Over the years, I’ve collected quotes on writing that speak to the craft, the discipline, and the thrill of putting thought into words. On a regular basis, I get asked for advice on writing more or writing better, and I find myself returning to the suggestions implied by these ten quotes.
1. “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
Other writers make a similar point. Here’s Stephen Pinker: “Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash.”
And, of course, Stephen King: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Too many times, people have told me they have a book inside them, when in reality, they have a chapter. In order to really write, you must really read. First fill the library of your mind; then see if there’s a book in there.
2. “Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.” – Cal Newport
Writing doesn’t begin with filling your mind with substance, but emptying it of clutter. Whenever I try to make headway on a book, I schedule a few days away and abide by strict rules. Unplug the television. No listening to podcasts. Nothing but a pen and notebook when I’m walking, or when I go out to eat. It’s time for writing and thinking—mulling over ideas, considering new concepts, trying out new structures and putting together sentences to see how they fit. Clean out the clutter before you commence.
3. “Shakespeare stole; but he did wonderful things with his plunder. He’s like somebody who nicks your old socks and then darns them.” – Mark Forsyth
Truth be told, there is no original thought. Not totally original, anyway. We’re not talking plagiarism here, but simply the acknowledgment that good writing is just a creative and compelling presentation of truths discovered elsewhere. Were you to list the source for every single idea in your book the end notes would be longer than the body. The world is your source. Plunder its treasure and repay it with wonderful words.
4. “A writer is a world trapped in a person.” – Victor Hugo
Our kids have heard me say that every book in our home is a world that can be entered. We don’t have a library full of books; we have a room filled with worlds. But what about the world that gives birth to a world? That’s what a writer is.
Hugo’s quote captures the feeling after you’ve done the hard work of preparation and are now bursting with words. Like Jeremiah describing the passion for prophesying as a “fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones,” the writer senses a world trapped inside that must be released through words.
5. “The people who achieve extraordinary results don’t achieve them by working more hours. They achieve them getting more done in the hours they work.” – Gary Keller
This quote applies to productivity, yet is especially true of writing. Good writers block out time; they set aside distractions and commit themselves to the task. It’s not the amount of time that matters most, but the depth of focus during that time.
Focusing is the hardest part. John Stott called it PIM (“pain in mind”) and believed the best work doesn’t happen without it. But when it’s most painful—when you don’t shy away from the mental exhaustion but lean into it—that’s when you are most likely to make progress and do good work.
6. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King
Don’t wait to write until the creative juices are flowing. They won’t flow until you start to write. It’s work. Get to it.
7. “Don’t be afraid of your reader.”
I say this to people all the time, and I don’t remember where I first heard it. Writing is already difficult. To cower before your reader, expecting them to pounce on every little mistake or disagreement, will paralyze the process. So don’t be afraid of the person on the other side of the page. Your heart is to serve them with your words. Offer what you have and expect them to say “Thank you.”
8. “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult
The first stage in writing is getting words out there. Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to see. Just write. You can clean up the mess later.
Don’t fall for the Michelangelo myth—the notion that he saw the final product in a block of marble and then just chipped away until the figure emerged. Sounds inspiring, but it’s false. Michelangelo altered his sculptural plans as he went, testing his ideas and changing his mind. He learned through practice not theory. Good writers do the same.
9. “Whenever there’s something wrong with your writing, suspect that there’s something wrong with your thinking.” – Patricia O’ Connor
If you can’t get clear in your words, it’s not clear in your head. When you’re in the editing stage and you come across sections that don’t make sense or things you want to say but can’t express, follow the trail of misery back to your thought process. It’s there you’ll find the fog.
10. “Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.” – C. S. Lewis
William Zinsser backs up Lewis on this point: “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not… I write by ear, and sound is what leads me to what I’m rummaging for.” This is why I read out loud, from start to finish, every book I write before it goes to print.
I always enjoy adding writing quotes to my collection. If you’ve come across some that are helpful, send them my way.
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