Best Advice

Seeking guidance? Inspiration? Find it in these selected essays on writing and the writing life by our editors and authors, including Sherman Alexie, Rick Bass, Carol Edgarian, Donald Hall, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Cynthia Ozick, and others, drawn from our Archive.

Season (Northern):
. . . and perhaps you’re wondering, Should I? Where? What can I expect? To what end? Some such questions are answerable, while others don’t have absolute answers but offer ways of defining the unpredictable path of desire, ambition, success, and the future.

Here we offer some things to think about when considering a degree path.

Notes on Writing a Novel
 by Elizabeth Bowen
The novelist’s perceptions of his characters take place in the course of the actual writing of the novel. To an extent, the novelist is in the same position as his reader. But his perceptions should be always just in advance.

 by W. H. Auden
A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E. M. Forster—“How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.

Letters to a Young Writer
 by Carol Edgarian
Be generous. I mean, be generous on the page. Be discriminating with your characters, yes, but give to your reader with both hands—give like a lover. Don’t hold back. Don’t get tricky on your reader. Don’t save that good bit for later when things get dull. Above all, don’t mess with your reader’s heart. Woo your reader with riches; woo her with everything you’ve got. Your characters, your words, your story, your song: they are the coins in your pocket with which you pay for the honor of entertaining a reader. Spend them wisely. Spend them with joy. Spend them with love. Spend them as if you want to win the heart of your reader forever. As the great writers have won you.

The student writer may have a secret or instinctive belief that writing should occur spontaneously, and certainly when writing succeeds that way, it’s a gift. More often than not, however, wholly successful passages spring from unerring, spontaneous inspiration only intermittently and unconscious artistry cannot be depended on to achieve completed, successful works.

Hall’s Index
 by Donald Hall
The phrase dead metaphor is a dead metaphor, henceforth known as DM. The phrase implies that the metaphor was once a living organism, like a human being, but died and became a corpse. When we use such words in our poems, we populate our poems with zombies. . . . The dead metaphor is not a criminal activity—but it is an activity at odds with poetry.

I try to find stories that seem to leap into existence off the half shell—stories in which the writer seems so inextricably woven into the fabric of the fiction that one can forget, as Somerset Maugham puts it, that it is a story one is reading and not a life one is living. I try to find stories that neither sanctify victimhood nor labor to serve received standards of rectitude.

Best Advice
 by Kirsten Valdez Quade
It is possible, I suppose, to live by simply replicating received responses to the events around us: joy at this graduation, sadness at that failed relationship. Certainly Hallmark cards and bad television encourage this kind of superficial engagement with the world. But if we examine our own emotional reactions closely and with clear eyes, the truth is usually much more complicated—and more interesting.

 by Rick Bass
Beginning writers look for rules, guidelines, clever sayings that can be posted on a mirror, and these things are important, or at least they were for me. My apartment used to be cluttered with sayings such as Flaubert’s “Live like a bourgeois and think like a demigod.” I also had on my walls crazy sentences, lines I’d typed out of novels, lines that I liked for their rhythm or their content.

A Short Short Theory
 by Robert Olen Butler
As any Buddhist will tell you, a human being (or a “character”) cannot exist for even a few seconds of time on planet Earth without desiring something. Yearning for something, a word I prefer because it suggests the deepest level of desire, where literature strives to go. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.

The Human Comedy
 by Sherman Alexie
Six-worders are a cool hybrid. They work in a strict three-act structure, like screenplays.

The Teaching of Writing
 by Kay Boyle
Most adults, having somehow lost touch with the great simplicities, have forgotten that to write is to speak of one’s beliefs. Turning out a typescript with the number of words neatly estimated in the upper right hand corner of the first page has nothing to do with writing. Neither have questions about the prices paid by Harper’s Magazine or the Atlantic Monthly or the Ladies’ Home Journal or Esquire. Writing is something else entirely, as the young instinctively know.

The Lesson of the Master
 by Cynthia Ozick
The Lesson of the Master is a double one: choose ordinary human entanglement, and live; or choose Art, and give up the vitality of life’s passions and panics and endurances. What I am going to tell now is a stupidity, a misunderstanding, a great Jamesian life-mistake: an embarrassment and a life-shame.
Agents: The Business of Writing
 by Tom Jenks
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, noted, “Never pursue literature as a trade.” It’s good advice, but high-mindedness doesn’t necessarily pay the bills or produce an audience. For most artists the variables of money and time demand ongoing efforts at solution. This is where agents come in.