Category Archives: writing

Just Start and Don’t Give Up

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years? And don’t neglect music. I suspect that music can contribute to it as much as anything else. Tend to keep distant from religious, political, and social obligations. And I would think that you shouldn’t give up until it’s plainly and totally impossible.”

Jim Harrison

Outline First

“I’m determined to think through the book from beginning to end before I start it. First I make a very short outline, just a page or two. Then I start filling it in with transitional sentences and key thoughts. You’re really writing the book without the details at that stage. Then what I do is I go through the notes and fill in the details. Let’s say I have a hundred and fifty pages of notes dealing with a particular incident—but of course I don’t; I have nearly a thousand. Anyway, you give a number to each interview. You go through all your file folders, and you index everything in it to that outline. And the outline keeps growing until you’ve got the entire book—an entire wall, twenty or thirty feet long, covered with paper. There it is. And then you come in one day, and you look at it, and you have to start writing.”

Robert Caro

How to Write Clearly

“Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask ‘Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?’”

—Evelyn Waugh

(Via Terry Teachout.)



“Honestly: scholars bore me. I don’t have the spine to withstand colorless writing for very long, and furthermore I suspect that colorless writing is indicative of colorless thought.”

Luc Sante

 (Image via the New York TimesPreviously on SFYP.)

Writing Disappears

Slavoj Žižek in Žižek! (dir. Astra Taylor, 2005):

I have a very complicated ritual about writing. It’s psychologically impossible for me to sit down, so I have to trick myself. I operate a very simple strategy which, at least, with me, works. I put down ideas, but I put them down usually already in a relatively elaborate way, like the line of thought already written, full sentences, and so on. So up to a certain point I’m telling myself, no, I’m not yet writing, I’m just putting down ideas. Then, at a certain point, I tell myself, everything is already there, now I just have to edit it. So that’s the idea, to split it into two: I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears.

Dual Profession

“What the young writer of today should contemplate is a dual profession – and incidentally it would be the best thing in the world for his tortured creativeness to be forced to touch some non-literary world, forced to remember what saner folk are daily up to. Let the young Balzac or Byron not only wear his elbows shiny at his desk, but let him with equal assiduity learn another and slightly more lucrative calling. But I would like him to keep out of advertising, journalism, and the teaching of literature, if possible, because they are too much akin to his writing. No, let him become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator, and with the two professions together, he make make a living … provided any of us will be ‘making a living,’ a couple of decades from now.”

—Sinclair Lewis, Yale Literary Magazine, 1936

(Hat tip: @GenerationMeh.)

Sitting Down to Write

“I sit down to write, praying that I can sustain attention long enough to complete a paragraph. I compose half a sentence, type in a word or two that might push the thing to the finish, crave a break from the exhausting demands of syntax, click-click, and I’m at my home page, and I click my way to my e-mail. Maybe the editor says yes or there’s an invitation from someone to contribute or lecture or just some person who loves my book and is writing to say so or maybe a friend asking for lunch, anything to tweak my ego, desperate-needy, or give me something to think about other than the next phrase or clause, and as usual, nothing, not one goddamn thing. ‘Is my college’s server down?’ I wonder; ‘it’s been thirty minutes since I’ve gotten an email, for fuck’s sake; surely the silence shouldn’t be so long,’ and I soar, cursor-wise, up to bookmarks, go to, must get the latest on LeBron James, same info as last time, ten minutes ago, and so click to Facebook, no message or friend request, so check out what George from my high school is doing, oh, having a second cup of coffee, and now there’s Valerie from the neighborhood posting another article on the mistreatment of otters (I just checked my e-mail right now, this minute, tenth time in the past five minutes), and I’ve got to get back to the writing, but one more—click-click—over the New York Times page.”

—Eric G. Wilson, Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life