Ten Writing Tips from the Masters (and Surprising Facts About the Authors)

“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.” Robert Benchley

Many of the great and good (and just plain notorious) of literature thought it necessary to share their advice and thoughts on writing. Some were useful, some were facile and some were humorous.

Here are a few of my favourites and a little-known fact about each of these famous writers.

1. Mark Twain

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

Samuel Clemens, for that was his real name, used a number of pseudonyms before settling on plain Mark Twain. He wrote Joan of Arc under the name Sieur Louis de Conte, and used the initials SLC for poems and stories. Writing for the Keokuk Post he used the splendid moniker Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass and while working as a miner he simply used Josh.

For me, Snodgrass beats Twain every day. If only . . .

2. Jack London

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

In 1913, days before completion, London’s dream house in California was destroyed by fire. It had 26 rooms spread over four floors and cost $75,000 (a cool $1.8 million in today’s money). He collected $10,000 on the insurance but didn’t have the funds to rebuild it.

3. Ernest Hemingway

“We are all apprentices in a craft, where no one ever becomes a master.”

In 1954, near Murchison Falls in Uganda, Hemingway and his wife, Mary, experienced two plane crashes in the space of 48 hours. Hemingway fractured his skull using his head as a battering ram to open the plane’s door and sustained numerous other injuries. Some newspapers reported his death and published obituaries.

4. Toni Morrison

“You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.”

Morrison graduated from Cornell University after completing her thesis on the suicide of famous authors.

5. Stephen King

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write. Simple as that.”

King was a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band, now sadly defunct, whose line-up consisted of famous writers, including Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Scott Turow, Dave Barry and others. Critics hailed the band as having, ‘one of the world’s highest ratios of noise to talent’.

6. William Somerset Maugham

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, in 1874. At that time, anyone born on French soil could be conscripted for military service so his father arranged for the birth to take place at the British Embassy, technically British soil, where he worked.

7. Margaret Atwood

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

Her first novel, The Edible Woman, sat in a publisher’s drawer for two years after submission. It was only published after she won a poetry award.

8. Kurt Vonnegut

“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”

He survived the fire-bombing of Dresden (where he was a prisoner of war) in 1944 and was subsequently awarded a Purple Heart for frostbite.

9. Ray Bradbury

“You fail only if you stop writing.”

He has an asteroid named in his honour: 9766 Bradbury.

10. Oscar Wilde

“The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.”

It is widely believed that Wilde and his friends coined the word ‘Dude’, from a combination of attitude and duds.


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