Notes on Writing from Writers
by Philip Yaffe
When I am introduced at social gatherings,
the host or hostess usually says: "Hi, I want you to meet Philip
Yaffe. He is a professional writer." I almost always
get the same response: "Oh, really. What type of novels do
In other words, people automatically
associate the term "writer" with "literature";
as if fiction were the only type of writing. It isn't. And for most
ordinary people, such as myself, it is the least important, yet
it always seems to take pride of place. Scholastic snobbery has
a lot to do with this.
Virtually every secondary school and many universities require students
to take courses in literature. However, virtually no one who takes
such courses will ever write a novel, a stage play, a film script;
or any other form of fiction. On the other hand, few schools and
universities require students to take courses in writing non-fiction.
Yet virtually everyone needs these skills to produce reports, memos,
letters, marketing plans, company newspapers, and all the other
types of non-fiction texts essential for getting on in life.
Internet searches for quotations about writing almost invariable
turn of the thoughts of novelists, poets, playwrights, etc., again
as if fiction were the only category of writing of any consequence.
I made such a search in order to put together this article. At first
I was disappointed by the lopsided results, but on further reflection
they turned out to be quite fortuitous. I normally make a strong
distinction between "creative writing" (fiction) and
"expository writing" (non-fiction). In fact, this
difference is the foundation of a book I recently wrote on the subject,
where I explained how and why they are truly very different genres.
Nevertheless, when reviewing the quotations, it became apparent
that the feelings and emotions of good writers in both genres are
Thus, whether we are creative writers (the tiny minority of us)
or expository writers (the vast majority us), we can all learn something
from these renowned writing practitioners.
For convenience, I have tried to categorize their insightful
quotations. However, creative writing and expository writing
are both highly unified activities. Their fundamental features are
so intimately interwoven that any attempt to separate them must
necessarily fail. Nevertheless, pretending to disjoin them helps
organize our thoughts.
no apologies for any "mis-categorized" quotes, here
is what these respected writers had to say.
The Essence of Good Writing
Thomas Edison once said: "Genius is 1 per cent
inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration". In other
words, it's hard work. The same is true of writing,
both creative and expository. This is good news, because
it means that even the least inspired of us can write
well if we are just willing to expend the necessary
Here are a few more quotations along the same line.
"A writer is somebody for whom writing is more
difficult than it is for other people." - -Thomas
"The secret of good writing is to say an old thing
in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way."
- - Richard Harding Davis
is clear thinking made visible." - - Bill Wheeler
"Writers must constantly ask: what I am trying to say?
Surprisingly often, they don't know." - - William
"There are two kinds of writers in the world: bad writers
and improving writers." - - William Blundell
"Every writer I know has trouble writing." - -
"Good writing is hard work" - - Snoopy (Charles
2. Writing as Discovery
"I know very dimly when I start what's going to happen.
I just have a very general idea, and then the thing develops
as I write." - - Aldous Huxley
"There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man that
he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes."
- - William Makepeace Thackeray
"The act of writing is the act of discovering what you
believe." - - David Hare
"Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't
wait to get to work in the morning. I wanted to know what
I was going to say." - - Sharon O'Brien
"I never know what I think about something until I read
what I've written on it." - - William Faulkner
In other words, if you believe
you have nothing to say, pick a topic and start writing. You
may surprise yourself.
The Objectives of Good Writing
cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing
how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out
- - Ray Bradbury
"I write because I'm afraid to say some things out loud"
- - Anonymous.
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which
other people can think." - - Edwin Schlossberg
"When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish.
I think it's a wonderful way to spend one's life" - -
The Techniques of Good Writing
I write, the better my output. If I'm going slow, I'm in trouble.
It means I'm pushing the words instead of being pulled by
them." - - Raymond Chandler
"Work extra hard on the beginning of your story, so it
snares reader's instantly. And know how you're going to end
your story before you start writing. Without a sense of direction,
you can get lost in the middle." - - Joan Lowery
"Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific
writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a
lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use
all the colors." - - Rhys Alexander
"What I like in a good author is not what he says, but
what he whispers". - - Logan Pearsall Smith.
"Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation
mark is like laughing at your own jokes." - - F.
"Nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood
- - Jr. Teague
Writing & Rewriting
a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." -
- James Michener
"Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a
paragraph that, if you were unimaginative, would take you
only a minute. Or you might not write the paragraph at all."
- - Franklin P. Adams
"Write your first draft with your heart. Re-write with
your head." - - Anonymous
"The time to begin writing an article is when you have
finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to
clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want
to say." - - Mark Twain
"I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not
had the time to make it shorter" - - Blaise Pascal
"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote
a long one instead." - - Mark Twain
In other words, the first draft is almost always too long
and poorly structured. To be clear and concise requires at
least a second draft, and often more. Or put more succinctly:
"The first draft of anything is sh*t." - - Ernest
Clarity & Conciseness
"When something can be read without effort, great effort
has gone into its writing." - - Enrique Jardiel
"Easy reading is damn hard writing." - - Nathaniel
"What is written without effort is in general read without
pleasure." - - Samuel Johnson
"Resist the temptation to try to use dazzling style to
conceal weakness of substance."- - Stanley Schmidt
"Don’t write merely to be understood. Write so that you
cannot possibly be misunderstood." - - Robert Louis
"The writer does the greatest good who gives his reader
the most knowledge and takes from him the least time."
- - Sydney Smith
Style & Words
"'I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words
as they tangle with human emotions.' - - James Michener
"A good style should show no signs of effort. What is
written should seem a happy accident." - - W. Somerset
"You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of
others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire
show through the smoke. - - Arthur Polotnik
"Writers must rely more on the feel of a sentence than
on the dictates of a rule book." - - James J. Kilpatrick
"Like stones, words are laborious and unforgiving, and
the fitting of them together, like the fitting of stones,
demands great patience and strength of purpose and particular
skill." - - Edmund Morrison
"The difference between the right word and the almost
right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning
bug." - - Mark Twain
8. Egoism Unbound
Few writers ever have the opportunity to quote themselves.
I don't know if anything I have ever said will be remembered
a hundred years from now, or even a hundred minutes from now.
But for what they are worth, here are few ideas I have encountered,
developed, and believed in for over 40 years.
"Convoluted writing is easy, it takes little thought.
Simple writing is difficult; it takes all the thinking you
can muster - and then some." "Simple writing is
a challenge whose rewards are boundless. Once a writer recognizes
this, everything else falls into place." "Good writing
- and by extension good speaking - depend on only a handful
of fundamental principles. Once you have mastered these, all
the tips and techniques for applying them become almost self-evident."
"Clarity can be defined as a quasi-mathematical formula,
which is also a recipe for effectively applying it. To be
clear, you must do three things:
what is of key importance.
2. De-emphasise what is of secondary importance.
3. Eliminate what is of no importance.
In short: CL
can be defined as a quasi-mathematical formula, which is also
a recipe for effectively applying it. To be concise, your
text must be as:
1. Long as necessary,
i.e. adequately cover all essential material
2. Short as possible, i.e. avoid all superfluous words, sentences
In short: CO
and conciseness are two sides of the same coin. To be clear,
you must be concise. Unnecessary verbiage obscures, so it
must be eliminated. Likewise, to be concise, you must be clear.
Only by knowing precisely what you want to say can you eliminate
obscuring words, sentences and paragraphs." "Writing
is like cooking. You assemble the ingredients and start mixing.
When the lifeless liquid begins to stiffen and take shape,
you know you are making a cake. For me, the feeling is really
"Continually ask yourself: 'Why the hell should anyone
want to read what I am writing?' If you can't give at least
three good reasons, stop writing and start thinking. Otherwise,
you will be wasting everyone's time - principally your own."
"Aim for the lowest common denominator. Virtually no
one will object that your text is too easy, but some may object
that it is too hard. Focus on those who may not understand;
they are your true audience. The others will not object."
"The basic principles of good writing and speaking are
few and easy to understand. Unfortunately, most books on the
subject bury them under an avalanche of tips and techniques."
Having just written a book myself, let me conclude with something
I wish I had said, but in fact comes from someone else. "Inside
every fat book there is a thin book struggling to get out"
- - Anonymous Amen.
Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple
Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is
available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (amazon.com). For further information, contact:
Philip Yaffe, Brussels, Belgium Email: [email protected]