“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” — Blaise Pascal
I love reading the journals and correspondence of famous writers. It’s a wonderful way to get a peek into their writing process, and often you’ll discover exquisite gems — fantastic advice you can use to become a better writer.
That quote attributed to Blaise Pascal is one example. It’s an excellent reminder to examine your writing and see if there are any parts you could leave out — unnecessary repetition, irrelevant tangents, etc. Unfortunately for Pascal’s friend, Pascal didn’t have time to edit his letter. I hope the unedited letter was entertaining. 😉
In today’s blog post, I’ve highlighted the best writing advice from letters from seven different famous writers. Enjoy!
1. Louisa May Alcott on How to Become a Successful Writer
Louisa May Alcott received many letters from adoring young fans who loved her book Little Women. On Christmas day in 1878, she replied to a Miss Churchill, an aspiring author seeking writing advice.
I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice — There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.
I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.
Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.
I love Alcott’s tough writing advice —to become a successful writer, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work, and sometimes you have to write what pays the bills.
I also love her observation that you cannot predict what your audience will enjoy. A piece of writing you think is terrible might end up being more successful than anything else you’ve written.
And I find it fascinating that she started out her career by writing about her personal experiences. It reminds me of this quote from Marion Roach’s book The Memoir Project:
William Maxwell, the fiction editor of the New Yorker for more than forty years…believed that to write, all you need is to remember the slam of your childhood home’s screen door. He’s right, too, because you have what you need to write what you know. Just like Dorothy’s ruby-red shoes, you’ve had it on you all the time.
Don’t know what to write? Start with your life experiences.
You can read Alcott’s full letter here. (She even gives Miss Churchill publishing advice.)
2. C. S. Lewis on Remembering to Show, Not Tell
Like Alcott, C. S. Lewis also received many letters from fans of his Narnia series. In 1956, he replied to a letter from a young girl named Joan.
He shared five writing rules and even critiqued a piece of her writing. Here’s an excerpt:
Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them…
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
Lewis’ words are a wonderful reminder to show, not tell. I keep them in mind when I’m editing my writing. I’ll search for adjectives that I can replace with more vivid lines of description and specific details. For example, instead of writing, “the breakfast smelled wonderful”, I could write, “The aroma of fresh baked bread wafted from the kitchen.”
You can read more excerpts from Lewis’ letter in my blog post here. And you can find the full letter as well as many other letters Lewis wrote to young fans in the delightful book C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children.
3. John Steinbeck on How to Finish a Novel
In a 1962 letter to his friend Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck shared his six strategies for successfully making it through the first draft of a book.
Here are three pieces of advice from his letter:
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…
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down…
If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it — bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
These tips will help you avoid writer’s block and perfectionism. I love Steinbeck’s tip to focus on just one page at a time. It’s a fantastic way to make a big writing project less intimidating. Break it down into tiny goals you can accomplish each day.
You can read the other three tips in my blog post here. And you can read the full letter as well as many other letters from John Steinbeck in the fascinating collection John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters.
Additionally, I wrote this blog post sharing a letter Steinbeck wrote to his college creative writing professor that you might enjoy as well.
4. J. R. R. Tolkien on Following Your Imagination
In 1955, the famous poet W. H. Auden received proofs of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Return of the King. He wrote to Tolkien with several questions about the book, and Tolkien sent a lengthy letter back that shares many glimpses into his writing process.
I particularly love his observations on how many parts of the books were not plotted out beforehand:
But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there…Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22…
Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through.
Tolkien’s words are a reminder that you don’t need to have your story perfectly planned out before you dive in. The writing process can be an act of discovery. Let your characters surprise you.
I found this out when I wrote the first draft of a novel last year. I’d tried to plot out as much as possible before I began writing, but there were still parts where I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to happen. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to write those scenes, but when I reached them, lo and behold, my imagination soon helped me continue the story.
5. Kurt Vonnegut on Enjoying the Creative Process
In 2006, a group of students at Xavier High School in New York City wrote to Kurt Vonnegut and asked him to visit their school. Vonnegut declined making an appearance, but he did write them a letter sharing his best writing advice.
Here is an excerpt:
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
He also gave the students a writing assignment:
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
Vonnegut’s words remind us to enjoy the creative process. His exercise will help us to become better writers because it forces us to explore deeper parts of our subconscious.
He tells us to write without thinking about what others will say about our work. Write the words that are welling up inside you. Spill out your soul onto the page. Experiment. Create.
This will allow us to experience a deeper sense of ourself and to discover who we truly are and what we want to say. It will guide us to the unique message and stories we have that we can share with the world.
I am reminded of this quote from Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing,
If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited…
How long has it been since you wrote a story where your real love or your real hatred somehow got onto the paper? When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like a lightning bolt? What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?
You can read Vonnegut’s full letter here.
6. T. S. Eliot on Writing What You Love
In 1952, Nobel-Prize winning poet T. S. Eliot replied to a letter from sixteen-year-old Alice Quinn. He shared his advice for “up and coming writers” that echoes Vonnegut’s above.
Here’s an excerpt:
My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.
Many of us who are working writers are probably not yet at that point where we can write solely for pleasure alone. We need to take on projects that will pay the bills and put food on the table. However, even at this point in our writing life, it’s important to remember Eliot’s and Vonnegut’s words and make sure that we don’t abandon the writing that feeds our souls.
Is there a topic that you want to write about or a story that’s tugging at your heart, but you’re afraid no one will want to read it? Write it anyway. Your passion will come through on the page. And that passion will also help you to stay motivated to complete your writing projects when you’re first starting out.
You can read T. S. Eliot’s full letter here.
7. Zora Neale Hurston on the Importance of Encouragement
In 1925, Zora Neale Hurston wrote a letter to Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard College. Meyer had met Hurston at an awards dinner and offered her a place at the college.
This blossomed into a friendship, and Meyer and Hurston corresponded for many years as Meyer continued to support the young writer’s career.
Here is an excerpt from Hurston’s letter:
I am tremendously encouraged now. My typewriter is clicking away till all hours of the night. I am striving desperately for a toe-hold on the world. You see, your interest keys me up wonderfully — I must not let you be disappointed in me.
No, no the little praise I have received does not affect me unless it be to make me work furiously. Instead of a pillow to rest upon, it is a goad to prod me. I know that I can only get into the sunlight by work and only remain there by more work. But you do help me immensely. It is pleasant to have someone for whom one thinks. It is mighty cold comfort to do things if nobody cares whether you succeed or not. It is terribly delightful to me to have someone fearing with me and hoping for me, let alone working to make some of my dreams come true.
Writing can be a lonely activity. Hurston’s letter is a reminder of the importance of having mentors and fellow writers to encourage us in our work.
They will make sure we stay on track to complete our projects, that we continue sharpening our skills, and that we don’t give up on our dreams. I wrote this blog post about how to start a mastermind group with fellow writers.
You can read Hurston’s full letter here.
I hope the excerpts from these letters give you inspiration and motivation with your writing this week!
Remember to work hard, “show, don’t tell”, write one page at a time, let your imagination guide you, enjoy the creative process, write what you love, and find writing friends to share the journey with you.
What was your favorite piece of writing advice from the letters? Do you have another letter by a famous writer to add to my list? Let me know in the comments.
And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to share it on social media or with a fellow writer friend who might enjoy it too. Thanks for reading!