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Becoming a Better Writer

By Mona Dirtu


Writers' thoughts about their craft. Some advices may work great for you, too.

Mona Dirtu — storyteller-at-large

Added by Mona Dirtu: “If you’ve read Henry Miller, you’ll find it hard to imagine his severe daily routine. Here are his 11 commandments, devised while working at Tropic of Cancer. The most surprising one seems #4: "Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!". Can you imagine Miller stopping at the appointed time?

1 Henry Miller: Work according to program and not according to mood; stop at the appointed time

by Maria Popova "When you can't create you can work." After David Ogilvy's wildly popular 10 tips on writing and a selection of advice from modernity's greatest writers, here comes some from iconic writer and painter Henry Miller. In 1932-1933, while working on what would become his first published novel, Tropic of Cancer, Miller devised and adhered to a stringent

Added by Mona Dirtu: “John Steinbeck’s list. He thought you should write freely and as rapidly as possible and never correct/rewrite until you have thrown everything on paper - “rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on”.

2 John Steinbeck: Do not rewrite while writing

by Maria Popova On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice. If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we've been right on course with David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers. Now comes John Steinbeck - Pulitzer Prize winner,

Added by Mona Dirtu: “It’s all about respecting readers, Vonnegut says. We should remember this every minute we spend writing.

3 Kurt Vonnegut: Have the guts to cut

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who died in April 2007 at the age of 84, was one of the most playfully distinctive stylists in modern American literature. He also had some useful stylistic advice to pass along. In 1982, Vonnegut wrote a short piece for the International Paper Company titled simply, "How to Write with Style." He begins the essay by

Added by Mona Dirtu: “Some college girl sends Fitzgerald her latest short story. Fitzgerald sends back a brilliant letter, delicately explaining what’s missing from her prose. The story is agreeable, Fitzgerald says, but the writer is not there, in her prose. How can you touch others if you’re not ready to bleed yourself into your story?

4 F. Scott Fitzgerald: You’ve got to sell your heart first

by Maria Popova "Nothing any good isn't hard." What is the secret of great writing? For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. For Henry Miller, about discovery. Susan Sontag saw it as self-exploration. Many literary greats anchored it to their daily routines. And yet, the answer remains elusive and ever-changing. In the fall of 1938, Radcliffe College sophomore Frances

Added by Mona Dirtu: “One of the best advices I've ever got: if you watch something - anything - “find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement”, Hemingway says. “Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had”.

5 Ernest Hemingway: Practice watching & listening. Don’t judge. Understand.

by Maria Popova "As a writer you should not judge. You should understand." Ernest Hemingway has contributed a great deal to the collected advice of great writers, from his famous admonition against the dangers of ego to his short and stellar Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But some of his finest wisdom springs to life in this excerpt from his 1967

Added by Mona Dirtu: “George Orwell identifies four main motives for writing (he talkes about prose, but I think they apply to any creative endeavor). Here they are: 1. sheer egoism; 2. aesthetic enthusiasm; 3. historical impulse; 4. political purpose. Is there a fifth?

6 George Orwell: So why do want to write, anyway?

by Maria Popova "All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery." Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest short-form feats is the 1946

Added by Mona Dirtu: “My favourite from Nietzsche: “The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses”.

7 Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writers

“Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.” More than a century before Elmore Leonard’s ten r

Added by Mona Dirtu: “Insights from thirty-five years of teaching creative writing. "Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader's mind - vividly, forcefully - that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn't".

8 Good Writing vs. Talented Writing

by Maria Popova "Talented writing makes things happen in the reader's mind - vividly, forcefully - that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn't." The secrets of good writing have been debated again and again and again. But "good writing" might, after all, be the wrong ideal to aim for. In About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and

Added by Mona Dirtu: “My favourite advice from this list is not an advice. "You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write", says Saul Bellow. I guess he's right.

9 Advice on Writing from Modernity's Greatest Writers

by Maria Popova What sleep and plagiarism have to do with the poetry of experience and the experience of poetry. I recently stumbled upon a delightful little book called Advice to Writers, "a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights," originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what

Added by Mona Dirtu: “Supertistions, weird techniques, and......

10 The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

by Maria Popova Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic. Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines - sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public

11 Famous Writers' Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized

by Maria Popova The early bird gets the Pulitzer ... sort of. "In both writing and sleeping," Stephen King observed in his excellent meditation on the art of "creative sleep" and wakeful dreaming, "we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives." Over

12 William Faulkner on Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life

by Maria Popova "The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost." When The Paris Review launched in 1953, it revolutionized the art of the interview. Over the decades that followed, the revered publication offered unprecedented glimpses of literary history's greatest minds, which yielded such timeless

14 Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews

by Maria Popova "A writer's work is the product of laziness." Jorge Luis Borges is the most celebrated and influential Latin-American author of the twentieth century, his literary legacy resounding loud as ever and exuding far-reaching philosophical reverberations. In 1972, when Borges was in his seventies and completely blind, a bright and earnest young Argentinian man of letters by the

15 Charles Bukowski on Writing and His Crazy Daily Routine

by Maria Popova "Writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money." The latest addition to this ongoing omnibus of famous writers' advice on the craft comes from none other than Charles Bukowski - curious creature of proud cynicism and self-conscious sensitivity, of

16 Freud on Creative Writing and Daydreaming

by Maria Popova "The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real." "Writing is a little door," Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. "Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won't come through." Sigmund Freud - key figure in the making of consumer culture, deft architect of his own myth, modern plaything - spent a fair

17 Herman Melville's Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life

by Maria Popova "A book in a man's brain is better off than a book bound in calf - at any rate it is safer from criticism." After my recent exploration of how the sleep habits of famous authors affected their creative output, I found myself revisiting a decade's worth of notes and marginalia on the daily routines and odd

18 10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy

by Maria Popova "Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints." How is your new year's resolution to read more and write better holding up? After tracing the fascinating story of the most influential writing style guide of all time and absorbing advice on writing from some of modern history's

19 The Art of Thought: Graham Wallas on the Four Stages of Creativity, 1926

by Maria Popova How to master the beautiful osmosis of conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary, deliberate and serendipitous. In 1926, thirteen years before James Webb Young's Technique for Producing Ideas and more than three decades before Arthur Koestler's seminal "bisociation" theory of how creativity works, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas, sixty-eight at the

20 Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

by Maria Popova "Any decent writer writes because there's some deep internal need to keep learning." Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941-May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era's greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the

21 Neil Gaiman's Advice to Aspiring Writers

by Maria Popova "You have to finish things - that's what you learn from, you learn by finishing things." Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about the secret of the creative life. In this mashup of Gaiman's Nerdist podcast interview and scenes from films about writers, video-monger Brandon Farley captures the essence of Gaiman's philosophy on writing and his

22 How Mind-Wandering and "Positive Constructive Daydreaming" Boost Our Creativity and Social Skills

by Maria Popova The science of why fantasy and imaginative escapism are essential elements of a satisfying mental life. Freud asserted that daydreaming is essential to creative writing - something a number of famous creators and theorists intuited in asserting that unconscious processing is essential to how creativity works, from T. S. Eliot's notion of "idea incubation" to Alexander Graham

23 What Makes a Great Interview

by Maria Popova "True storytellers write not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story." Perhaps because it blends the transfixing allure of voyeurism with the intricacy of introspection, the art of the interview is among the most elusive of journalistic feats.

29 Jane Austen on Creative Integrity

by Maria Popova How to defend your creative vision against commercial pressure with graciousness, honor, and unflinching conviction. "Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in," beloved Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson famously admonished in his speech on creative integrity. "Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values, rules and rewards." In December

31 Norman Mailer on the Rat Race of Success and What True Growth Means

by Maria Popova "Growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure ... but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth." Norman Mailer (January 31, 1923-November 10, 2007) is among those rare luminaries who managed to be at once revered and reviled, widely celebrated and frequently criticized

33 Joseph Brodsky on How to Develop Your Taste in Reading

by Maria Popova "You stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains." "The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not," Kurt Vonnegut famously proclaimed. But how is one to develop that discerning taste, especially in determining what is worth reading and what

34 How Creativity Works: Neil Gaiman on Where Ideas Comes From

by Maria Popova The power of desperation, deadlines, and daydreaming. Beneath the eternal question of what creativity is lies the mystery of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. It's a conundrum that has occupied artists, inventors, and philosophers alike since the dawn of human thought, but especially so since the dawn of psychology.

36 Henry Miller's Reflections on Writing

by Maria Popova "Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery." Why do writers - great, beloved, timeless writers - write? George Orwell had his four motives. For Joan Didion, it is a matter of ego and self-revelation. David Foster Wallace, perhaps ironically in retrospect, wrote purely for the fun of it. For Charles Bukowski, it was an inextinguishable

37 Writing Without Words: Visualizing Jack Kerouac's On The Road

by Maria Popova Literature as a canvas, a book as a living organism, and rhythm as a texture. London-based artist Stefanie Posavec has a gift for words. Or for the lack thereof, to be exact. Her latest project, , explores the literary world when its most important building blocks are removed by visually representing text. The project uses Jack Kerouac's

38 Marginalia and the Yin-Yang of Reading and Writing

by Maria Popova The bibliophile's property rights, or why the osmosis of agreement and disagreement belongs in a book's margins. The acts of reading and writing have always been intertwined, a kind of fundamental yin-yang of how ideas travel and permeate minds. Marginalia - those fragments of thought and seeds of insight we scribble in the margins of a book

39 Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life: Ray Bradbury on Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection

by Maria Popova "The blizzard doesn't last forever; it just seems so." Famous advice on writing abounds - Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers. In Snoopy's Guide to

41 Susan Sontag on Writing

by Maria Popova "There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work." The newly released volume of Susan Sontag's diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), from whence Sontag's thoughtful meditations on censorship

42 Several Short Sentences About Writing

by Maria Popova "You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences. How long is a good idea?" "If there is a magic in story writing," admonished Henry Miller, "and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another." And yet, famous

43 Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity

by Maria Popova "Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them." The third volume of Anaïs Nin's diaries has been on heavy rotation in recent weeks, yielding Nin's thoughtful and timeless meditations on life, mass movements, Paris vs. New York, what makes a great city,

44 Zadie Smith's 10 Rules of Writing

by Maria Popova "Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied." In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today's most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules. My

45 Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules of Writing

by Maria Popova "Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving." In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today's most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her commandments. After Zadie Smith's 10 rules

46 Margaret Atwood's 10 Rules of Writing

by Maria Popova "­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting." In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing originally published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian asked some of today's most celebrated authors to each produce a list of personal writing commandments. After 10 from Zadie Smith and 8 from Neil

47 John Updike on Writing and Death

by Maria Popova "Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?" "The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain," John Updike told writer Jim Holt in his poignant recent

48 What Will Survive of Us Is Love: Helen Dunmore's 9 Rules of Writing

by Maria Popova "A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk." Nearly two years ago, inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times a decade earlier, The Guardian invited some of today's most celebrated authors to share their personal writing rules. After 10 commandments from

50 Order to the Chaos of Life: Isabel Allende on Writing

by Maria Popova "Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too." Literary history is ripe with eloquent attempts to answer the ever-elusive question of why writers write. For George Orwell, it resulted from four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as precious access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was

51 What Now? Advice on Writing and Life from Ann Patchett

by Maria Popova "Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected." In 2006, writer Ann Patchett gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. The speech, a worthy addition to history's most memorable graduation addresses, spurred such wide resonance that it was soon adapted into a

52 Susan Orlean on Writing

by Maria Popova "You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it." The question of why writers write is one of literature's most enduring siren calls. George Orwell ascribed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun.

53 Joy Williams's Daily Writing Routine

by Maria Popova "...all messages which will fuel the morrow's pages coming to me in friendly and artful dreams..." This omnibus of the daily routines of famous writers endures as the second most popular Brain Pickings article of all time. (For the curious, this is the first.) From the new anthology Always Apprentices: The Believer Magazine Presents Twenty-Two Conversations Between

54 Beloved Film Critic Roger Ebert on Writing, Life, and Mortality

by Maria Popova "Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to." What a cultural loss to bid farewell to beloved critic Roger Ebert at the age of 70, after a long battle with the cancer that first claimed his jaw and, now, his life. Though I'd followed Ebert's writing for some time, with the sort of detached appreciation

56 The Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses: Walter Benjamin's Timeless Advice on Writing

by Maria Popova "The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself." "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open," Stephen King advised. "Do back exercises," Margaret Atwood suggested. "Know everything about adjectives and punctuation, have moral intelligence," Susan Sontag counseled. Each accomplished author seems to have a

58 Raymond Chandler on Writing

by Maria Popova "The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated." Last week, while researching this omnibus of what famous authors wrote about their beloved pets in their letters and journals, I came upon the irresistible 1981 anthology Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (public library). Among

59 Italo Calvino on Writing: Insights from 40+ Years of His Newly Released Letters

by Maria Popova "One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise." Culled from the 600+ pages of Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) - the same fantastic recently released tome that gave us Calvino's prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life - are the beloved author's collected insights on writing spanning more

60 10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates

by Maria Popova "Don't try to anticipate an ideal reader - or any reader. He/she might exist - but is reading someone else." In a recent tweeting spree, the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates offered ten tips on writing - a fine addition to this master-list of famous authors' wisdom on the craft. Write your heart out. The first sentence can

62 Annie Dillard on Writing

by Maria Popova "At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then - and only then - it is handed to you." What does it really mean to write? Why do writers

64 Ray Bradbury on Writing, Emotion vs. Intelligence, and the Core of Creativity

by Maria Popova "You can only go with loves in this life." Between 1973 and 1974, journalist James Day hosted the short-lived but wonderful public television interview series Day at Night. Among his guests was the inimitable Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920-June 5, 2012) - beloved writer, man of routine, tireless champion of space exploration, patron saint of public libraries,

65 Michael Lewis on Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity

by Maria Popova "When you're trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way." The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we

66 David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption

by Maria Popova "You don't have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness ... has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I'm going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me." On May 21, 2005 David Foster

67 Anaïs Nin on Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook

by Maria Popova "It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately." In December of 1946, Anaïs Nin was invited to give a lecture on writing at Dartmouth, which received an overwhelming response. The following summer, after receiving countless requests, Nin adapted the talk in chapbook titled On Writing, which she printed at her

68 The Art of "Creative Sleep": Stephen King on Writing and Wakeful Dreaming

by Maria Popova "In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives." "Sleep is the greatest creative aphrodisiac," a wise woman once said. Indeed, we already know that dreaming regulates our negative emotions and "positive constructive daydreaming" enhances

69 Dani Shapiro on the Pleasures and Perils of Writing & the Creative Life

by Maria Popova "It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive." "At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace," Annie Dillard famously observed, adding the quintessential caveat, "It is handed to you, but only if you look

70 Eudora Welty on the Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer's Map of the Unknown

by Maria Popova "No art ever came out of not risking your neck." "Longest way around is the shortest way home," James Joyce wrote in one of the most memorable lines in literature - so memorable and impactful perhaps because it harnesses so exquisitely the ineffable yet enthralling role of place in writing. That's precisely what Eudora Welty explores in

73 Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication

by Maria Popova Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs. Recent discussions of why writing for free commodifies creative work reminded me of an old letter Ernest Hemingway sent to his friends Ernest Walsh and Ethel Moorhead when they were about to launch This Quarter - the influential experimental Paris-based literary journal that

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