A Compilation of Sage Advice for Aspiring Writers

A couple of years ago my alma mater hosted a talk with Andre Alexis, a celebrated author from my hometown. Alexis came in, said hello, and read excerpts from his (then) most recent novel Fifteen Dogs. Towards the end, Alexis took some questions from the crowd, and one person asked: “What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?”

Alexis simply said: “Just write.”

There are all kinds of flowery phrases that famous authors have offered up over the years to encourage young writers. Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve come across a lot of said flowery advice in your budding writing career. What’s great about Alexis’ advice is that it’s simple. It clears away all the clutter of quotes that we tend to get bogged down with when trying to pump out our best turns of phrases and five-dollar words. And best of all, it gets you to focus on the most important task at hand: the simple act of writing.

So forget about all your hang-ups! Here are some simple suggestions to follow so you can achieve your best writing.

Mark Twain on Vocabulary Language is a beautiful, living thing. It is ever expanding, ever evolving and ever so tempting to use to its fullest extent. But you don’t always have to. In terms of writing style, Mark Twain was the one who said “don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” These “cheaper” words are more commonly used in everyday language, and it’s best not to break your readers’ concentration with “expensive” words that force them to consult a dictionary every page. You’re a reader too, how would you feel?

J.K. Rowling on the Fear of Failure Sometimes commencement speeches are boring, and sometimes the impending graduates hang onto every single word…especially when you’re J.K. Rowling speaking at Harvard University in 2008. In her 20-minute speech, the wildly successful author speaks about her fear of failure, saying “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” In terms of the writing process, take this advice, and don’t be afraid to start something. But don’t stop there; after you start, muster all the bravery you can to finish whatever it is, and that in itself is a success.  

 

Ira Glass on Storytelling for Beginners Public radio host Ira Glass offers some really relieving advice for beginners: “Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work went through a phase […] where they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be.” The fact that your work falls short of what you know it could be simply means that you have good taste. And the solution, Glass says, is to just keep doing a lot of work. Read a lot, write a lot, and continue to develop your tastes; the more you practice, the better your work will become.

Bret Anthony Johnston on Writing What You Know The age-old advice that every writer has no doubt heard (or at least picked up somewhere along the way). But Bret Anthony Johnston, a writer and fiction workshop teacher at Harvard, has something else to say about it: don’t write what you know. Johnston has himself followed this advice in the past, but then realized when following it, he found himself “writing to explain, not to discover.” Sure, what you know could be a great place to start, but Johnston promotes imagination and invention over everything else: “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”

If all else fails, then follow the wise words of Shia LaBoeuf: Don’t let your dreams be dreams and just DO IT!