Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Best Known and Most Familiar Quotes about Writing

Write What You Know, Kill your Darlings, are oft-quoted sayings about writing.  But where did these quotes originate and should they actually be applied?  We've gathered up some information about them below. 

Write What You Know

These might be the most quoted, misquoted and misunderstood words ever uttered about writing. Still, Write what you know may well be the first words aspiring authors hear from teachers, friends and other writers.

Who said them first? Who knows?  Though there are similar quotes, the origin of the quote, write what you know in its purest form has been lost.  And it may be a good thing. In the words of P. J. O’Rourke, Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words "Write what you know" is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don't. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?

In any event, write what you know has become a clich√©.  It is open to many interpretations.  Some take literally-- to mean that you should not write about things you have not personally experienced.  Others interpret it to mean you should write about what you love, what you care about.  In the words of Valerie Sherwood,  Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words."

Kill your Darlings

This quote is most often attributed to William Faulkner (1897-1962), though it has also been attributed to Mark Twain (1835-1919).  Probably both of them said and practiced it. So what does it mean?  Many misinterpret kill your darlings to mean one should strike out any fine passage.  Kill your darling” doesn’t mean a writer should murder the muse or throw out fine writing.  However, every writer has “darlings”, little anecdotes or bits of wisdom they would like to stuff into their current work even though they know the passage doesn’t quite fit.  If a witty phrase or observation fits, use it, if it doesn’t add to the overall purpose of the novel you are writing, then it should cast aside.  What it means in a nutshell: cut the bull.

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

This quote is attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966), though there are many variations.  Author Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) said, The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.  Same difference.  The meaning is perfectly clear.  If a person does not go about the task of writing and do it often, the book will never get written.  (I once heard a variation of this quotation as apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and when you get up twenty years later you’ll be a writer)  As Thomas Edison said, Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Other Quotes that Commonly Appear in How to Write Books

 Writing is like prostitution.  First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends and then for money.

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.  Anton Chekov  

There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
William Somerset Maugham

Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until a drop of blood forms on your forehead.
Douglas Adams

Everything stinks till it's finished.
Dr. Seuss

For more writing tips, check out our book on writing:  Fiction: From Writing to Publication.

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