Looking for inspiration, advice, or a little kick in the pants to keep you writing?
Sometimes writing can be a lonesome job, and you may feel like giving up. But before you do, remember that other writers have made it, and if they can do it, you can too —
Here are 15 of history’s greatest writers, reflecting on what it takes to make it in this profession and calling:
1. Charles Dickens on Persistence vs Giving Up
In 1867, Dickens wrote a letter to an aspiring writer, including these words:
I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt…Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavour if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale.
Writing isn’t for everyone.
It is only for those who have experienced life deeply, have enough knowledge and wisdom to spread strong and positive ideas, and who are not put off by discouragement from illustrious authority figures like Dickens himself.
If that is not you, quit. If it is though, keep writing. Keep gaining life experience. Do not quit. Do not let others’ words discourage you. Write.
2. Jane Austen on Self-Discipline
“I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am.”
We live in a society that is highly focused on passion. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you like, but even when you are doing what you like, there will be times when you don’t like it. Instead of following your passion, lead it. Instead of waiting for inspiration, go after it.
3. C.S. Lewis on Saying What You Mean
The way for a person to develop a style is to know exactly what he wants to say, and to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.
It sounds easy and straightforward, but it isn’t — writing what you really mean is one of the greatest challenges for a writer. Often the problem starts with your thinking. If you can’t even think straight, you can’t write straight. Braindumping and journaling is for you, but when you write, you are writing for others to understand. Think clearly, write clearly.
4. William Shakespeare on Writing from the Heart
I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.
Don’t listen to loud clamoring voices. Most of the time the louder a person is, the “emptier the vessel” s/he has. In other words, those who have nothing worthwhile to say usually say it the loudest. Listen instead for the quiet voice of reason and truth, and be that voice yourself.
5. Mark Twain on When to Start Writing an Article
The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
Writing begins in the mind. Before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), make sure that you have developed a good idea mentally. Pantsing and stream-of-consciousness writing doesn’t usually produce work that is worth giving others. Keep it for yourself as a brainstorm and present polished ideas to readers.
6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on How to Deal With Critics
Critics kind, never mind!
Critics flatter, No matter!
Critics curse, None the worse.
Critics blame, All the same!
Do your best. Hang the rest!
In this ditty, the great mystery writer warns writers not to place their value in other people’s hands. Don’t let censure OR praise keep you from doing what you need to do.
Also: Besides being a genius at writing mysteries, Doyle was apparently something of a poet as well. If you are a writer, consider learning multiple different forms of the craft. Don’t just focus on articles, learn storytelling. Don’t just work on novels, try your hand at screenplays, etc.
7. Roald Dahl on Stamina
You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
The Compound Effect is a powerful force, not only in finances, but in everything. If you want to succeed, you can’t write a little here and there when you feel like it. Writing is not a one-time thing, it is a commitment for the long haul.
8. Jack London on Inspiration
Don’t wait for inspiration. Go after it with a club.
If there’s one writing quote that has resonated with me deep in my bones, this is it. I have never forgotten it, since I first read it and it has sunk in deeper year after year. This is my writing philosophy. It doesn’t matter whether you feel inspired or excited or not. If you are a writer, WRITE. The end.
9. Robert Louis Stevenson on Why Write?
There are two just reasons for the choice of any way of life: the first is inbred taste in the chooser; the second some high utility in the industry selected. Literature, like any other art, is singularly interesting to the artist; and, in a degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to mankind. These are the sufficient justifications for any young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life…like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.
Writing is more than a job. It’s a calling. You choose it, on the one hand, and on the other: it chooses you. If you handle it with the right attitude, writing is as meaningful and impactful as the job of a “missionary, patriot, or philosopher,” because you are dealing with ideas and minds, the substance that creates and destroys entire worlds.
10. Ray Bradbury on Persistence
The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week — it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.
If you want to be a writer and don’t know where to start, take a page from Bradbury’s book and give short stories a try!
11. Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) on Writing Nonsense
Nonsense wakes up the brain cells. And it helps develop a sense of humour, which is awfully important in this day and age. Humour has a tremendous place in this sordid world. It’s more than just a matter of laughing. If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.
There’s nothing new under the sun, everything that we can write about has, in essence, been written about before. So how do we create and add value as writers? We need to see things in a different light. Humor and nonsense gives you a different perspective on life, and with writing, perspective is everything.
12. E.B. White on The Trick to Writing
You asked me about writing — how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published
Writing is not a mysterious, mystic activity, no matter how many writers like to act as if it is. The key to writing is simply sitting down and…writing. And don’t give up. Every great writer, published writer, successful writer, has probably written millions of words which will never see the light of day. But none of those words were wasted, because they all helped the writer to become what s/he is today.
13. L.M. Montgomery on Optimism and Negativity
One of the reviews says “The book radiates happiness and optimism.” When I think of the conditions of worry and gloom and care under which it was written I wonder at this…I would not wish to darken any other life — I want instead to be a messenger of optimism and sunshine…It is a joy to feel that my long years of struggle and unaided effort have been crowned with success. (from her journal, 1910)
Be intentional about what you write. Your words and ideas will have an impact on somebody, somewhere, so what kind of influence do you want to be? LM Montgomerry chose to be a “messenger of optimism and sunshine” in spite of the darkness she was struggling with. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s a deliberate choice to be the kind of writer she wanted to be.
14. Madeleine L’Engle on Building Up a Body of Work
“If the artist works only when [s]he feels like it, [s]he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.
Real writers (and artists in general) don’t usually just create one thing — they create portfolios of work, each project building on skills learned from previous ones. Part of discipline involves putting in the time and energy to create this body of work — the legacy you leave as a writer.
15. John Steinbeck on A Writer’s Audience
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
There are no generalities when it comes to readers. Everyone is unique, so there’s no point in trying to “appeal to the masses.” Ironically, when you focus on writing for one specific person, your work will end up resonating with many others. So focus on who you REALLY want to write for, and write for him/her, alone.
Go Forth & Write!
Now that you’ve been filled up with your daily dose of writing inspiration, don’t waste it —DO something with it.
Power up your computer, open your journal, and spend some time brainstorming your next writing project, or continue where you left off on another project.
Remember your calling, recommit yourself to your mission. Write something worth reading.
One day it may be your name and picture and quote in some future “inspirational quote” article, inspiring the writers who come after you.
You are a writer — and it is your turn to write.
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