortcomings.—David Corbett

12. Writing From the Subconscious

It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.—Richard Bach

13. Foreshadowing

When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.—Hallie Ephron

14. Filling the Well

[When] your story no longer stimulates you, excites you…. There can be all sorts of reasons. But one of the most common is that you’ve drawn too much from the well without refilling. The well, of course, is your own head. Your brain. Your consciousness. Your imagination. You’ve drained it of things that interest and intrigue you. Or, to put it another way, you’ve used the same story elements too often: the same ideas, the same settings, the same twists and compilations, the same characters.—Dwight V. Swain

15. Writing Even When You Don’t Feel Like It

Before I began to write tonight, I experienced an almost overwhelming loathing for my project. It took sheer will to throw me into that “once upon a time.” I think one main drawback is that I never think it’s going to be good enough, but ours is only the trying & you forsake your vision at the peril of your soul.—Gail Godwin

16. Co-Writing With the Reader

…the book doesn’t only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is.—Paul Auster

17. Preparing the Ending

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.—Kurt Vonnegut

18. Surpassing Talent

Talent, I have long told my students, is the assumptions we make about other people’s abilities that keep us from developing our own.—Barbara Baig

19. Writing Like No One Is Looking

…write without looking over [your] shoulder. Write it as if no one is going to read it. That’s what frees you. If you can stop thinking about critics, and your editor, and whether your book’s going to make it into the Times, and how long it is going to be on the list, I mean, that can totally free you up.—Terry McMillan

20. Writing to Fill the Hole in Your Heart

…I write to fill the hole in my heart. At any given time, all of us have an empty spot, one that is calling for companionship, for example, or for justice, love, romance, or a belly laugh. When I sit down to write, I look to see what hole needs filling at that particular moment. Sometimes that can be painful—but it can’t be ignored. Flat or uninteresting writing often signals something deeper that is being covered up.—Kathi Appelt

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are you favorite quotes about writing? Tell me in the comments!

[Podcast Update: The podcast should be back next Monday! Yay! I’m finally all but over my five-week cold. Thanks for your patience this past month!]

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Oh I especially love the one about humility and confidence XD

  2. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    My favorite writing quote is from the late, great screenwriter William Goldman, author of the incomparable Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” It specifically refers to how no one in power or control understands what movies will succeed, which is a big reason we see the seemingly same 15 movies every year in different clothes, lol; it worked once, maybe it will again.

  3. My favorite quote is from a book about creating advertising spots, but I think it is relative to fiction too.

    “Say something believable. Say something relevant. Be simple. Try not to look like an ad. Open strong. Have one theme. Show, don’t tell. Make sure your idea works fast. Reduce your number of moving parts. Find a villain. Tell the truth and run. Be provocative. Use simple language. Entertain throughout the spot. Leave a picture in the listener’s mind. End dramatically. Don’t suck. And create something so cool you don’t have to pay people to see it.”

    (Luke Sullivan)

  4. These are such great quotes! 😀

  5. Amen to number 7 and 18! I agree with a lot of these comments posted. I wish I had a good quote to share but unfortunately I don’t. Thanks for sharing them though! I

  6. “Flat or uninteresting writing often signals something deeper that is being covered up”

    I’m going to want to hang onto this one. It’s good reminder to not just race to the next plot point, but to dig a little deeper–and when to get out the shovel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely! Here’s to shovels! Something I’ve noticed in my own writing is that if I’m bored at the thought of writing any given scenario, it’s usually because I’m not digging deep enough to be authentic.

  7. Christopher Walker says:

    An oldie but a goodie from Uncle Nietzsche-
    “Good writers have two things in common: they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over acute readers.”

  8. Excellent quotes!

  9. Your quotes are wonderful. I plan to stop and savor each one.

    Here is something I read tonight that resonated with me:

    “Daat is inner wisdom that we know because we know. ,,, The root, or the highest point, of daat is called ratzon. Ratzon comes from a Hebrew root, which means to run, because the ratzon is the source of all movement. All motion begins because we want something.”

    That quote is from a piece by Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David. I’m studying Judaism for my current WIP and feeling fascinated by a very different perspective than my Christian upbringing provided.

  10. Thanks for the great post. Number 10 (balancing humility & confidence) is my favourite. As someone who has more ideas than actual time to write them all down, sorting out the great work from the drivel is a challenge. If it’s simultaneously both then it’s better just to write it down and worry about it some other time. LOL.

  11. Great quotes, thank you. Here’s another gem that certainly spoke to me:

    “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book… The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better… Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” Annie Dillard.

  12. Daniel Tweddell says:

    Thanks for these. I think I’m going to hang them on my wall. Here is one of my favorites…

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

  13. Jeff Flaig says:

    When writing I let the story write itself, and I become the secretary to my thoughts.

    • Jeff Flaig says:

      I said that wrong. It is late. :
      When writing, I let the story tell itself, and I become the secretary to my thoughts.

Trackbacks

  1. […] our self-doubt, Jessica Frances Kane faces the problem of too much metaphor, K.M. Weiland shares 20 of the most instructive quotes about writing, and Clémentine Beauvais ponders: do you think that one day you’ll stop […]

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