I can almost guarantee that any author here who has done an interview has been asked the classic question: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? I’m sure some of us have squirmed and given the question great thought in order to inspire someone who might want to become a writer. We may even think about the advice of our sage and famous authors who have gone before us and the answer they may have given to that question.
Most of us see a quote by a famous author and we’re eager to hold on to that nugget of wisdom with both hands. I even keep a little notebook with these lovely gems written in it. I’m all in when it comes to improving my writing and being the best writer I know how to be. Famous authors have already blazed that trail, so who better than a well-known author to learn how to improve my writing.
But hold on a minute, do these famous authors always spout literary wisdom, or could it be possible that maybe, just maybe, they may have thrown out some really horrible advice once in a while? Here are a few gems by famous authors which may prove to be the worst writing advice ever:
Edgar Allen Poe
“Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.”
–Edgar Allan Poe
“Write only when you have something to say.”
“Don’t have children.” (I can’t help it. I’m thinking about the History Channel program: People: Population Zero on this quote)
“Writing is trying to know beforehand what one would write if one wrote, which one never knows until afterward.”
Or: “There is something exhilarating about successful, magnificent mistakes.”
Here is Kathryn Davis’s account of how she knew when to abandon a book-in-progress:
The very first novel I wrote was horrible, as so many first novels are. I put my novel in a box and hid it somewhere. I don’t even know where it is anymore. When you’re working on a novel, you have this idea that it’s not easy to write one, and that one of the things you have to do is persist through the difficult times. Inevitably, there’s always that moment when you find yourself wondering, “Well, is this an instance of a problem that I have to persist through, or am I just working on a horrible novel that I should just get rid of?”
“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
— Saul Bellow
“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you are doomed.” —Ray Bradbury
“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” — Kurt Vonnegut
“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
— Oscar Wilde
“Don’t try.” (Oh yes, this is a marvelous piece of advice. If we took it, no one would be writing anything anymore. We’d all be sitting around watching video games I suppose.)
— Charles Bukowski
“Write drunk; edit sober.”
— Ernest Hemingway
“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
— George Orwell
“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” and “Same for places and things.”
“You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”
— Robert A. Heinlein
“Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.”
— Henry Miller
“You’re a Genius all the time”
— Jack Kerouac
“Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already.” (Yeah, like who needs Shakespeare, Charlotte or Emily Bronte, Lousia May Alcott, F. Scot Fitzgerald, or any of the other great writers who made the unforgivable mistake of writing that tacky and unnecessary fiction.)
— Will Self
“Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similies are like defective ammunition.” (I guess I better not look up the word “similies” then.)
— Ernest Hemingway
Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
– Mark Twain
Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.
– C.S. Lewis
All the information you need can be given in dialogue.
– Elmore Leonard
Grammar is the Grave of Letters.
– Elbert Hubbard
Maybe you have some terrible advice you found from a famous author—bring it! I loved these quotes. Just when you hold an author you love up on that pedestal, be prepared for the day they said something really stupid just like the rest of us.
Sarah J. McNeal (not a famous author)
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: