The Most Important Advice I’ve Gotten on Writing (circa 1909)

#1

A while back I was reading an old newspaper from 1909 and stumbled on this gem. The author isn’t listed but was described as a retired literary man. He gave this advice to a class and has been influential in my writing ever since.


“When in doubt - don’t.”

That, gentlemen would be a good maxim for you to hang up over your writing table, its application for you being:

Don’t write unless you have something to write.

Unless an idea comes to you with at least some feature of it sharply defined don’t try to write it - now; and never, if you can so train and deny yourselves, mistake a mere fancy for an idea.

We have many pleasing fancies that, bright as they may be, are still but fleeting, intangible; that will not bear nailing down. Don’t waste your time trying to put such fancies into form, for the more you work over them the more you will rend them, till you have left of them but colorless shreds and patches dry and useless, like so many dusty cobwebs, and like cobwebs finally to be brushed away.

We have, I repeat, many pleasant fancies which will not bear the rude handling involved in transcription, though in passing they may, as gentle showers do the earth, help to make fruitful our mental field. Enjoy them; but let them pass, content thus to enjoy them, and satisfied with such stimulation as they may afford. The idea worth writing and worth writing now, I say again to you, will come to you with at least some feature of it sharply defined; with something about it that will make to you a direct, living personal appeal; it will be something that you awake to and greet with a grateful smile.

Which brings me to say that such ideas may still be but vital fragments, perhaps in the striking opening, or maybe the felicitous ending of a story; or it may be that there come to you both at once; and happy you well may be if so your brain provide you. With what inspiration you may now set out, with that auspicious beginning and with what joyous ardor you may now press on to that felicitous ending! This is something worth while; a joy to you, as, let us hope, it may be to your reader.

Of there may come to you, all alive, an idea that may be vital and yet be but a fragment and even as such complete, not bringing with it any scheme or clear clue. Don’t rudely wrestle with this. Treasure it, but put it away, store it in your mind to take root and there to grow. It will attract other ideas to it, gradually but surely it will form, and then some day and suddenly perhaps it will say:

“Now write me!”

And as you write you may - and with what profound satisfaction! - in the story’s foliage discern some of those pleasing fancies that once had charmed you now come back to you, serving now in their only true function, to adorn.”


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#2

This is excellent Sean, and reminds me of my favorite book on writing https://www.amazon.com.au/Nobody-Wants-Read-Your-Sh-ebook/dp/B01GZ1TJBI

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#3

Thanks for the recommendation @matt1264985. I’m not surprised that Pressfield is taking the good ideas of the past & redeveloping them.

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