FEATURE Writing advice from the greats

Sit up! Pay attention! W&P regular Julie Sullivan shares some writing insights for you to think about.


In Chapter 2 of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet addresses his third daughter, Mary: 'What say you, Mary? For you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books and make extracts.'

In spite of this snide mention of 'extracts', I admit that I am one of these people too. I collect quotations, and have accumulated so many good ones about writing, especially for children, that it seems like a good time to share them. 

Roald Dahl's advice about writing for children is among the best: 

The writer... must have a really first-class plot [and] know what enthrals children and what bores them. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort... they love new inventions, unorthodox methods, eccentricity, secret info... 

Your story, therefore, must tantalise and titillate them on every page.

Pixar's rules of storytelling

Henry Miller (1932)

Commandments [to himself]

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material.
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only 
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Barbara Kingsolver

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.

Ursula LeGuin

Thanks to 'Show, don't tell', I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They're afraid to describe the world they've invented....This dread of writing a sentence that isn't crammed with 'gut-wrenching action' leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.

As for 'Write what you know', I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it's a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things...better than anybody else possibly could, so it's my duty to testify about them.

...Women don't have to write what men write about, or write what men think they want to read....Women have whole areas of experience men don't have—and ... they're worth writing about.

Madeleine L'Engle

All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best...I don't think we can consciously put the magic in....I heard Rudolph Serkin give a magnificent performance of Beethoven and the magic was certainly there. Rudolph Serkin's main contribution to it is practicing eight hours a day, every single day.

Grayson Perry

Self-consciousness is crippling for an artist....the ability to resist peer pressure, to trust one’s own judgement, is vital.

Tom Stoppard

It won’t write itself, so write, write something instead of nothing, and then you’ll find it will start to write itself while you’re writing it. 

Margaret Mitchell

I never met that lady inspiration yet and I don't expect I ever will.

Jonathan Swift

Digressions in a book are like foreign troops in a state... and often either subdue the natives, or drive them into the most unfruitful corners.

James Baldwin

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose are not.

Paisley Rekdahl on Twitter

You have to start out believing you're far better than you are in order to actually get better, then age into realizing you're far worse than you are in order to stay good.

Hilary Mantel

[on being asked if she writes every day] What do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?

Max Hastings

My muse was fear of the bailiffs.

Michael Moorcock

To my creditors, who remain a permanent source of inspiration. 

A few more: 

Cornelia Funke on ghost stories

And remember: 

S.F. Said

When you ask people about the books that changed their lives - the ones that really made a massive impact, and have never been forgotten - they will almost always talk about children's books. That's why I think children's books are the most important books of all.


Do you have a good quotation about writing to add? Share it in the comments.


Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer.

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