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John Steinbeck On Writing

It’s The Grapes of Wrath week! A week dedicated to angry grapes? Yes!

I have so much to say about The Grapes of Wrath, I thought I’d dedicate this whole week to nothing but posts related to the novel. It’s all The Grapes of Wrath, all the time.

Today, I thought I’d start with a repost. I’m not on vacation or anything. All of the posts this week will be brand new, but this post is relevant enough to The Grapes of Wrath I thought it was worthy to post again. The original post was on March 7, 2012.

John Steinbeck’s Six Writing Rules

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?

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. These definitely make sense. #6 is one that I will have to try, as I always struggle with writing dialogue. And #1 &2 are both ones that help me personally.
    Thanks for sharing!


    August 13, 2012
  2. It’s a good list, of course, but #6 applies to all kinds of writing, not just dialog and not just fiction. Reading work out loud is the surest way I’ve found to discover when my writing goes CLANK. Even non-fiction should have a rhythm and flow; reading it out loud will let you determine whether you’ve found that rhythm or not. The same is true for narrative in fiction. And poetry? Every good poet knows that reading their work out loud is the acid test.


    August 13, 2012
  3. I think the first piece of advice is the one that’s going to lead you to all the rest. One page a day. Much more manageable than thinking about the stacks and stacks of words you need to pile up for an entire novel.


    August 13, 2012
    • Yep. Maybe even get crazy and go for two pages a day.


      August 13, 2012
  4. Teresa #

    Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish… Awesome. Life happens, work happens and yet all it takes is just plugging along.


    August 13, 2012
    • Yep. And I also take that as a challenge to give up on perfectionism. It will never be perfect, but at some point you have to move on.


      August 13, 2012
  5. #2 and #6. Thanks for the list


    August 13, 2012
  6. I’ve never been a Steinbeck fanatic, but I can definitely appreciate these tips!


    August 14, 2012
  7. I will remember tips #1 & #2, especially #2 – I tend to take 2 steps forward and one back. I’d get my novels finished so much quicker if I just fired on ahead! I always go over and over it anyway, after it’s done.


    August 15, 2012
  8. Reblogged this on Thoughts, Ideas and Experiences .


    August 16, 2012
  9. Guess its time to read it then! Just read my first Steinbeck this year ‘The Pearl’ and loved it, time for another I do believe. Great post.


    August 16, 2012
  10. Reblogged this on Wandering Fool and commented:
    I need to use these when I start writing again.


    February 22, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Steinbeck’s Rules for Writing « Michael Palmer
  2. Writing, Steinbeck and Stolen Dreams
  3. Inspiration from their Journey « What Fresh Hell Is This
  4. The Best Writing Quotes That Ever Existed | 101 Books
  5. Steinbeck Mocks The Publishing Process | 101 Books
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