Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Quotable Quotes on Writing

One of my nerdy little hobbies is collecting quotes about writing by famous authors. But I just don't collect them -- I read them, regularly. I find that reading a good quote is a bit like a shot of Vitamin B, or, even, a splash of cold water in the face. It energizes you -- by helping you resolve to do better. At other times, a pithy quote is more like a tour guide pointing out an important bit of scenery in a strange country. "Oh, that's what I should be noticing," you say to yourself. Finally, the telling quote can also be a laugh line -- a chance to guffaw at your own writing foibles (much more effective than crying over them). Here are eight of my favorite quotes, collected over the last year:

Winston Churchill knew a thing or three about the high-stakes game of persuasive writing. Here is his well honed advice:

If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time -- a tremendous whack.

English schoolmaster Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) and his brother, the writer Francis George Fowler (1871-1918), devoted their lives to encouraging people to write more clearly and directly. If you don't have time to read their intimidating (but wonderful) book Modern English Usage, here's a maxim to keep posted beside your computer:

Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavor, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.

Muriel Rukeyser (1913 to 1980) was an American poet and political activist. And I suppose it would take a poet to express such a profound thought in so few words:

The world is not made up of atoms; it's made up of stories.

Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad (1891 to 1953) was an English philosopher and broadcasting personality famous for his appearance on the BBC program The Brains Trust in which experts debated questions such as "what is the meaning of life?" He had a deep egalitarian streak, which you can see in this quote about writing. (I agree with his sentiment so profoundly that I'm almost prepared to forgive him for a 77-word sentence):

All the talk about style and form and quality of expression in writing which agitates literary circles is simply highfalutin' bunkum, designed to hoodwink people into the belief that writing is much more mysterious than it really is, by those whose living depends on the maintenance of the mystery, and that if the plain man would only take the trouble to say quite plainly what he thinks, good and even easy writing would be the inevitable result.

Whenever I am tempted to overwrite, get too flowery or obfuscate, I schedule a fast remedial reading of the masterpiece Politics and the English Language by writer and journalist George Orwell (1903-1950). Still, for brevity, it's hard to beat his seven-word piece of advice:

Good prose is like a window pane.

I'm not typically an Andy Rooney fan. I've always found his little homilies on the TV show 60 Minutes a bit too precious and his delivery bordering on self-parody. But every once in awhile, he hits the mark, as he does here:

Keep in mind that you're more interested in what you have to say than anyone else.

Contemporary American writer Annie Dillard can be counted on to both comfort and uplift writers who are in trouble. Here is what she has to say about getting in the writing "zone."

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of an unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then -- and only then -- is it handed to you.

Many years ago I gave a dinner party at which a friend performed an impromptu reading from the book Metropolitan Life by humorist Fran Lebowitz. I remember laughing so hard, I started to worry about whether I could continue breathing. Whenever I hit the writing wall, and when all else fails, I can cheer myself immeasurably by remembering her sage advice:

I hate writing. I will do anything to avoid it. The only way I could write less is if I was dead.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 24th 2007, 10:45 AM
Comment by: Ana G.
I have shared your "little hobby" from the time I was a pre-teen. Here goes one from my collection that I have felt in "my own pulses," as John Keats would have it. In my late teens, while reading Schopenhauer's works, I came through his idea of the "floating state," which is exactly what I had described Life to be like some months before I began reading the great philosopher's works:

"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." -Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882).

Wednesday October 24th 2007, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Delightful! Great morning pick-me-up. Thanks for posting these gems.
Wednesday October 24th 2007, 2:06 PM
Comment by: J N.
My favorite is by Jack London:

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet." Jack London

Thanks for sharing yours.

J. Neiman-Sander
Wednesday October 24th 2007, 2:50 PM
Comment by: Allan A.
The rule of St. Benedict says it best:

"Always we begin again."
Wednesday October 24th 2007, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Gloria D.
Elmore Leonard says it best for me: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip."
Wednesday October 24th 2007, 4:27 PM
Comment by: Mary C A.
A friend sent me this one. I have it posted in very large print.

"I met long ago, a young man who aspired to become a novelist. Knowing that I was in the profession, he asked me to tell him how he should set to work to realize his ambition. I did my best to explain. 'The first thing,' I said, 'is to buy quite a lot of paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen. After that you merely have to write.'"
Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963
Thursday October 25th 2007, 12:32 AM
Comment by: Robert D.
Here's one. I apologize for paraphrasing, and I can't recall the author, but the sentiment's good for any writer who's having a tough time getting started:

"I only write when I'm creative, and I make it a point to be creative every morning at 9.
Thursday October 25th 2007, 7:06 AM
Comment by: Manivannan P.
It is great!
Thursday October 25th 2007, 11:00 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the great additions to my collection everyone!

Anyone who enjoys this quote-collecting hobby (obsession?) will love the big fat book: Words on Words -- Quotations About Language and Languages by David Crystal and Hilary Crystal. --daphne
Friday October 26th 2007, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Steve P.
I grew up reading the Chinese version of the Reader's Digest and have been drawn to the Quotable Quotes; while not so many people read that section. I thought I was weird.

It is such a relief and joy to know that there are worlds of people enjoys collecting and reading quotable quotes.
Friday October 26th 2007, 9:49 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hey, BD, thanks to some help from a friend who's a fantastic researcher, I can tell you the source of that quote. It is Peter De Vries and the exact quote is: "I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning."

We turned up several other colourful quotes including: "I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork." and "I was thinking that we all learn by experience, but some of us have to go to summer school." Rather Oscar Wilde-ish, don't you think?

Here is his Wikipedia entry:

"De Vries was born in Chicago, Illinois of Dutch immigrant parents. He was educated in Dutch Christian Reformed Church schools, graduating from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1931. He also studied at Northwestern University. He supported himself with a number of different jobs, including those of vending machine operator, toffee-apple salesman, radio actor in the 1930s, and as an editor for Poetry magazine from 1938 to 1944. He joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine at the insistence of James Thurber and worked there from 1944 to 1987, writing stories and touching up cartoon captions. He had four children with wife Katinka Loeser; Jon, Derek, Jan, and Emily, who died at the age of 10 of leukemia. This experience provided the inspiration for his 1961 work, The Blood of the Lamb.

Given his Dutch background and experiences in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the psychiatric hospital referenced in The Blood of the Lamb is likely Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in nearby Cutlerville, Michigan.

De Vries received an honorary degree in 1979 from Susquehanna University. He died September 28, 1993 in Norwalk, Connecticut."
Saturday October 27th 2007, 5:33 PM
Comment by: Jerry M.
I always love and appreciate your "presents" to us. Thanks, Daphne.
Thursday November 1st 2007, 2:00 PM
Comment by: thomas R.

After wandering in the darkness of mediocrity for some years, how refreshing it is to find a light shining. Observing our descent into societal chaos for forty years I still retain hope for the future. I agonized over 'her and me', rather than 'she and I' until it fell upon me that 'this too shall pass'. Thank you. It's good to be home.

Tommy Russell, pianosan7@yahoo.com
Wednesday November 14th 2007, 1:55 PM
Comment by: James C.
Excellent! This was my first read.

"Excellence may be found in a single deed. True excellence must pass the test of time." - Yours Truly.

In anticipation of the future,

Jim Collier
Monday November 19th 2007, 7:38 AM
Comment by: ken D.
Saturday November 24th 2007, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Michael Y.
I do the same thing and share the quotes with my students. I ask them to find good quotes and send them to me in emails.
Sunday November 25th 2007, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Herman B.
I will keep this brief: Thank you. I am leaving out those comments that readers will skip.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:47 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Thanks for the quotes-so inspiring!
Monday May 21st 2012, 11:58 PM
Comment by: chris C. (manchester, MO)
I love quotes. Mardy Grothe has many that I like...and one that I fashioned after reading his book, Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You...mine is Timing is Everything and Everything is in Perfect Timing.

Which is extremely difficult for even me to accept after a "bad" day.

But Olga Ilvin is my favorite, "It has been my repeated experience that if you say to Life, calmly but firmly, "I trust you, do what you must." that Life had an uncanny way of responding to your need.

That never disappoints...because, to me, it's so true.

Thanks for the article!
Saturday December 29th 2012, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Jimmy W M. (Sacramento, CA)
Words Rightly Injected Glorifying Heartfelt Interpretation Navigating Guidance. JM
Wednesday January 9th 2013, 2:13 AM
Comment by: Antonio Flores (Marbella Spain)
Monday July 15th 2013, 10:44 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
What a joy to read! Thanks.

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Check out these blogs for more writing inspiration:
Paint the Town Read
Here's a tidbit about writers inspired by a place, in this case the Mile High City.
Beat Writer's Block Now!
If you're stuck, and even these terrific quotes aren't unsticking you, time to read Daphne's take on writer's block.