Quotations about   writing

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In art as in politics we must deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be. Only by working with the real can you get closer to the ideal.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
In Her Day, Preface, “A Note to the Feminist Reader” (1976)
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Added on 24-Feb-20 | Last updated 24-Feb-20
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True art selects and paraphrases, but seldom gives a verbatim translation.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) American writer, poet, critic, editor
“Leaves From a Notebook,” Ponkapog Papers (1903)
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Added on 20-Feb-20 | Last updated 20-Feb-20
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Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the number of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 4 “Consolation for Inadequacy” (2000)
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Added on 13-Feb-20 | Last updated 13-Feb-20
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An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) French writer, novelist
Letter to Louise Colet (9 Dec 1852)
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A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, Part 4 (1988)
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Added on 10-Feb-20 | Last updated 10-Feb-20
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The art object is always passive in relation to its audience. It is alarmingly active, however, in relation to its creator. Far from being like a receptacle in which you, the artist, drop your ideas, and far from being like a lump of clay which you pummel until it fits your notion of an ashtray, the art object is more like an enthusiastic and ill-trained Labrador retriever which yanks you into traffic.

Annie Dillard (b. 1945) American author
Living by Fiction (1983)
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Often paraphrased, "Art is like an ill-trained Labrador retriever that drags you out into traffic."
Added on 6-Feb-20 | Last updated 6-Feb-20
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I think the author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) English politician and author
Speech, Banquet to Lord Rector, University of Glasgow (19 Nov 1870)
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Added on 29-Jan-20 | Last updated 29-Jan-20
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The dramatic art is particularly satisfying for any writer with a polemical bent; and I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) American novelist, dramatist, critic
Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays, Preface (1956)
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Added on 28-Jan-20 | Last updated 30-Jan-20
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I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) American novelist, playwright, screenwriter
“Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy,” interview with John Jurgensen, The Wall Street Journal (20 Nov 2009)
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Added on 21-Jan-20 | Last updated 21-Jan-20
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H.G. Wells said that history was a race between education and catastrophe, and it may be that the writer will add just sufficient impetus to education to enable it to outrace catastrophe. And if education wins by even the narrowest of margins, how much more can we ask for?

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
“Your Future As A Writer,” Writer’s Digest (May 1986)
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See referenced quotation by Wells.
Added on 7-Jan-20 | Last updated 7-Jan-20
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Novels aren’t written, they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.

Michael Crichton (1942-2008) American author, producer, director, and screenwriter
(Attributed)

Crichton was quoted a number of times on the adage, which he in turn claimed was in more general use. However, he seems to have been key in popularizing it. See here for more discussion and specific citations.
Added on 12-Nov-19 | Last updated 12-Nov-19
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An author is like a horse pulling a coal-cart down an icy hill; he ought to stop, but when he reflects that it would probably kill him to try, he goes right on, neighing and rolling his eyes.

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) Canadian author, editor, publisher
The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1990)
Added on 30-Oct-19 | Last updated 30-Oct-19
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If you only write when inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
(Attributed)
Added on 14-Oct-19 | Last updated 14-Oct-19
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The author is like the host at a party. It is his party, but he must not enjoy himself so much that he neglects his guests. His enjoyment is not so much his own as it is theirs.

Charles P. Curtis (1891-1959) American attorney, legal scholar, author [Charles Pelham Curtis, Jr.]
A Commonplace Book (1957)
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Added on 20-Sep-19 | Last updated 20-Sep-19
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To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement, this book would have been finished in half the time.

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) Anglo-American humorist, playwright and lyricist [Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
A Gentleman of Leisure, Dedication (1910)
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Added on 5-Sep-19 | Last updated 5-Sep-19
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I’ve learned to write in the first-person singular while remembering always that my writing must speak to the first-person plural.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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Added on 5-Sep-19 | Last updated 5-Sep-19
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I really love language; it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies, of our existence. Most of all, it allows us to laugh. We need language.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
Added on 28-Feb-19 | Last updated 28-Feb-19
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Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 3 “The Work,” “The Passive Voice, or The Secret Agent” (1989)
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Added on 26-Nov-18 | Last updated 26-Nov-18
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I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’’re telling the truth about the human being — what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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Added on 8-Aug-18 | Last updated 8-Aug-18
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Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
— By Order of the Author

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Notice” (1884)
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Added on 12-Apr-18 | Last updated 12-Apr-18
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Remember, too, that you have the right to make mistakes. Exercise it. Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 4 (1988)
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Added on 9-Apr-18 | Last updated 9-Apr-18
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Colors fade, temples crumble, empires fall, but wise words endure.

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) American psychologist, educator
(Attributed)
Added on 5-Apr-18 | Last updated 5-Apr-18
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Man is a talking animal and he will always let himself be swayed by the power of the word.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) French author, existentialist philosopher, feminist theorist
Les Belles Images (1966)
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Added on 12-Feb-18 | Last updated 12-Feb-18
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I’m convinced if I keep going one day I will write something decent. On very bad days I will observe that I must have written good things in the past, which means that I’ve lost it. But normally I just assume that I don’t have it. The gulf between the thing I set out to make in my head and the sad, lumpy thing that emerges into reality is huge and distant and I just wish that I could get them closer.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
“This Much I Know,” The Guardian (5 Aug 2017)
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Added on 2-Oct-17 | Last updated 2-Oct-17
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There’s nothing like studying the bestseller lists of bygone years for teaching an author humility. You’ve heard of the ones that got filmed, normally. Mostly you realize that today’s bestsellers are tomorrow’s forgotten things.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
“This Much I Know,” The Guardian (5 Aug 2017)
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Added on 28-Aug-17 | Last updated 28-Aug-17
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My poems are naughty, but my life is pure.

[Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 1, poem 4, l. 8
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Alt. trans.: "Wanton is my page; my life is good." [tr. Ker (1919)]

Alt. trans.: "My page indulges in freedoms, but my life is pure." [tr. Bohn (1859)]
Added on 2-Aug-17 | Last updated 2-Aug-17
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All books are either dreams or swords,
You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

Amy Lowell (1874-1925) American poet
“Sword Blades and Poppy Seed,” l. 291 (1914)
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Added on 6-Jul-17 | Last updated 6-Jul-17
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Why do I write? I guess that’s been asked of every writer. I don’t know. It isn’t any massive compulsion. I don’t feel, you know, God dictated that I should write. You know, thunder rends the sky and a bony finger comes down from the clouds and says, “You. You write. You’re the anointed.” I never felt that. I suppose it’s part compulsion, part a channel for what your brain is churning up.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“Rod Serling: The Facts of Life,” Interview with Linda Brevelle (4 Mar 1975)
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Added on 3-Jul-17 | Last updated 3-Jul-17
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There are millions of ways to not be writing.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“Rod Serling: The Facts of Life,” Interview with Linda Brevelle (4 Mar 1975)
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Added on 22-May-17 | Last updated 22-May-17
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The writer … when he’s rejected, that paper is rejected, in a sense, a sizable fragment of the writer is rejected as well. It’s a piece of himself that’s being turned down. And how often can this happen before suddenly you begin to question your own worth and your own value? And even worse, fundamentally, your own talent?

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“Rod Serling: The Facts of Life,” Interview with Linda Brevelle (4 Mar 1975)
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Added on 15-May-17 | Last updated 15-May-17
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I suppose we think euphemistically that all writers write because they have something to say that is truthful and honest and pointed and important. And I suppose I subscribe to that, too. But God knows when I look back over thirty years of professional writing, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything that’s important. Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“Rod Serling: The Facts of Life,” Interview with Linda Brevelle (4 Mar 1975)
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Added on 8-May-17 | Last updated 8-May-17
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A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. The will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (Apr 1946)
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Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“Writing for Television – Conversations with Rod Serling,” Ithaca College (1972)
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Added on 24-Apr-17 | Last updated 24-Apr-17
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One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (Apr 1946)
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Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is timid and dislikes going into the water.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
The Gay Science [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft] (1882)
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A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (Apr 1946)
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You advise me, too, not to stray far from the ground of experience, as I become weak when I enter the region of fiction; and you say, “real experience is perennially interesting, and to all men.” I feel that this also is true; but, dear Sir, is not the real experience of each individual very limited? And, if a writer dwells upon that solely or principally, is he not in danger of repeating himself, and also of becoming an egotist? Then, too, imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised: are we to be quite deaf to her cry, and insensate to her struggles? When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) British novelist [pseud. Currer Bell]
Letter to G. H. Lewes (6 Nov 1847)
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Don’t express your ideas too clearly. Most people think little of what they understand, and venerate what they do not.

[No allanarse sobrado en el concepto. Los más no estiman lo que entienden, lo que no perciben lo veneran. Las cosas, para que se estiman, han de costar; será celebrado cuando no fuese entendido.]

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish Jesuit priest, writer, philosopher
The Art of Worldly Wisdom [Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia], #253 (1647) [tr. Maurer (1982)]

Alt. trans.: "Do not Explain overmuch. Most men do not esteem what they understand, and venerate what they do not see. ... Many praise a thing without being able to tell why, if asked. The reason is that they venerate the unknown as a mystery, and praise it because they hear it praised." [tr. Jacobs (1892)]
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The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool.

Steven Brust (b. 1955) American writer, systems programmer
The Paths of the Dead (2002)

In the essay "Some Notes Toward Two Analyses of Auctorial Method and Voice" by Teresa Nielsen Hayden.
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For Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was till somebody had told a story.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) English writer
A Book of Words, ch. 24 “Fiction” (1928)
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One major and fundamental guarantee of protracted freedom is the unfettered right of the man to write as he sees fit, as his conscience indicates, as his mood dictates, as his cause cries out for. The moment you begin to censor the writer — and history bears this out in the ugliest of fashions — so begins a process of decay in the body politic that ultimately leads to disaster. What begins with a blue pencil — for whatever reason — very often ends in a concentration camp.

It has forever been thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms — all of them — may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
Speech (1975)
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All novels are, or should be, written for both men and women to read, and I am at loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.

Anne Brontë (1820-1849) British novelist, poet [pseud. Acton Bell]
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Preface (1848)
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Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry: But that is how I see it.

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1923-1996) American science fiction writer
A Canticle for Leibowitz, “Fiat Lux,” ch. 20 (1959)
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I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.

plath-love-my-rejection-slips-wist_info-quote

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) American poet and author
(Attributed)
Added on 23-Jan-17 | Last updated 23-Jan-17
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Christopher Columbus discovered the West Indies, and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. We do not call their achievements creations because they are not personal enough. The West Indies were there all the time; and as for the telephone, we feel that Bell’s ingenious thought was somehow not fundamental. The groundwork was there, and if not Bell then someone else would have stumbled on the telephone almost as accidentally as on the West Indies.

By contrast, we feel that Othello is genuinely a creation. This is not because Othello came out of a clear sky; it did not. There were Elizabethan dramatists before William Shakespeare, and without them he could not have written as he did. Yet within their tradition Othello remains profoundly personal; and though every element in the play has been a theme of other poets, we know that the amalgam of these elements is Shakespeare’s; we feel the presence of his single mind. The Elizabethan drama would have gone on without Shakespeare, but no one else would have written Othello.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
“The Creative Process,” Scientific American (Sep 1958)
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A sacrifice, if we may say so, to the god Brevity, whom all historians, indeed, all who work with the written word, ought to worship.

Steven Brust (b. 1955) American writer, systems programmer
The Phoenix Guards (1991)
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Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) English economist
New Statesman and Nation (15 Jul 1933)
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While the spoken word can travel faster, you can’t take it home in your hand. Only the written word can be absorbed wholly at the convenience of the reader.

Kingman Brewster, Jr. (1919-1988) American educator, diplomat
“The Enduring American Press” symposium, Harvard (30 Oct 1964)
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If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up either.

cain-writing-keep-you-up-at-night-wist_info-quote

James M. Cain (1892-1977) American author and journalist
(Attributed)
Added on 1-Nov-16 | Last updated 1-Nov-16
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A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

chesterton-good-novel-truth-bad-novel-truth-wist_info-quote

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) English journalist and writer
Heretics, ch. 15 “On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set” (1905)
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It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) American novelist and screenwriter
(Attributed)
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Thinking is the activity I love best, and writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers. I can write up to 18 hours a day. Typing 90 words a minute, I’ve done better than 50 pages a day. Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put an orgy in my office and I wouldn’t look up — well, maybe once or twice.

asimov-thinking-through-my-fingers-wist_info-quote

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
(Attributed)
Added on 11-Oct-16 | Last updated 11-Oct-16
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What I try to do is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last, possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn’t so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) American author, screenwriter, political activist
Interview with Helen Herbert Foster, “House Burglary Poor Trade,” Brooklyn Eagle Magazine (Oct 1929)
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Added on 19-Sep-16 | Last updated 19-Sep-16
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The profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader. The profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until an equal mind and heart finds and publishes it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Letters and Social Aims, “Quotation and Originality” (1876)
Added on 18-Aug-16 | Last updated 18-Aug-16
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More quotes by Emerson, Ralph Waldo

An occasional glance at the obituary column of The Times has suggested to me that the sixties are very unhealthy; I have long thought that it would exasperate me to die before I had written this book, and so it seemed to me that I had better set about it at once. When I have finished it I can face the future with serenity, for I shall have rounded off my life’s work.

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) English novelist and playwright [William Somerset Maugham]
The Summing Up, ch. 3 (1938)
Added on 6-Jul-16 | Last updated 6-Jul-16
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More quotes by Maugham, W. Somerset