If you could give a budding writer only one piece of advice, what would it be? Below are some of the most well-known and talented writers of our time who tackled the question.
Writing Advice from the Greats
The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.
—J. K. Rowling
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written . . . Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.
Above all else, the writer has to be a good reader. The kind that sticks to academic texts and does not read what others write (and here I’m not just talking about books but also blogs, newspaper columns and so on) will never know his own qualities and defects.
If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling.
A Different Perspective: You Don’t Have to Write Every Day
If you’ve had a bad writing day, or if you’ve been struggling with your writing recently, I found this article by Cal Newport to be a reassuring read. I think Newport’s point of view is an important counter to Stephen King’s (who says you absolutely have to write every day).
In the end, the goal of advice should be to help you figure out what works for you, not what works for someone else.
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Reading is a vital part of a writer’s job – it’s just as important as the writing itself. If you’re struggling with your work (especially with your voice or style), pick up a good book and soak it in.
A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen topflight authors every year.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his daughter
If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source . . . Dogen, a great Zen master, said, “If you walk in the mist, you get wet.” So just listen, read, and write. Little by little, you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice.
– Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I always advise children who ask me for tips on being a writer to read as much as they possibly can. Jane Austen gave a young friend the same advice, so I’m in good company there.
– J.K. Rowling
*Photo by Magdalena Roeseler @ 500px / CC BY
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I recently read and enjoyed Brandilyn Collins’ Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. In her book Collins explains how the method acting theory can help writers create interesting, original characters. She doesn’t advocate going to extremes (like Christian Bale when he lost a third of his bodyweight for The Machinist or Robert DeNiro when he paid a dentist $20,000 to ruin his teeth for Cape Fear), but she offers helpful ways to flesh out three-dimensional characters beyond the typical, bland advice of “keep a journal for your character.” She titles her seven secrets:
- Action Objectives
- Coloring Passions
- Inner Rhythm
- Restraint and Control
- Emotion Memory
If you want to take your character development to the next level, check out Getting into Character.