6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck

The following was sent my way via Molly Beer.  The tips were published recently in  the Atlantic courtesy of MARIA POPOVA. (and culled from a 1975 interview in The Paris Review ).  Without further ado…

6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck (with Sliding Commentary)

1. 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.

Maybe next year, I should make a Writer's March "suggested goals" page and use the wisdom of Steinbeck to start the thing off.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

An alternative to this advice might be this: ditch the computer for a day and put the pen to the paper.  I've been an advocate of writing by hand for years. Every first draft I've ever written has been scribbled in a notebook first.  Feels nice to be confirmed by Steinbeck...

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Just for fun, I want to know: Who is your reader?  Mine's Randi, which is perhaps very very obvious.  Although, I have to say the "Randi" reader in my head is Randi if I never met her, if that makes sense. (She also never reads this blog so how is that for irony?)

4. 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.

In other news, the thing I loved most about Jenn's post "Retyping Your Revision" advice was it helped me with these sticky, trickyscenes.  I found that through retyping I instinctually knew what to move and what to cut.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

And here it is again:  Kill your darlings.  Or perhaps save them for another story, but mostly, send them to the next life.  Lately, I've been cutting these scenes into the "Comments" field in track changes because I become attached.  You know, it's like having your cake and eating it too.  And then later, when I get tired of the little boxes at the edges of my pages, its much easier to click the "x" and delete them.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Good advice, but is it just me or is it a strange one to end with?  (And yet much less strange than these side-slinging comments...Okay, folks, go and write!)

3 thoughts on “6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck

  1. Don’t encourage me!

    But for anyone who’s interested here’s another interesting article that came out recently, this one about creativity, this in the Wall Street Journal of all places. The “science of creativity” might chafe as a concept, but I think demystifying process is useful. As writers it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that we must be a different sort of person–a creative type, and Artist. And when we don’t feel inspired (in the Milton sense of breathing forth Jove), we suspect that we’re frauds or hacks.

    I know that when I had kids and my life got too busy and too sleep deprived to get drunk or daydream or simply sleep or any of the other things that artistic types do to feed the fire, I actually became significantly MORE productive (or more goal-oriented, disciplined, or just plain desperate to cling to my writing when I was being called–screamed at, howled at–to be surrendering my self and needs to the needs of others).

    So creativity, I think, while important, is a bit like a wild horse. The wilder it is, the more potential it likely has, but until you can get a bridle on it, it’s not much use to you. Understanding the nature of creativity is one more tool with which to do this.

    Thanks for all of the food for thought, Sam!


    • “So creativity, I think, while important, is a bit like a wild horse. The wilder it is, the more potential it likely has, but until you can get a bridle on it, it’s not much use to you.”

      –I’m in love with this metaphor! Made my day!

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