My (recent) favorite quotes about writing

What’s the #1 piece of advice to writers? Probably “write what you know.” What do writers know? Writing. So many writers are eminently quotable, and this piece would roll down onto the floor and across the carpet if I were to quote all the inspired thoughts out there. These are just four I’ve discovered lately that I liked—and why.

  • “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” —John Steinbeck

Heh. The subconscious mind is a marvel. I spend time evangelizing to my students that they have terrific ideas all day long; they’ve just rarely paid attention. That’s why they think they have few of them. But if they train themselves to capture those ideas with a butterfly net—a notebook next to the bed, a pad of Post-Its in the console of the car (only when stopped, please)—they can turn the subconscious mind to their advantage rather than let those good ideas go flitting away as usual. Pretty soon they’ll see ideas everywhere. Steinbeck just saw them as rabbits instead of butterflies.

  • “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” —Saul Bellow

Probably! This sounds like a corollary to the quotation above.

Years ago, my home office was the desk next to my bed. One night I was struggling with a description in an article. I just couldn’t get it right—the wrong words, the wrong phrases, jumbled analogies. I decided to sleep on it. Poof, I woke up in the dark with the paragraph perfectly composed in my head. Excited but not wanting to wake myself with a light, I felt around for a pen and a long, narrow piece of paper, jotted down the words, and went back to sleep with relieved satisfaction.

Next morning, there it was! My subconscious had done its magic. The perfect paragraph was written out all over the back of a $400 paycheck.

  • “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.” —Mark Twain

Oh geez, this one reminds me of Jack. There’s an awful lot this former editor did wrong; let’s leave it at that. But he did some things right: He banned the word “delicious” from restaurant reviews. He put pretty models on the cover to sell magazines (the most famous known one was probably Shari Theismann tearing up a photo of Joe; the most famous unknown was on a bicycle and wearing a T-shirt reading, “I’m not a tourist; I live here”). And he struck “very” at almost every opportunity. It’s weak, he said. Your words should be able to stand on their own without it. If they can’t, find another way to say it.

And this one just made me laugh:

  • “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” —Douglas Adams

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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