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12 Writing Quotes: Promises & Perils of an Impassioned Pursuit

What makes writing so delightfully agonising? Is it the challenge of facing our messy thoughts; not knowing what they mean? Is it the suspense we feel; oblivious to whether our ideas will take us somewhere worthwhile? Or is it the clarity that follows once we’ve tamed our stream of consciousness by turning it into a coherent piece of writing? Let’s ask some of the finest authors and thinkers. I’ve put together twelve relatable writing quotes from George Orwell to Katherine Mansfield. Here’s how we can best approach our pursuit to unlock the secrets to the perfect paragraph.

1. Writing Is Thinking

We begin our collection of writing quotes with the number one reason why writing is so important: It’s indistinguishable from critical thinking. English novelist George Orwell brings it to the point:

If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.

George Orwell

2. Writing Is Discovery

Essayist and businessman Paul Graham takes this idea even one step further.

A good writer doesn’t just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing. And there is, as far as I know, no substitute for this kind of discovery. Talking about your ideas with other people is a good way to develop them. But even after doing this, you’ll find you still discover new things when you sit down to write. There is a kind of thinking that can only be done by writing.

Paul Graham, The Need to Read

3. Wasted Talent?

When we consider writing to be the same as thinking, it’s clear why the craft can feel uniquely personal. When we put our thoughts on paper for everyone to read, it can make us vulnerable to shame. This is true even for one of the most successful novelists of our time. Someone who has sold more than 300 million books, the King of Horror:

I have spent a good many years since ― too many, I think ― being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

4. The Purpose of Writing

Criticism is to be expected. It prompts us to reconsider why we’re writing in the first place. Philosopher, investor and protagonist of The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, raises a common writing issue:

Your mistake is that you’re writing to be read.

Naval Ravikant

5. The Key to Writing

Writing shouldn’t be about pleasing others. First and foremost, it’s something between you, yourself and your ideas. With that in mind, how can we become the best writers possible? Legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld has one of the best quotes about the writing process:

The key to being a good writer is to treat yourself like a baby, very extremely nurturing and loving.

Then switch over to Lou Gossett in An Officer and a Gentleman. And just be a harsh prick, a ball-busting son of a bitch: ‘That is just not good enough. That’s gotta come out, or it’s gotta be re-done or thrown away.’

So flipping back and forth between those two brain quadrants is the key to writing. When you’re wrting you wanna treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day you wanna be just a hardass. And you switch back and forth.

Jerry Seinfeld

6. The G-Word

Once your alter ego, the uncompromising editor, comes alive, there’s no getting around the dreaded G-word. Writer and academic Beatrice Joy Chute knew how loathsome yet critical it is:

Grammar is to a writer what anatomy is to a sculptor, or the scales to a musician. You may loathe it, it may bore you, but nothing will replace it, and once mastered it will support you like a rock.

Beatrice Joy Chute

7. Writing Music

The similarities between music and writing do not end there. Here’s author and writing instructor Gary Provost with one of his most memorable and valuable quotes about writing:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals — sounds that say, listen to this; it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

8. Writer’s Block

Having mastered a crucial writing lesson is an incredible feeling. But we also need strategies to avoid the dreaded writer’s block. Creativity, so it seems, is fleeting and can abandon us any minute. Franz Kafka’s diary gives a dreadful account of a writer incapable of putting words on paper.

JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

JANUARY 30, 1915: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

FEBRUARY 7, 1915: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

MARCH 11, 1915: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.

MARCH 13, 1915: Lack of appetite, fear of getting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote nothing yesterday, that I keep getting farther and farther from it, and am in danger of losing everything I have laboriously achieved these past six months. Provided proof of this by writing one and a half wretched pages of a new story that I have already decided to discard… Occasionally I feel an unhappiness that almost dismembers me, and at the same time am convinced of its necessity and of the existence of a goal to which one makes one’s way by undergoing every kind of unhappiness.

Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923

9. No Rules

Relying on the muse to come knocking on your door again whenever it pleases her doesn’t seem like a good idea. In her absence, brute force might be in order. At least according to novelist Ernest Hemingway:

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly: sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

Ernest Hemingway

10. Mastery

It doesn’t matter how often you thought you were never going to write a single word again. It doesn’t matter how often your estimation proved to be patently false. Sooner or later, the joy of writing returns. Robert Greene, author of several books on power, strategy and education depicts this moment as follows:

The idea is that once you do enough woork on a project, enough preparation, and you’ve had all these months of experience delving into the subject, you often reach a state of creativity where ideas come to you out of nowhere. And suddenly this was happening to me. After all my research and all the preparation, by the time I had reached chapter five, ideas for that chapter were coming to me while I was taking a shower, while I was taking a walk. I was even dreaming about the book and ideas were coming to me in my sleep, confirming what I was writing about.

And this made me very surpised and very inspired. […] The idea is that even further along in the process, you start to have a very intuitive feel for the subject. It’s almost as if the book or the project is living inside of you.

Robert Greene, The Daily Laws

11. Publishing

Perhaps there is one surefire way to summon the muse after all. It’s to put thousands of iterations into our work. After all, the minor improvements drive our writing, no matter how insignificant they seem. According to humorist David Sedaris, a key to this approach is to detach writing from publishing:

Don’t confuse publishing with writing. They’re two completely different things. Let the world take care of the publishing part. That’s not your job. I wrote every day for 15 years before my first book came out. That seemed normal to me. I throw away maybe a third of what I write. That’s normal to me. Sometimes it’s easy, but most times it’s not. That’s normal to me.

David Sedaris

12. Surrender

It appears like the most challenging yet most important part of being a writer is our ability to let go. Either of a cherished idea or of distractions. Essayist Katherine Mansfield put it much more pointedly:

I sometimes wonder whether the act of surrender is not one of the greatest of all – the highest. It is one of the [most] difficult of all… You see it’s so immensely complicated. It needs real humility and at the same time, an absolute belief in one’s own essential freedom. It is an act of faith. At the last moments, like all great acts, it is pure risk. This is true for me as a human being and as a writer. Dear Heaven, how hard it is to let go – to step into the blue. And yet one’s creative life depends on it and one desires to do nothing else.

Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield Letters And Journals: A Selection

BONUS: Truthful Writing

Yes, your writing should rely on recognisable storytelling tropes. But you must also find ways to disrupt people’s expectations. If you’re pushing boundaries with your writing, chances are it will upset and offend people. Here’s Stephen King again speaking about truthful writing and the social consequences:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Closing Thoughts

The promises and perils of writing are par for the course. But nobody has ever accomplished something by merely delving into writing quotes alone. So may I suggest you get back to your desk and start writing? If you’re looking for some practical help, check out my articles on How to Get Better at Writing in 7+1 Steps and Orwell’s Writing Rules: How to Write With Clarity.