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Celebrating 135 years of good writing

Timeless craft tips from our archives, featuring Margaret Atwood, Walter Mosley, Isabel Allende, Ursula K. Le Guin, and more.

A lightbulb is illuminated behind an illustrated typewriter, symbolizing a bright idea found while writing.
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On self-doubt & failure

“Sometimes people have general failures of faith in which they think: What good is writing? Why am I doing it? Why aren’t I a real estate salesperson or working on an assembly line? You know, they have those kinds of feelings. But, of course, language is the oldest and most human thing about us. And, of course, writers are working in language.” 

—Margaret Atwood, 2012

“Writing is the act of failing at something all the time. Do it with a sense of humor, and it ain’t no big deal. Life is just about falling on stage and getting up, and that’s what writing is all about, too.” 

—James McBride, 2013

On writing for television

“Don’t tell a story because you’re sustaining a franchise. Don’t tell a story because they’ve given you hours to make a TV show, and you want to have an audience…The greater questions, which I think a lot of writers in television don’t ask themselves, are: Why are we telling this story? What does the story mean? When you can answer the big questions, then you are ready to write. The idea is paramount.” 

—David Simon, 2012

“This is an industry that is one of the toughest in the world to break into. Be ready for the long game, be ready to run a marathon, train every day, write every day and be ready at a moment’s notice to do your best work. Be ready. Be ready for the long haul.” 

—Veena Sud, 2014

On showing up

“The most important and hardest thing for any writer to learn is the discipline of sitting down and writing even when you have to spend three days writing bad stuff before the fourth day, when you write something better. If you’ve been away from what you’ve been working on for even a day and a half, you have to put in those three days of bad writing to get to the fourth, or you lose the thread, you lose the rhythm. When you are a young writer, those three days are so unpleasant that you tend to think, ‘I’ll go away until the mood strikes me.’ Well, you’re out of the mood because you’re not sitting there, because you haven’t had that period of trying to push through till the fourth day when the rhythm comes.” 

—Joan Didion, 1999

“The one constant that produces ‘success’ is putting in the time. That is constant…You have to get in the habit of showing up. It’s a muscle you have to develop.” 

—Suzan-Lori Parks, 2015

“What I have learned in time, in 32 years of writing, is that it’s a lot of work, and if I just show up, and I work and work, there is a moment, a magical moment, at some point, when it gives. And then you don’t need the effort anymore. It’s like dancing. When you’re dancing and counting the steps, you’re not dancing. When your body just goes — then you’re dancing, and then there’s a rhythm, there’s a velocity, there’s a feeling, there’s a joy that you cannot describe. And it happens in spite of me. I think that’s the moment in writing when the book starts to happen. From that point on, it’s all joy. At the beginning, it’s work.” 

—Isabel Allende, 2014