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The Writer’s Task

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”

                                        —Joseph Conrad

“The task of a writer consists in being able to make something out of an idea.”

                                        —Thomas Mann

“The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. Because I have the greatest respect for the reader, and if he’s going to the trouble of reading what I’ve written . . . why, the least I can do is make it as easy as possible for him to find out what I’m trying to say, trying to get at.   I rewrite a good deal to make it clear. “

                                              —E. B. White

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Getting Started

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about.”

                                             —Kurt Vonnegut

“The first essential is to know what one wishes to say; the second is to decide to whom one wishes to say it.”

                                             —Harold Nicolson

“It is important to know the title before you begin—then you know what you are writing about.”

                                              —Nadine Gordimer

“Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one persona real person you know, or an imagined person, and write to that one.”

                                             —John Steinbeck

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. . . . Once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.

                                 —Gabriel García Márquez

“The first moments are critical. You can sit there, tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something, perhaps something silly. It simply doesn’t matter what you write; it only matters that you write. In five or ten minutes the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade, and a certain spirit and rhythm will take over.”

                                   —Leonard Bernstein

“Put your notes away before you begin a draft. What you remember is probably what should be remembered; what you forget is probably what should be forgotten. No matter; you’ll have a chance to go back to your notes after the draft is completed. What is important is to achieve a draft which allows the writing to flow.”

                                     —Donald M. Murray

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Revising

“The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly. . . . Once you’ve got some words looking back at you, you can take two or three—throw them away and look for others.”

                                      —Bernard Malamud

“Look for clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”

                                       —William Zinsser

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

                                     —Mark Twain

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Encouragement

“Thousands of people plan to be writers, but they never get around to it. The only way to find out if you can write is to set aside a certain period every day and try.”

                                      —
Judith Krantz

“Throw yourself into the hurly-burly of life. . . . It is all your material. . . . Don’t wait for experience to come to you; go out after experience. Experience is your material.”

                                       —W. Somerset Maugham

“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.”

                                     —Joyce Carol Oates

“I put a piece of paper under my pillow and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.”

                                 —Henry David Thoreau

“You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.”

                                    —F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Writer’s Block

“Structure is everything. When authors come to me complaining of writer’s block it means that they are too lazy to work out a structure either in their lives or in their work. Which is not to say that every writer doesn’t have his own, idiosyncratic procedures. Mine begins with three basic stages: research, structure, and writing. The writing part often takes the least time. I do all the reading and note taking for some months, or years if it’s a long-term project with other books in between. Then I work on the structure for a long time. By the end it becomes a visual process, which I often do on the floor.”

                                           —Paul Johnson

“Having to write about things other people tell you to write invariably leads to writer’s block. If you concentrate on your own interests, you’ve licked most of the problem.”

                                       —Kenneth Atchity

“Free write . . . write nonstop, continuously, never lifting a hand from the paper, putting down whatever thoughts occur, and when no thoughts come, filling in with repetition or nonsense. This method helps to break down that instant self-censorship which grips even very good students when they start to write.”

                                      —Nancy Packer

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Finding Your Voice

“You must write, not just think you’re going to. . . . And you must widen your vocabulary, enjoy words. You must read widely, not in order to copy, but to find your own voice. It’s a matter of going through life with all one’s senses alive, to be responsive to experience, to other people.”

                                        —P. D. James

“Write it as it is, don’t try to make it like this or that. You can’t do it in anybody else’s wayyou will have to make a way of your own. If the way happens to be new, don’t let that frighten you. . . . Write the truth, and let them take it or leave it.”

                                    —Sarah Orne Jewett

“The most original thing a writer can do is write like himself. It is also his most difficult task.”

                                    —Robertson Davies

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[Sources: William Safire and Leonard Safire, Good Advice on Writing: Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well (NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Sophy Burnham, For Writers Only (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)]