Inspiration from the Greats

Posted on: January 31, 2013

As writers and scholars, we can all learn something from the great authors who have shaped American and world literature.  When asked for their tips “on writing well,” here is what they had to say:

  1. Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  2. Toni Morrison: “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
  3. George Orwell: “1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do;  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out;  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active; 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent; 6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
  4. John Steinbeck: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps.  Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”
  5. Maya Angelou: “What I try to do is write.  I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try.  When I’m writing, I write.  And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
  6. Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
  7. Toni Morrison: “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.”
  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Cut out all those exclamation marks.  An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

Think of these literary heros and their words of wisdom next time you are stumped by a writing assignment.  If nothing else, they should make you smile!