Attention, all content creators: Ernest Hemingway has useful advice for you.
So do Jack London, Elmore Leonard, Mark Twain and other literary luminaries.
Of course, Ernest, Jack, Elmore, and Mark didn’t think what they were up to was creating something called “content”—but, as you do every day, they were repeatedly challenged to come up with something insightful, useful and compelling to share with the world.
They learned some things in their careers that can help you with yours. Here are their thoughts:
On getting started
A blank screen is terrifying. You might have a topic in mind, and even an angle that might work for illuminating it, but your fingers seem paralyzed, hovering over the keyboard. That first word simply won’t come.
- You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. —Jack London, novelist
- I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say, oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk, and get the job done. —Barbara Kingsolver, novelist
- If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. —Margaret Atwood, novelist
- Don’t get it right; just get it written. —James Thurber, humorist/playwright
- If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. —William Zinsser, editor
Your first draft is rarely good enough to be your final product. It does happen, although the odds are very much stacked against it. As much as you hate to revisit your work, refining it is an essential part of the process. As a content creator, you also must be a ruthless editor.
- There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. —Robert Graves, poet
- So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads. —Dr. Seuss, children’s author
- Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. —Stephen King, novelist
- If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. —Elmore Leonard, novelist
On wording and phrasing
Writing well begins by finding the right words. That’s important, but it’s not easy.
- The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. —Mark Twain, novelist
- Short words are the best, and old words when short are best of all. —Winston Churchill, British prime minister
- When the words are both true and kind, they can change the world. —Buddha
- The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech. —Clifton Fadiman, editor
Periods, commas, semicolons and other marks ensure that the words you come up with, in the order you’ve chosen, make sense, and those marks deserve to be deployed as carefully as the words they accompany.
- All our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable. —Lynne Truss, author
- Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, novelist
- My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements. —Ernest Hemingway, novelist
- I’m tired of wasting letters when punctuation will do, period. —Steve Martin, comedian/musician
On dealing with criticism
No one likes to have their work criticized. Still, when you put content of any kind into the world, you run the risk that someone is not going to like it or, worse, find a mistake, and you just might hear about it. Criticism comes with the territory, and it’s never easy to deal with.
- Appreciate the constructive; ignore the destructive. —John Douglas, author
- Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. —Neil Gaiman, novelist
- Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing. —Aristotle, philosopher
- There is no defense against criticism except obscurity. —Joseph Addison, essayist
A version of this post first appeared on the Movable Ink blog.