The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

Writing is hard. Fortunately, lots of people have done it before me, and many of them have given advice on how to do it. I keep a list of favorite quotes on writing, on perseverance, and on doubt. The following are the ones I have found the most helpful. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten, if you will. In the comments, I would love to hear yours.


Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.
-E.L. Doctorow

This quote gave me such an epiphany. My goal isn’t merely to explain to the reader what the character is doing, but to bring out in the reader sympathy for what the character is experiencing. Ah ha! I find this so much more helpful than the axiom, “Show, don’t tell.”


Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
-C.S. Lewis

I love the beauty and humility of Lewis’s writing, and this quote is so emblematic of that to me. I hear it in the back of my mind as I cut away easy hyperbole and lazy adjectives. Keep your language simple and clear, so that you can reach for the soaring language when you really need it.


I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.
–Ernest Hemingway

This one helps me remember that not everything has to be on the page. The backstory for your characters is important, but you don’t have to tell it to the reader. It’s enough for you to know it, and the reader will intuit it because it informs the choices you make for the character.

dancing girl

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that makes us more alive than the others.
-Martha Graham

This isn’t actually writing advice; Martha Graham was a dancer. It helps me so much with my writing, though. I turn to it again and again when the doubt creeps in. I love that Graham says we don’t have to decide if what we produce is good, and in fact we will never believe that our work is good. That isn’t our concern. Our concern is to be true to the voice inside us, because if we don’t, that voice will be lost forever.

Those are my favorites. What are yours?

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer, looking for inspiration wherever she can get it. She reviews books at Kid Book List, and tweets @SuperKate. 




Kate Hillyer on Wordpress
Kate Hillyer
Kate Hillyer writes, runs, and drinks plenty of tea in our Nation's Capitol. She is a poetry judge for the Cybils, and blogs here and at The Winged Pen. An essay she wrote appears in the anthology Raised by Unicorns. You can find her at and on Twitter as @SuperKate.
  1. Fun post. I like finding good writing posts and appreciate the ones you gave me. Here is one I keep in mind especially during revisions. “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it” ~ Mark Twain ~

    • Oh, I love that one! You guys are giving me great material for my quotes page!

  2. Great post, Kate. Thanks. Love the photos you chose to go along with the quotes.

    • Thanks, Michele! The pictures are from I always find the best images there. That one of the little girl just slays me.

  3. Rilke. He’s the man. Thank you so much for these quotes and your reflections upon them. Other writers give me so much strength.

    • Thank YOU for the kind words! Best of luck with your writing!

  4. I don’t know where this came from but it’s always nearby when I’m writing: “The reader must experience the events and emotions through your words.”

  5. The best ‘writing’ advice for me came when I read Martin Seligman’s LEARNED OPTIMISM and gradually, with hard work and lots of practice, created – and learned how to maintain – the emotional resilience I’d always longed for – without which I couldn’t have a flourishing writing life. This change in attitude opened my brain and my spirit to creativity, energy, and the ability to persist in a way that can’t happen when gratuitous negativity clogs the brain and depresses the spirit.

    • Carol, your wonderful outlook is inspiring!

  6. I love Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet. Have to get myself a copy. Here is an oblique quote about why writing matters. I used it in a talk once. I originally saw it on the Writers View discussion list 6/29/06, posted by T. Suzanne Eller:
    “In his book CROSSING UNMARKED SNOW, William Stafford captures this beautifully.

    The things you do not have to say make you rich.
    Saying things you do not have to say weakens your talk.
    Hearing things you do not need to hear dulls your hearing.
    And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are why you are in the world.”

    • Two Rilke quotes? I must read this book! Thanks for posting, Laurel!

  7. I like this one from J.K. Rowling when I’m feeling guilty about spending time on writing:
    “Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.”
    Thanks for your great quotes, Kate!

    • Yes! I definitely need to be better about that!

  8. One of my favorites is – A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit by Richard Bach.

  9. Oooooh, love this post, Kate! Since I’m deep in my Rilke-world at the moment, here’s some advice he gave in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write: find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”