“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night, and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters. Every novelist will have to go through this at least once and in some cases many times before they are published, and since publication itself brings no guarantee of riches or plaudits, it’s not unreasonable to ask what sort of a person would subject himself to such a thing” (Alice Adams).
Have a strong belief in and respect and enthusiasm for writing. To many serious writers writing is the central activity of their lives: no other activity compares. It is probably true that the majority of people, young or old or in between, don’t like to write. But there is just something about the act of writing that people struck by the writing bug find irresistible. Many aspiring writers wait all day for the half hour between putting a child to bed and sleep when at last they are free to pound away at a keyboard.
Be patient because all writers who reach high excellence in their craft will have done so via a long, sustained period of learning and application. P.G. Wodehouse wrote that “Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.” “If the promising writer keeps on writing—writes day after day, month after month…he will begin to catch on” (John Gardner.)
Have a need for self-expression and self-disclosure. Good writers reveal themselves in their work. Readers want writers to reveal themselves. A novel, for example, enables authors to convey a wealth of information that expresses them. Your writing, even the way you turn a phrase and the metaphors you use (why did you use an image of a fish then instead of a train?) and your vocabulary and points of view, tell the reader what you’re like. Writers have a need to discover exactly what they are thinking by writing it out, and then to artfully communicate it to the reader who wants to know.
Be more self-disciplined in matters concerning your work than most people in other fields .Success in writing is largely a matter of discipline.
Learn to overcome boredom and fatigue, particularly through positive self-talk and physical conditioning. .
Sacrifice for the sake of your writing. Anton Chekhov said, “It is difficult to combine the desire to live with the desire to write.” In A Moveable Feast Hemingway wrote, “On Thursday I was…feeling virtuous because I had worked well and hard on a day when I wanted to go to the races very badly.” For some writers writing is more important than their family. The family goes to the zoo; they stay home and write. “Generally (Eugene) O’Neill elected to lead an existence completely removed from what the great majority of people would call life, It was centered on, was focused on, organized around work” (Malcolm Cowley). Toni Morrison didn’t do anything but write, to the exclusion of everything else.
Take pride in your extraordinary writer’s memory nature has equipped you with. Your writer’s imagination depends so much on remembering what you’ve heard about, read about, or seen. Whatever happens to writers they never forget it, but store it for future use. Katherine Anne Porter said, “We spend our lives making sense of the memories of the past.” Writers must have a gift to remember sensations and images that were experienced at times many years earlier and to relive them in their original freshness and vividness. Not just memories, but detailed memories: “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender). A writer may not be able to remember a telephone number or to pick up a dozen eggs at the store, but will never all his life forget the expression on his mother’s face as she came in the door that particular day. He has a perfect memory for that. Memory is a writer’s workshop.
Possess extraordinary energy. No outstanding writing achievement has ever been produced without hard work. One of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels had 5,000 pages of notes. When writers are functioning at their best they work at white heat for an hour, a month, or years. Creative people don’t run out of steam. Their enthusiasm doesn’t wane very long.
Don’t spend your time working on easy problems. Good serious writers work on problems that are hard for them because they’re stimulated by things that are difficult. They not only solve problems, they create them because when they solve those they make progress and become better writers. That’s how they create work that no one has seen the likes of before and expands their abilities at the same time. A major intuitive skill effective problem-solving writers have developed is being able to identify the specific point to approach the crux of the problem.
Be resilient and able to overcome obstacles and to persevere. Many writers persist however difficult the physical and mental effort of pursuing their goal might be. “Creative people are those who are more willing to redefine the ways in which they look at problems, to take risks, to seek to overcome daunting obstacles, and to tolerate ambiguity even when its existence becomes psychologically painful.” (Scott Barry Kaufman and James Kaufman)
Enjoy writing’s sweat factor and be able to produce tremendous amounts of work. Writers–creatives–love to work. Production is the writer’s main goal. Usually the greatest writers are also the most prolific. Cynthia Ozick said, “There is a definite relationship between being major and having a profusion of work to show. You could write one exquisite thing, but you would never be considered more than a minor writer.” Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote 5,000 words in a night. Georges Simenon who was capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, produced 200 novels, 150 novellas, autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels under two dozen pseudonyms. Ray Bradbury took two hours to write a poem, half a day to finish a short story, and nine days to write a novel.
Strive for the fullest development of your skills. Developing skills leads to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. If you feel you have the skills, you’re less likely to be haunted by self-doubt and your writing will flow more freely.
Have a strong concern for your technique and style. The reader isn’t meant to notice a writer’s technique, but other writers are aware of it immediately. The first thing you notice about writers is their style. Toni Morrison said that “getting a style is about all there is to writing fiction.” An appealing style is so important to a writer that writers joke about it:, ”If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Spender).
Maintain an artistic vision and heightened perception. To writers the world is inexhaustibly rich with aesthetic potential. There are dimensions of reality they are sensitive to that other people overlook, perceptions of what might be called “hidden reality.” It’s the business of the writer, who has the creator’s faith that they are seeing a true reality, to find, collect, and communicate that reality in their work. Eugene O’Neill: “I am a dramatist…What I see everywhere in life is drama.”
Have a capacity for self-criticism and objectivity about your work and your abilities. Writers must learn to lay their egos aside as they would any other impediment.
Be sensitive to life and open to experience. Insatiably curious, writers plumb what is outside them in the world and their own thoughts, sensations, and emotions. They are not afraid of what ogres they might discover in the world they write about or in themselves.
Be what you are: more self-confident, rebellious than the vast majority of people. Writers who lose their youthful rebelliousness are in danger of losing their talent as well.
Have a large tolerance for ambiguity–larger than the great majority of people. That’s one reason writers are generally such effective problem-solvers.
Be restless because you can’t help but be. Writers often move on to other projects just when what they’ve accomplished becomes clear. (Months may pass, years may pass, but be sure to get back to your project and finish it.) The first stanza of a poem by Wordsworth may have been written 28 years before the last stanza was written.
Strive for competence and constant improvement. Writers are never content very long. They are guided by a persistent willingness to write with more expressive power.
Value independence. Writers must be allowed to move unrestrained in their own direction under their own power. No voice should be more persuasive than the writer’s internal voice saying “X is the truth I must pursue.”
Spend a lot of your time alone. Most successful writers would agree with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger that “everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.” Writers often prefer solitude over socializing.
Have the ability to focus. Creative people often learn at an early age that they will achieve more if they focus their efforts on one area rather than dividing them among a variety of pursuits. Writers are capable of intense concentration, losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them. They will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it. Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. Focusing is intense. Emily Dickinson said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry.
Be playful and value the simple and the unaffected. Writers are in love with simplicity and bring to mind a Chinese proverb: “A truly great man never puts away the simplicity of a child.”
Be able to muster an abundance of physical strength and stamina. Often it’s the end of writers’ endurance that stops their working day. Novelist Thomas Wolfe would turn in manuscripts a million words long . He claimed that the physical demands on the writer made the writer’s life seem to him to be the hardest life man has ever known.
Adapt and make adjustments. An experienced writer has learned when to stop and begin again when something isn’t working.
Be studious in the sense of studying to develop your craft. All writers study and all are self-taught to a greater or lesser degree. Composers and fine artists are likely to have been taught by masters; writers are likely to have taught themselves.
Establish rapport with readers. Your writing is always for someone–yourself certainly. But also the audience, the reader. Skilled writers are aware of whom they are writing for and establish rapport with them within the first few sentences of the work.
Take luck, the breaks, and good or bad fortune into account. Good luck often follows persistence. A failure or wrong direction or bad luck may lead to something fruitful later on. A “wrong” word in a sentence may prove to be the perfect word.
Have or develop a business sense. You have a career to manage and responsibilities and expenses. Study marketing and salesmanship–read. Take business classes.
Feel deeply; be emotionally rich. Writing, like music, must convey emotion–from sorrow to joy and everything between. Writers have strong feelings. For example, they often have fiery tempers.
If I asked you what you think are the qualities that it’s most important for writers to possess, how would you answer?
I, myself, would begin with “hard worker.”
© 2021 David J. Rogers
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24 responses to “31 Prescriptions for Serious Writers”
“Spend a lot of your time alone.”
As an introvert, I can totally get behind this, lol. Thanks for this comprehensive list. I enjoyed reading it!
Thank you very much, Stuart. I’m happy you liked the post. I enjoyed writing it. I had to force myself to stop at 31. I too. enjoy my alone time writing and readin.
Quite a list!
Reg, I hope you find the information interesting and possibly useful to you. Thanks for the comment.
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This is a wonderful list, David. I’ve read through it three times tonight. I can’t settle on which one I think is most important quality for writers to possess, but your sentence about Wordsworth snagged my attention. Your saying, “The first stanza of a poem by Wordsworth may have been written 28 years before the last stanza was written,” gives me hope, since I can’t remember when I started writing my novel. I know it was more than a decade ago. For me, it boils down to perseverance.
Janet, thank you for your comment. You’re not the first author who has trouble finishing their work. It’s quite common. Mark Twain had trouble finishing his work. Trouble finishing the work is a problem for painters too. it’s said that DaVinci never finished a single work. I think it might make your writing life easier if you have less impossibly high standards and loosen up and say, “i’m just going to go ahead and finish the thing, so you can then use your talents to write something else.
I’m taking notes literally, these are such important points! 😶🤩
Shruba, thank you very much.I’m happy that you find so much in the post that hopefully you’ll be able to apply to your own writing career. Best of luck,
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This is gold, David. It had me scrambling under the desk to plug in the printer and to find a highlighter pen, and then to source something to attach it to the wall. Some people spend hours creating vision boards, but this article is a vision board, road map and pep talk all rolled into one. I will look to it for guidance and inspiration, thank you.
Michelle, dear. You make me laugh. I was hoping you would comment on the post so I would be treated to the magic way you work wonders with language. I’m happy with your response to it. I’m glad you liked it and will find it useful. It will be a little part of your life now, and that pleases me.
I hope you are enjoying this holiday weekend. Even though your summer has ended, the poem you sent makes me happy that you are living in such a beautiful country.
I think number one here should be STYLE. As a writer as well as a reader style is most important when reading or writing. It’s like in every art, as a writer you need recognizable style. I always tried to teach that and my students got into it by studying other author’s styles first.
I can’t agree with your point about “independence”. My experience always was that it was very helpful to listen to my editors and agents. Many authors misunderstand independence and that means that it is too complicated to work with them as editor or agent. I never worked with authors who weren’t able to see that producing a seller is teamwork.
You mentioned the rapport with readers that can’t be avoided on your lecture tours. Therefore it’s very important to always give your audience space to discuss and criticise your work. Of course, what is written about your text in book reviews should be analysed as well.
All the best
The Fab Four of Cley
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Hello Klaus. How are you? I see that both of us are in love with styles. I have been since childhood, I think. I read writers not for the stories they tell, but to be exposed to their style. I have read and written quite a bit about style, and I read great stylists every day to refresh my memory. My post “A Style Is About All There Is to Art” https://davidjrogersftw.com/2020/12/17/a-style-is-about-all-there-is-to-art/ is one I wrote. A post of mine about a few great stylists is How To Write Mesmerizing Prose. https://davidjrogersftw.com/2018/07/11/how-to-write-mesmerizing-prose/
Having your students read to study styles is a wonderful practice, and I bet they enjoy doing it. Do you suggest stylists they might read? What do you write?
You also make a good point about what I call “intimacy” an author can have with readers.
Thank you very much for taking the time to think about my post. You have much to say–lots of ideas–which people will benefit from.
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I am now retired but I taught text linguistics. I suggested mostly English and German writing authors.
For my English speaking students:
Kaszuo Ishiguro (nowadays I think he writes too smooth), Ian McEwan, as classics: Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley
German speaking: Martin Mosebach and .Daniel Kehlmann
For my Swedish or Norwegian speaking students: Jo Nesbø, Jon Fosse, Dag Solstad.
Thank you very much for your kind reply. We are quite similar concerning style 🙂 and thank you for making me aware of Agee.
All the best
Thank you for your reply. I am not familiar with some of your authors, but will look into them. Thank you. Do you think quality in style holds true for books in translation?
James Agee was called by a critic, “the most prodigiously talented writer of his generation.” H also wrote screenplays and television documentaries and was the leading American film critic in the 1940s and 50s. A very talented man. He died of a heart attack at the age of 45.
Another stylist I like is Ysunari Kawabata, Japanese Nobel Prize winner.
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Quality in style and translation …
First of all I try to read novels in the original language. I am a native German speaker but risen partly in Sweden, living together with a Norwegian partner, and living in England. So I am able to read lot of books in their original language.
If I look at the “Ulysses”- translations into German I can see quite some differences and they all try to stress a special aspect of Joyce’s style but a different one. The translation problem is an economic one because to translate the style well is time consuming and it doesn’t pay for the publishing house.
Thanks for mentioning Kawabata. A long time ago a read a book he wrote but, oh dear, I can’t remember. I will have a look again. But now I just read modern novels about AI because I will do a podcast about it for a Canadian company and will blog about it on our WordPress-blog as well.
Keep well, have a happy week
Dear Klausbernd, Thank you for your reply. I hope you have a good week as well.
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Good morning David,
I think this post is one of your best and should be at hand for every writer and for that matter painter. Filled with superb advice it is the corner stone for someone who devotes their life to their craft.
I love the PG Wodehouse quote and so much more.
As is so often the case so much of what you write can be applied to the life of
a painter – i.e. ‘to achieve excellence in a craft is via long sustained periods of learning and application’….
You talk of self discipline – something I believe is vital as a writer or painter. Self discipline gives us the freedom to create and express ourselves. Without this key ingredient, deep frustration can be experienced.
Thank you so much. I hope your creative juices are flowing and that all is well in your life.
One more thing…’memory’ – I am learning just how vital that element is to writing.
Thank you for your kind words about my post. I was hoping you would read it. I knew you would like it. I was hoping also that you would leave a comment because your opinion means a lot to me as I’m sure it does to other people too. I often think I should give more attention to providing information specifically for artists, so I am happy that you, an artist as well as a writer, find value for artists in what I’m saying to writers.
I know that when I talk about self-discipline for creatives, you will respond; you are such an advocate of it and have found it so beneficial in your career.
Your comment ends with you talking about your learning in your writer’s life of the importance of memory. That is a favorite topic of mine. Perhaps you can help me: How does memory figure in the work a painter does? How blessed writers are if their memory of long ago is just about as sharp as their memory of sipping orange juice this morning.
All is well here. I’m happy knowing that you are well too.
All the best,
Good afternoon David, Thank you for your lovely response.
How does memory figure in the work of a painter. A very good question.
Given that I have painted many portraits in many different places….I find that memory helps me to understand my sitters. Often a portrait I painted many years ago….pops up in the work of a new sitter. Remembering so many others helps me to see a brand new sitter…someone I am meeting for the first time. It’s difficult to explain, but nevertheless true.
These days I find myself constantly observing landscapes and seeing them as they are now, but also remembering them as they used to be. Interestingly, and this is quite consciously, I do not put cars or man made paraphernalia into my landscapes. I prefer that nature take centre stage….and in a way I like remembering things as they used to be.
Sometimes I paint a person or place from memory….no prompts at all – which I find to be an excellent exercise.
Now that I am writing much more…I find that memory is key which is why I write so many ‘vignettes’. A soon as a thought comes to mind, I write about it – not just the thought but what lead up to it…and where it went after I had the thought…..
I am putting all my vignettes into folders so that should I kick the bucket, my children will have them:). Not only are these memories important to me but as m children get older, I find that they are almost as important to them.
It’s a cold, partly sunny/cloudy day in London…pleasant enough that I have just sat for one hour in the HUB garden – and in the sun it was delightful.
Best wishes to you, Diana and family
Thank you for sharing your ideas about memory and the painter’s and writer’s craft. You said that you see a current sitter more clrearly because of your having worked with so many previous sitters. I think you’re saying that the current sitter reminds you of the past one, and that helps to execute the current portait, but it’s not entirely clear to me.
I think looking at something and seeing it as it is and seeing it in your mind’s eye as it was is a wonderful experience. Most of the writing I do is personal essays and short sketches, all of them autobiographical to a great degree, so I often have the experience you are talking about.
I think your children will love having your folders of vignettes–a wonderful gift. I know many authors do that–write vignettes–and later incorporate them in their longer writings I do that with images. I have a notebook of thousands of images that I’ve stored so i can work them into a story and often do. I’ve found from my study of writing that good writing almost always involves details which make the text come to life.
I really enjoyed your comment and appreciate your taking the time to write it. Being a writer who spends so much time puttering around in his past and loving it so much, I can understand what a wonderful experience remembering must be for you as you write and paint.
Best wishes for a wonderful week,
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I need to think about what I said re portrait painting…and it so happens that tomorrow I am giving a small portrait workshop at the HUB….I will respond later in the week when I have time to mull I tall over. I realise that what I said was very abstract….:)
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Amazing advice. I really needed to read this today. Especially the part about readers wanting writers to reveal themselves. Thanks so much,
It’s nice of you to let me know you found my post valuable. The point you find interesting–that readers want writers to reveal themselves is an important one.
The reader reads a novel for the plot, etc. But as important or more important is that the;y are reading the book to find out what the author is thinking, and what the author is like. A novel lets you know that the author is intelligent, clever, has a sense of humor, etc. or not. You get inside the author’s mind, and as I say, that’s a big reason you’re reading the book.
Thanks for your comment. I hope you come back to read new and old posts and that I’ll hear from you again.