The Greatest Writing Advice from the Greatest Writers

In November, we published the top 1o writing tips crowdsourced from DWL fans and members. We thought it would be a good idea to share some writing wisdom from the best writers, too. So here’s a list of top 10 rules we’ve compiled from the writing advice some of the greatest writers and critics have shared over the years.

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.” — Zadie Smith

English novelist Zadie Smith’s advice was part of a series by British newspaper The Guardian to conduct a survey of established writers and find out their 10 rules of writing. Read more of Smith’s rules here.

9

“Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” — Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom) also participated in the same The Guardian survey and offered his own writing advice including the above statement about self-discovery for writers.

8

“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” — Elmore Leonard

No writing course or workshop would be complete without this particular tip from writer Elmore Leonard. In July 2001, Leonard wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” in which he detailed 10 rules he had picked up for writing including the brilliant suggestion for the dialogue verb. As you can imagine by now, his rules have gained legendary status.

7

“The adverb is not your friend.” — Stephen King

King’s advice is from his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Read more about why the great American horror writer does not like adverbs.

6

“Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.” — Joyce Carol Oates

In July 2013, award-winning American author Joyce Carol Oates tweeted her writing tips including this one about the importance of observation and reading.

5

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” — George Orwell

This amazing piece of advice is from Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and The English Language” in which he talks about his plan to fight bad English and the importance of such a fight.

4

“A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ everyday. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?” — Susan Sontag

From Susan Sontag’s journal, this practical suggestion is among several profound and reflective statements from the author.

3

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” — Ernest Hemingway

In his memoirs, Hemingway describes writing the truest sentence you know as a way of dealing with his own writing troubles.

2

“Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” — Kurt Vonnegut

This rule is from Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories, which include some gems on characterization.

1

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

The quintessence of “Show, don’t tell” seems to have originated in the writings of the great Russian playwright and short story writer.

 

For one of the most complete web archives of writing advice and tips by great writers, please visit the running list at BrainPickings.org [link].

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