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John Steinbeck’s 6 Writing Tips

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We’ve talked about the writing rules of famous authors on this blog before. Most of you know about Jonathan Franzen’s 10 rules, but we’ve also looked at the writing guidelines of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood.

Today, let’s take a look at John Steinbeck’s 6 writing rules, published recently by The Paris Review:

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

I love these tips. I think Steinbeck’s tips are more practical than any I’ve posted on 101 Books. And, really, other than #6, you can apply all of these pointers to nonfiction as well. I think that’s why they struck a chord with me.

I can’t tell you how true I’ve found #2 to be. You’ve just got to get it all down on paper and worry about cleaning up the crap later. Usually, the good stuff doesn’t come out until you’ve been plugging away for awhile.

And, #3, this is one I still struggle with. As writers, we want people to like what we write. We want approval. But you can’t please everyone. Someone might even call your blog “the death of art and meaning.” It’s happened. So I love the idea of dropkicking those negative voices out of your head and writing for one person.

And, last, even though I don’t write fiction, #6 seems to be so true. That’s why I found William Gibson’s dialogue in Neuromancer so stilted. No one talks that way. And Gibson wasn’t even being ironic. It’s just bad dialogue.

Any of these tips hit home for you?

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hello,
    many thanks for John Steinbeck’s writing tips. I’m just a blog owner and as such I’ve tried
    to summarize East of Eden and have know added the link of your tipps to my article.
    Best regards

    March 7, 2012
  2. feritz #

    i read most of his works it was brilliant

    March 7, 2012
  3. I love #1!!!!

    March 7, 2012
  4. I love Steinbeck’s writing! The first tip is the best….

    March 7, 2012
    • That first one is really good. It’s kind of a good rule for any big project, too.

      March 7, 2012
  5. These are good!

    My favorite dialogue tip is from Stephen King:

    “To write adverbs is human, to write “he said” or “she said” is divine.”

    March 7, 2012
  6. John Steinbeck is amazing at dialogue! Thanks for this post – I love the list of his writing rules. A must read for everyone!

    March 7, 2012
  7. Don Heath #

    Numbers 4 and 5 should be helpful in avoiding bad writing. In many movies made recently, I see the directors making the mistake of ignoring these rules. Many movies (and some books) seem to be more about “that special scene” than about good story-telling.
    By the way, when asked, “What is the best novel you ever read?”, I quickly answered “East Of Eden, by John Steinbeck”.

    March 7, 2012
  8. Lauren #

    I love #6! It seems so obvious; I’m not sure why I’ve never thought of it before. I definitely will be trying that one out, because I’m always worried dialogue sections sound awkward.

    #1 is great, because it takes a lot of stress out of the process, which makes it all fun again.

    I also appreciate #3. I have a friend who’s been reading some of a novel I’m working on, and it helps to write the story for her specifically. Keeping a friend or anyone in particular in mind makes writing fiction a true story-telling process, and for me that keeps the story from growing cold.

    Thanks for sharing these tips, Robert!

    March 7, 2012
  9. Reblogged this on Inkings and Inklings.

    March 7, 2012
  10. Reblogged this on pujidotorg.

    March 8, 2012
  11. Bobbo #

    cue the angry mob of gibson fans ready to kill any critisism with pompous “only superior minds get it” blather.

    March 9, 2012
  12. This is great advice, and I have found myself having to adopt some of them (#2 in particular) this year. I was shocked when it actually worked.

    March 9, 2012
  13. Many thanks for the 6 writing tips.

    November 24, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. East of Eden/By John Steinbeck « Rivella49's Blog
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  4. John Steinbeck On Writing | 101 Books
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  7. Ann Patchett’s 7 Writing Tips | 101 Books

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