What 50 Famous Authors Want Us to Know About the Writing Process

50 Famous Authors

Before hunkering down and hammering out the agony and the ecstasy that will launch you to literary stardom (and probably a Nobel Prize), it might be a good idea to try and see what your predecessors have to teach about the craft. Not everything they share will necessarily stick, given the nature of writing, but opening yourself up to the possibility of inspiration can only improve your output. Explore some of the following quotes, and, of course, the context from which they hail, and see where they might take your art.

  1. “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  -Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

    Honestly, this advice could apply to authors across the gender and gender-identity spectrum. But when Virginia Woolf published her seminal book-length essay, it stood as a strong feminist statement empowering fiction-writing women who wanted to succeed despite the odds.

  2. “If we can’t understand it, then it’s formidable. And we understand very little. We don’t understand the weak nuclear force, galaxy formation … so one should be humble.” – Martin Amis, interview with Prospect, Feb. 1, 2010

    The London Fields author considers his closed-minded and rigid peers, particularly those with absolute opinions regarding religion, “crabbed.” He advises a more all-embracing outlook and enough self-awareness and humility to admit that you might not always get your facts right.

  3. “I’m not advocating disobedience to authority in general — because that doesn’t necessarily lead to anything  — but knowing the difference between your own intelligence and somebody handing you a set of things you should believe. It’s important to understand their motivations, their intentions, where those beliefs derive from and then having a set of questions to make sure that what they give to you is equally important and meaningful to you.” – Amy Tan, interview with Academy of Achievement, June 28, 1996

    Rebellion and questioning propels literature and other creative pursuits, but they ultimately yield empty results when only posed for posing’s sake. Bestselling brain behind The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan believes the best writers know how to make the distinction between genuine establishment challenging and its more self-congratulating counterpart.

  4. “The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen.” – James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” Creative America

    Both artists and writers, according to the celebrated author behind the revealing Go Tell It on the Mountain, are responsible for serving as mouthpieces for social commentary. Without them, the insight necessary for change cannot take place.

  5. “It never gets easier; it’s always hard, it’s always a test. I’ve reached a point in my life where if a sentence seems easy, I distrust it.” – Amitav Gosh, The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2009

    Acclaimed authors always seem to make the whole penning and publishing thing seem effortless, but in reality the process is painfully, sometimes cripplingly, grueling. Amitav Gosh of The Glass Palace and Sea of Poppies fame thinks readers and writers should realize just how grueling the literary arts can be — and that they’re really in for a nasty shock if they think hammering out manuscripts will get better with experience.

  6. “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” – Stephen King, On Writing

    Quite possibly the most intense anxiety an author in any medium, any genre will face is his or her own anxiety about launching a brand new project.

  7. “… I kind of look around and see what’s going on and take it a few steps further.” – Octavia Butler, “‘Devil Girl From Mars’: Why I Write Science Fiction”

    One of the most groundbreaking writers in the science fiction genre considers an openness to education (formal or not) and the ability to synthesize ideas from real-life scenarios essential to the creative process. This advice quite obviously transcends the science fiction and fantasy genres.

  8. “Out of the neglected riches of this dream the poet fetches his wares. He dips into the chaos that underlies the rational shell of the world and brings up some superfluous image, some emotion dropped by the way, and reattaches it to the present object; he reinstates things unnecessary, he emphasizes things ignored, be paints in again into the landscape the tints which the intellect has allowed to fade from it. If he seems sometimes to obscure a fact, it is only because he is restoring an experience.” – George Santayana, “The Elements and Function of Poetry”

    Poetic types will no doubt find this lyrical distillation of their craft an at once romantic and realistic depiction — and one they might very well find inspiring when the words just don’t seem to properly flow.

  9. “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “8 Rules for Writing Fiction,” Bagombo Snuff Box

    All of Kurt Vonnegut’s straightforward bits of writerly advice offer something to the reader, but they obviously lean more towards the fictitious end. His very first tip, however, applies to pretty much every medium and genre out there.

  10. “I think the philosophy training, four years of reading really dense, difficult things, where the statements, the information packed within these words is not so obviously stated, but it’s available if you know how to dissect it…that’s been very useful in doing the type of comedy that I find myself doing and doing the type of writing that I find myself doing, which is reinterpreting the world and restating some things that people may be loosely aware of but with your own additional twist and perspective and joke.” – Baratunde Thurston, interview with Stay Out of School, April 18, 2011

    What makes comedian, political commentator, and of course writer Baratunde Thurston so piquant doesn’t exclusively come from a terrifically enjoyable philosophy class. But it still led him to realize that the most effective works come when tweaking and perceiving the world in some interesting, insightful new ways.

  1. “Writing fiction is like being a god.” – Sharnush Parsipur, interview with Pars Arts, Jan. 2, 2008

    God complexes are never not gauche, but this controversial Iranian author certainly makes a point about the role fiction writers play in their own imagined worlds. Just keep the deity play to the page and not real life.

  2. “If you try hard to listen, to like them, to love them, then their stories become interesting. Everyone has his own story.” – Haruki Murakami, University of California at Berkeley, Oct.10, 2008

    Despite stemming from a discussion of the nonfiction work Underground, this soundbite from one of the world’s preeminent postmodernists encourages writers to pay close attention to the people around them; they just might inspire all kinds of interesting tales.

  3. “I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.” – David Mamet, interview with The Art of Theater, Spring 1997

    Whether whipping up plays, screenplays, or something else entirely, writers should always keep asking themselves what they want readers and viewers to carry away from their works.

  4. “I like a certain amount of randomness. The truth, in my opinion, is unavoidably strange.” – Zadie Smith, Tufts University, March 27, 2012

    All of Zadie Smith’s novels, from White Teeth to On Beauty, stay firmly grounded in reality. She doesn’t feel the need to include anything fantastic, as she thinks the world as we know it is crammed with enough oddities.

  5. “You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again…When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love.” – Ernest Hemingway, interview with The Paris Review, Spring 1958

    This famous discussion with one of America’s most beloved writers yielded numerous points of advice for aspirant authors. One of the more useful snippets warns against using up too much creativity and ideas in a single sitting.

  6. “And though the rewriting — and the rereading — sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of ‘literature’ in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit.” – Susan Sontag, “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed.” The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2000

    Reframing the often nerve-shattering process of editing manuscripts and pieces as a wholly refreshing — even invigorating — necessity certainly makes it far more palatable! Keep Susan Sontag’s words in mind when painstakingly changing your work starts growing a little too overwhelming.

  7. “… what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes — yet one writes not what one would like to write but what one is able to write.” – Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse

    Long-standing writing advice posits reading as a fundamental activity for anyone hoping to see their work land on the shelves, and one of the most celebrated Argentine writers of all time eloquently summarizes why.

  8. “Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.” – Jeanette Winterson, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” The Guardian, Feb. 19, 2010

    Don’t jump into a writing project expecting to wind up on bestseller lists and showering in Pulitzers and Bookers and Nobels. Write because you have something to say and want to share with the world; you’ll be a whole lot happier keeping that in mind as the end.

  9. “Keep human! See people; go places, drink if you feel like it.” – Henry Miller, Henry Miller on Writing

    Work hard, but don’t allow it to completely swallow up your entire existence. Considering how notoriously difficult creative industries are to break into, getting entirely lost in a project proves far too easy sometimes.

  10. “Most writers have certain things that they decide quite consciously, and other things they decide less consciously. In my case, the choice of narrator and setting are deliberate. You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations. But I leave quite a large area for improvisation after that.” – Kazuo Ishiguro, interview with The Paris Review, Spring 2008

    The details may change, but most writers’ processes typically follow the structure Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day author Kazuo Ishiguro outlines and subsequently illustrates, using himself as an example.

  1. “As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same thing as ‘being a writer.’ Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.” – Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

    In keeping with the importance of humility, wannabe writers need to know their limits — some might just not work out in a commercial or literary sense, and they have to face that possibility and try anyways. Alternately, this quote makes an excellent rebuttal when your parents start complaining (and if they aren’t complaining, they’re thinking about complaining) about how you shouldn’t even bother because the industry is flooded with others just like you.

  2. “i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

    – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

    Like all of the arts, writing’s core tenets are often far more flexible than composition teachers will admit without a few drinks in them. No less than George Orwell himself stuck to this tenet when crafting classics such as Animal Farm and 1984.

  3. “… the rhythm thing is important, that you have to just get into the rhythm of it and not get out of it. Because you can’t just jump back in — it will take you several days if you break the stride.” – Salman Rushdie, interview with About.com, March 3, 2009

    Every writer’s rhythm differs, but the consequences of letting it fall away remain pretty much the same across the board. Try to work in an environment conducive to keeping up the pace as long as possible.

  4. “As a teacher I realize that what one learns in school doesn’t serve for very much at all, that the only thing one can really learn is self understanding and this is something that can’t be taught.” – Laura Esquivel, interview with Salon, Oct. 4, 1996

    Through novels such as Like Water for Chocolate and The Law of Love, Laura Esquivel hopes her readers will learn a little something about the tenderer emotions out there and slough off “social rules that do not pertain to them.”

  5. “I perceived that to express those impressions, to write that essential book, which is the only true one, a great writer does not, in the current meaning of the word, invent it, but, since it exists already in each one of us, interprets it. The duty and the task of a writer are those of an interpreter.” – attributed to Marcel Proust

    Michelangelo often considered his lush sculptures as already sitting inside blocks of marble — all he had to do was free them from their rocky prisons. Centuries later, the reclusive, celebrated author of In Search of Lost Time is said something similar about the art of novel writing.

  6. “The successful novel, on the other hand, has a shape much like a bell. We begin at the top of the bell, its tight curve. Every detail has purpose here: the way a woman tilts her head, the slant of light as one exits the subway, the repetition of a phrase. As soon as we have gained our bearings, we notice things beginning to open up, flaring outward the way a bell does.” – Chitra Divakaruni, “New Insights Into the Novel? Try Reading 300.” The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2001

    After downing 300 books while sitting on the National Book Awards judging committee, poet and novelist Chitra Divakaruni took painstaking notes on what makes a great read great. Keeping this particular form in mind might help current and future writers better plan their literary output.

  7. “… in all my books, [every single line] has a starting point in reality. I provide a magnifying glass so readers can understand reality better.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Conversations with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ed. Gene H. Bell-Villada

    Regardless of whether or not a writer hopes to utilize this Nobel recipient’s signature magic realist style, he or she might benefit immensely from keeping with his advice about staying grounded in familiar concepts. Giving readers something to relate to maintains their interest and attention.

  8. “I try to change my superstitions with each project. Working in fountain pen is good because it slows me down just enough to keep my handwriting legible. Often I use two pens with different coloured ink, so I can tell visually how much I did each day.” – Neil Gaiman, interview with Time Out London, Oct. 5, 2006

    Sometimes, even established writers like to experiment and mix things up in their own writing processes — so never fear experimenting with new strategies!

  9. “If something is on my mind, writing-wise, I have do it and do it in the instant. I have to at least put down a first draft. Otherwise, I am so afraid I will lose it … Writing is also the way I process things and when I am done with a piece I feel a lot closer to understanding the subject.” – Edwidge Dandicat, “Junot Diaz.” BOMB, Fall 2007

    Ideas almost always prove so fleeting and immediate that writing them down as soon as they materialize is a very popular bit of advice.

  10. “Still, in the very fact that people will recognize me wherever I go, and know all about my life, as far as its follies go, I can discern something good for me. It will force on me the necessity of again asserting myself as an artist, and as soon as I possibly can. If I can produce only one beautiful work of art I shall be able to rob malice of its venom, and cowardice of its sneer, and to pluck out the tongue of scorn by the roots.” – Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”

    The great Irish wit had plenty of to say of writing (and pretty much everything else) but his essay-length letter from his stint in Reading Gaol reflected a renewed sense of urgency. He considered success a way to take revenge on his critics and a way to refresh himself after incarceration.

  1. “Much of contemporary art today is about branding. You see this a lot in visual art, where the painter will create many works of art that look the same. It’s because they know that kind of work sells. In fiction you see this happening a lot as well. But that can be a death trap for writers, just putting out what they think readers want to read. I could never do that. I need to make sure I’m always engaging my reader as well as engaging myself with new material. Think of it this way. My kids want candy for breakfast, but I know it’s not good for them, so I don’t give it to them. When I write, I know I have to write for a reader, but it’s important for any writer to also write for themselves. Will I write about some of the same themes? Sure, but I won’t do it in the same way.” – Mat Johnson, interview with TINGE Magazine, Spring 2011

    Never fear repeating concepts, but make sure to tweak them each appearance to make them fresher and offer up a different perspective. And, of course, make sure to do so in a manner that pleases you in addition to your audience; many writers do not find pandering a satisfactory strategy.

  2. “I would say that the main favor I ask of the serious critic is sufficient perceptiveness to understand that whatever term or trope I use, my purpose is not to be facetiously flashy or grotesquely obscure but to express what I feel and think with the utmost truthfulness and perception.” – Vladimir Nabokov, interview with The New York Times, April 23, 1971

    For the Pale Fire, Lolita, and Pnin scribe, veracity reigned as far more important than ostentatiousness and shock tactics common to far too many writers. Strive for authenticity and honesty in your work. The words will probably flow easier that way, too!

  3. “Quality is always more important than quantity. This is true for everything. Even if you write only one line in your life, if it stays in someone’s mind forever, it is satisfactory.” – Banana Yoshimoto, interview with Bookslut, August 2005

    We so often mistake prolificacy and verbosity as indicative of talent, so it’s important to always keep this age-old maxim of simplicity and conservation in mind when starting a new literary project.

  4. “Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.” – E.B. White, interview with The Paris Review, Fall 1969

    Yes, you’re going to experience your lazy moments when you’d rather be “straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor” than sitting down to that poem, essay, novel, short story, or play. Don’t let minor distractions completely override productivity, but don’t chastise yourself when they happen, either.

  5. “At the end of the day I feel like the office should be a battlefield with my blood splashed across the keyboard, dripping from the monitor.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, “Bleeding on my Keyboard”

    Like a method actress, Laurell K. Hamilton of Anita Blake fame throws a piece of herself into every one of her popular protagonist’s adventures. Not every writer will necessarily forge this deep empathic connection with their characters, which isn’t a good or bad thing, but rather a matter of personal preference — although those who do should know they aren’t alone.

  6. “… I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn’t have the vocabulary to say ‘paragraph,’ but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me.” – Sherman Alexie, “Superman and Me.” The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, ed. Michael Dorris

    Reading and writing come inextricably intertwined, and harkening back to the magic and wonder of experiencing words for the very first time might prove a fertile starting point when seeking inspiration.

  7. “I don’t have any theory of rhetoric, but what I have in the back of my mind is that one should not try to persuade; rather, you should try to layout the territory as best you can so that other people can use their own intellectual powers to work out for themselves what they think is right or wrong. For example, I try, particularly in political writing, to make it extremely clear in advance exactly where I stand. In my view, the idea of neutral objectivity is largely fraudulent.” – Noam Chomsky, “Language, Politics, and Composition.” Interview in Journal of Advanced Composition, 1991

    Never talk down to your audience, in other words, and don’t use political writing as persuasive writing. Assume nonfiction readers are smart enough to glean your meaning and be straightforward about your beliefs so they don’t assume you’re trying to subtly brainwash them.

  8. “Different books arrive in different ways and require different strategies. Most of the books that I have written have been questions that I can’t answer. In order to actually put down the first word — I don’t really have a plan — I sometimes have a character, but I can’t do anything with it until the language arrives.” – Toni Morrison, interview in Time, May 7, 2008

    Practice flexibility in your writing process, as rigidity might hinder progress; going with what feels natural earned Toni Morrison both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize in Literature, after all.

  9. “The point is getting it all down, even if it’s crap or incomprehensible to anyone but you, so you can see it outside your own head. And then you can start adding to it. Expanding it, putting new layers on it, winding a new plotline around it, moving bits of it around. Just get it down.” – Warren Ellis, “Rough Work”

    Editing exists for a reason. What matters more than immediate coherence is making sure ideas hit the paper or screen as quickly as possible.

  10. “This me that is you, for I cannot bear to be simply me, I need others in order to stand up, giddy and awkward as I am, for what can one do except meditate in order to plunge into that total void which can only be attained through meditation…What troubles my existence is writing.” – Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

    In the preface to one of her most well-received modernist novels, Clarice Lispector attributed her literary success to the classical composers whose music placed her in the calm, reflective state necessary to get writing done. Plenty of writers, famous and nonfamous, find this technique an absolute essential.

  1. “I never could get too much out of classes except discipline. I had to have papers in on time, but with my fiction, I just sort of did it. I couldn’t just change one section because then the whole thing would unravel.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, “Stories and Their Tellers – A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko.” The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States, ed. Dexter Fisher. Reprinted in Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko, ed. Ellen L. Arnold

    You don’t have to major in English or creative writing in order to pen and publish great literary works. Just get your ideas out there and weave together intricate stories from them, which each word building off the ones that came before.

  2. “Even if I work very little, I work every day. It’s not work: it’s a style of life.” – Marjane Satrapi, interview with The Telegraph, Dec. 12, 2004

    Make writing part of your daily routine and, over time, it’ll become easier and easier to sit down and get productive.

  3. “Good writers are often amazing actors, I think, because they’re very good at dialogue … One good way for — and I always tell this to my students — is to read it out loud after you’ve written something.” – Gary Shteyngart, interview with NY1.com, Aug. 30, 2010

    Many a famous and obscure writer consider reading out loud an excellent way to check for flow as well as spelling and punctuation errors. For even more input, wrangle in a trusted friend to help out.

  4. “And the nice thing about writing a novel is you take your time, you sit with the character sometimes nine years, you look very deeply at a situation, unlike in real life when we just kind of snap something out. And it allowed me to be more generous than me the person. The author is always much more compassionate than Sandra Cisneros the human being.” – Sandra Cisneros, interview with News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Oct. 15, 2002

    Poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros explains how her writing process nurtures far more empathy for characters than she experiences in real life. She believes this phenomenon results from being able to chew over fiction for years and years and years rather than forced into improvisational situations.

  5. “When I first met Joyce, I didn’t intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. When I found I simply couldn’t teach. But I do remember speaking about Joyce’s heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That’s what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn’t go down that same road.” – Samuel Beckett, interview in Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett: A Centenary Celebration, ed. James and Elizabeth Knowlson

    While not necessarily explicitly about the writing process, one of Ireland’s most celebrated playwrights notes how integral inspirational people and mentors can be when launching a literary career.

  6. “In the writing of novels there is the problem of how to shape a narrative. And though the search for new ways of telling goes on – I’ve written about this at terrible length – I don’t think there are going to be any new discoveries. For one thing, literature is not a science. There is no new formula.” – Gore Vidal, interview with The Paris Review, Fall 1974

    Literary experiments are grand, but writers will just have to understand that it’s entirely likely that what they try may have already been tried before. Just relax. You might not write anything groundbreaking, but you can still write something great.

  7. “Our salvation, to the extent that we have one, will come out of people realizing the crisis of our species and of the planet and offering their deepest dream of what’s possible.” – Alice Walker, interview with Writer’s Digest, Aug. 31, 2010

    This beloved Pulitzer recipient is another proponent of the writing arts as a window into reality, encouraging authors to push humanity towards positive change.

  8. “The way I write is, I listen to things in my head and then I copy them down. I memorize conversations and things like that; I seem to be able to do that pretty well. I suppose in that respect there’s some improvisation, although I work over the stuff after I’ve got it down on paper.” – Harvey Pekar, interview with Random House

    Slice-of-life underground comics form the bulk of Harvey Pekar’s most popular writings, but he actually enjoyed quite a career as a jazz critic as well. Here, he analyzes the role music may have played in shaping his writing process and style.

  9. “Write something every day. Sit for a few minutes, and write the word of the day.” – Maxine Hong Kingston, interview with Sonshi.com

    Another quote from the enormous cadre of respected authors who swear by dedicating at least part of the day to writing — although she goes so far as to suggest that only one word still equates to productivity. Many a fellow practitioner of the literary arts will obviously quite appreciate this sentiment!

  10. “You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write. I think each writer has her or his secret path to the muse.” – Maya Angelou, interview with O: The Oprah Magazine, April 2011

    Maya Angelou sums up the writing process better than anyone — in most ways, it’s completely subjective and reliant on the comfort levels and creativity of the writers themselves. Amazing snippets of advice no doubt exist, of course, but in the end there is no genuinely “one size fits all” strategy.

* Today’s article by www.onlinephdprograms.com

1 reply

Comments are closed.