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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. I would have thought #12 was for pantsers not outliners. If you let the story write itself, you haven’t got an outline to guide when you get lost. I think that’s what having an outline does for your story. Otherwise you don’t know where you’ll go or end up. I suppose it can be re-worked during editing, so no big deal.

    • I took that bit of advice to mean not over-thinking each sentence. I have an easier time editing than getting my initial ideas down and sometimes it’s hard not to go into edit-mode right away instead of getting the scene down so I have something TO polish. If you worry too much about getting every word right before the words are there, it can freeze you up.

      • I agree, Grace!

      • I also agree with Grace. Per Jeff Vandermeer in his (awesome) book entitled Wonderbook..we have both creative imagination and technical imagination…the latter being the editing which we should hold off on so our creative imagination can do it’s thing..but it is So hard to resist the temptation torto edit!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think it applies equally to plotters. For me, stories must come to me. The outlining process is not about *creating* the story, but rather just organizing what my subconscious has already given me. When I try to create from nothing, I usually end up “faking it,” like I talked about last week.

  2. Jack Bannon says:

    Thank you for the encouragement. I’ve felt many of these sentiments myself and wondered if other writers felt them. As I aspire to become an author, it’s nice to see that the really great ones feel many of the the same emotions that we neophytes do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Quotes from fellow writers are some of the most encouraging things in the world. 🙂

  3. “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

    Pablo Picasso

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That makes me think of this quote, which I also love: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  4. Missy Ive says:

    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

    I still don’t understand this quote by Kurt Vonnegut! He also states ‘too hell with suspense’ in another quote. How can there be surprise endings or twist endings when you have this mind set?

    • Sandra Wright says:

      I think the quote about foreshadowing is connected here. If you have foreshadowed well enough, even the best twist can be puzzled out by taking the time to think about it. All the elements are there, waiting to be put together. The twist or surprise is having your perspective shift to see all that information differently. It was all there. Therefore you could write the ending if cockroaches ate the last few pages. It might just take some thinking to get there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think he necessarily means that the reader would finish the story in exactly the way the author would, but rather that there would be enough grist and enough subtext for the reader to feel their way to their own satisfying finale.

    • Patrick says:

      I think it is meant to mean that the reader must never feel completely lost as to what is going on. If cockroaches eat the last few pages, the reader might not know your ending but could come up with their own. However if they have no clue what is going on, then they can’t even fathom an ending. To surprise the reader with your ending they had to first formulate their own. Even suspense has the reader perhaps hoping for a specific ending but doesn’t know if or how it will come to be. Suspense is useless if your reader has lost the plot.

  5. I liked the idea of writing surprising prose. I can see myself getting into the grove of writing about glittering eyes and all that. This quote has made me think that I should add a bit to what I am trying to write to avoid this pitfall. For instance, I tend to describe colours using the basics of the rainbow. Boring! So I’ve been looking around for words that express colours in a fresh way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      IMO, colors are the magic ingredient when it comes to description. They are an insta-visual that immediately brings life to whatever you’re describing.

  6. I love writing quotes and have blogged about heaps on zoeticwords.com

  7. #19 – The last thing I worry about when I’m writing is whether my work will be on some critic’s list, or how long it will remain there.

  8. Peter Buxton says:

    A more famous Buxton than I, Charles Buxton, is a good source of quotes for me. I am writing a children’s book and this quote of his is most appropriate:

    ‘The first duty to children is to make them happy. If you have not made them so, you have wronged them. No other good they may get can make up for that.’
    Charles Buxton (1822-1871)

  9. 19 is powerful.
    I look at Reddit r/writing and so many posters are worried what the “are allowed to write”.
    Ladies and gentlemen just write.

  10. I always want to hang all the writing quotes on the walls around my desk! To fit them all though, the font would have to be too small to read…

  11. Joan Kessler says:

    Oh, number 12! And also number 16. I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of written text as a means of connecting on a most intimate level, the reader taking the writer’s consciousness off the page and into her awareness where it mingles with her singular perspective amid the fireworks of neurons.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s an incredibly shared experience. We take it for granted because it happens every day, but really it’s an almost spiritual melding of the minds.

  12. Advice I try to write by, which has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “Write as well as you can, and finish what you start.”

  13. #1 and #15 are so true, yet also so hard! Write when life is busy, and write even when you don’t feel like it. If you wait until you’re “not busy” and when you “feel like it,” your whole life could pass by with you writing nothing! I try to remind myself of those often… Just write something!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For the last couple years, life has not made it easy for me to write. There’s often a voice in my head telling me to just wait until circumstances are again conducive. But I know I must keep on, every day if possible, or I will lose something precious. I particularly liked those quotes as well.

  14. Thank you for an encouraging, informative, and inspirational set of quotes. I particularly like #19 too. Get rid of that critic until it’s time to edit. 🙂

  15. Ray Vel says:

    I feel like #18 is something that everyone should think about more. So many people will say “oh wow, he/she has talent! I could never do that.” in reality, the person they’re admiring started out like anyone: really bad at whatever they’re doing. Everyone starts there! Yes, some may learn quicker than others, but the real key is PRACTICE. You may be more inclined toward something, but it takes PRACTICE to get good at it. I firmly believe there is no such thing as talent. The best thing to remember is ‘PRACTICE MAKES YOU BETTER BUT NOT PERFECT’.

  16. “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” – Neil Gaiman

    A reminder that even my favorite authors are challenged to do the thing they love.

    And, related to the Terry McMillan quote, this one is from Ernest Hemingway: “Write drunk, edit sober.”

    Write freely and without restraint. Edit with a calculating mind and a red pen ready to make the page bleed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “That easy and that hard.” I’ve always appreciated the simultaneous simple complexity that Gaiman summed up in that quote.

  17. Thanks, Katie. I’ve got a vault of quotes, too, but these I haven’t heard and I’ve transcribed a few and saved them to a folder of my w.i.p. “You have to tell the truth.” Ouch. That one should be painted on the wall of my office. Here’s one of my long-time faves: “We don’t write to explain; we write to find out.”

  18. Shay Daly says:

    Two quotes from Seamus Heaney

    ‘I’ve always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward.’

    and

    ‘The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here.

  19. KM: thanks for all this! Hope you Feel Better Fast… Sending Reiki, use it if you like.

  20. Ellen Oliver says:

    Left the comment above..hope you’re up and running asap.

  21. Kelly L. says:

    “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

    Way better than show, don’t tell.

  22. #19 really speaks to me. I get so hung up on the future of the book that I freeze and don’t get any writing accomplished. I think I will put a post-it near my laptop that says, “Write like no one is reading.” 🙂

  23. Andrewis*still*editing says:

    Some tremendous quotes in there.

    13. Foreshadowing – yes, brilliant

    17. Preparing the Ending – in my experience, most often the cockroaches have eaten the first few pages, and I’ve come in on the story too late to figure out what’s happening (talking my real-life TV and stuff experience here, not my writing)

    19. Writing Like No One Is Looking – I very much need to do this. I’ve been paralysed on the next project because of how I know people will judge it. I need to harden up and just do it.

    20. Writing to Fill the Hole in Your Heart – that’s tough. I’ve done this, in the past, but the last week has revealed to me that it’s only ever a pipe dream, and here in the real world that hole will never be filled. Which makes writing to fill the hole almost a form of self-abuse (as the old folks used to call it).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Regarding #19, something I’ve consistently found helpful is to tell myself that no one *will* read it. I write it for myself–and then it usually turns out that I’m brave enough to share it after all.

  24. Diana Delacruz says:

    I loved #9: Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. Isn’t that the truth?! 🙂 #14 Filling the Well is so very important also, as is #20 Writing to Fill the Hole in Your Heart. We write to be filled, and we can’t write unless we ARE filled! It seems like a cycle…and reading books is probably what makes it all go around for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a beautiful cycle! And I’ve definitely found that when I’m not reading, my well isn’t full.

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