Five Brilliant Writers, and Their Advice to You

John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, and Maya Angelou all had different approaches to writing. Here's some of their best advice. 

Writing is one of the strangest arts. Nearly everyone is, at some level, capable of doing it. But very few seem capable of doing it well. Perfectly literate people find that they can put words on a page, but can’t keep a story going. This is a shame, as many people who do have a great idea for a story never really learned how to put it down.

Don’t worry, great minds are here to help. Many of the best and brightest authors there are left us with their tips on how to write. 


1 - Our first is Kurt Vonnegut, an excellent writer whose work spanned many genres and mediums. He had seven simple rules to follow if you wanted to write. They are best for short stories, but can be used anywhere.

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck 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.
  • 2 - Perhaps Vonnegut isn’t your guy. That’s OK, we have another option in Ricky Gervais. While his video goes further, his advice can be summed up in one classic sentence, “write what you know”. He also reminds us that it is better to “make the ordinary extraordinary, it’s so much better than starting with the extraordinary”. For Gervais, his advice is applied to joke writing and directing, but he learned these rules writing short stories for school.

    3 - John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for his novels, gave us these six pieces of advice for writing. This list was once offered to a friend, and Steinbeck himself tried to follow this list.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
  • 4 - Margret Atwood has no formula, as she tells us in her Big Think interview. For her the really difficult part of writing is deciding what to write. A problem many people, in her experience, fail to solve first. In terms of method, she first handwrites, on any available surface, then types. For her this is a blessing, as it allows for the story to be put down twice and improved.

    5 - And lastly, sometimes we need a change of scene. Maya Angelou would often check into a hotel room to write. Asking that the staff remove all sources of stimulation form the room, including the pictures on the walls. She bought the room, which was near her home, by the month, to allow for writing sessions at her leisure. This method allowed her to fully concentrate on the task at hand.

    There you have it, five great writers and how they wrote.  Maybe this advice will work for you, perhaps not. Their advice is at least worth a try, after all it does work for them. Maybe you won’t win a Nobel Prize, but you don’t need to. All you need to do is write.

    3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

    What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

    Northwell Health
    Sponsored by Northwell Health
    • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
    • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
    • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
    Keep reading Show less

    Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

    An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

    Think Again Podcasts
    • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
    • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
    Keep reading Show less

    For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

    We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

    The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
    popular

    There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.

    Keep reading Show less

    Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel

    Here's why generalists triumph over specialists in the new era of innovation.

    Videos
    • Since the explosion of the knowledge economy in the 1990s, generalist inventors have been making larger and more important contributions than specialists.
    • One theory is that the rise of rapid communication technologies allowed the information created by specialists to be rapidly disseminated, meaning generalists can combine information across disciplines to invent something new.
    • Here, David Epstein explains how Nintendo's Game Boy was a case of "lateral thinking with withered technology." He also relays the findings of a fascinating study that found the common factor of success among comic book authors.
    Keep reading Show less