6 writing tips from John Steinbeck

The legendary author explains why you must give up all hope of finishing your novel.

If it is the year of read more and write better, we followed the course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no bullshit tips, Henry Miller 11 commandments, and various valuable tips from other great writers. Now comes John Steinbeck, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Nobel Prize Winner, love guru– with six tips on writing, taken from her excellent interview in the Fall 1975 issue of The Parisian review.

1. Let go of the idea that you will ever end up. Lose track of the 400 pages and write only one page per day, it helps. Then when it’s over, you’re still surprised.

2. Write freely and as quickly as possible and put it all down on paper. Never correct or rewrite until everything is finished. The rewrite in progress is usually seen as an excuse not to continue. It also interferes with the flow and rhythm which can only come from some kind of unconscious association with matter.

3. Forget about your generalized audience. First, the nameless and faceless audience will scare you to death and second, unlike theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick a person – a real person you know or an imaginary person and write to them.

4. If a scene or section gets the better of you and you still think you want it, ignore it and continue. When you’re done, you can come back to it and you might find that the reason it caused some problems is that there was no place for it.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the others. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue, say it out loud as you write it. Only then will he have the sound of speech.

But perhaps most paradoxically but poetically, 12 years ago – in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and acute social perception” – Steinbeck Posted a thoughtful warning to all of these tips:

“If there is magic in writing a story, and I’m convinced of it, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from person to person. The formula seems to lie solely in the writer’s painful urge to convey something that he considers important to the reader. If the writer has this urge, he can sometimes, but not always, find a way to do it. You have to perceive the excellence that makes a good story or the mistakes that make a bad story. Because a bad story is just an ineffective story.

If you’re feeling bold enough to ignore Steinbeck’s anti-advice tips, you can do so with these 9 essential books on more and writing. Find more of these gems in this collection of invaluable interviews with literary icons from half a century of Paris Review archives.

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