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Twelve Maxims for Writers

Advice From Writers on Writing


Twelve Maxims for Writers

Writers' maxims can be found embroidered on pillows, scribbled on sticky notes, italicized at the end of e-mail signatures:

Write about what you know.

Show, don't tell.

Write first, edit later.

Write a thousand words every day.
But (as discussed in the article What Is a Maxim?) these nuggets of apparent wisdom can be tricky.

The crisp, often encouraging words of a maxim generally sound convincing--until a contrary maxim comes along.

Consider, for instance, the advice of Ernest Hemingway, T.C. Boyle, and Nicola Barker to write about what we don't know. Or Eudora Welty's suggestion to "Write about what you don't know about what you know."

Have you been guided or inspired by a writing maxim? If so, pass it along. The sentiment may be commonplace or unconventional, frequently quoted or strikingly original--as long as the message is brief and related to writing. To get things started, here are a dozen writing maxims from our collection.

  1. Get the pencil moving quickly.
    (Bernard Malamud, quoted by Israel Shenker in "For Malamud It's Story." The New York Times Book Review, October 3, 1971)

  2. Be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.
    (Henry Fowler and Francis Fowler, The King's English, 1906)

  3. Say an old thing in a new way or a new thing in an old way.
    (attributed to Richard Harding Davis)

  4. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
    (Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. William Morrow, 2008)

  5. Murder your darlings.
    (Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing. Cambridge University Press, 1916)

  6. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    (George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946)

  7. Do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.
    (Bertrand Russell, "How I Write." Portraits From Memory. Simon and Schuster, 1956)

  8. Write less; rewrite more.
    (F.L. Lucas, Style. Cassell, 1955)

  9. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
    (Zadie Smith, "Zadie Smith's Rules for Writers." The Guardian, February 22, 2010)

  10. Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last.
    (Henry David Thoreau, Journal, December 17, 1851)

  11. Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.
    (Michael Moorcock, "Michael Moorcock's Rules for Writers." The Guardian, February 22, 2010)

  12. Get black on white.
    (Guy de Maupassant)

Pass along your most treasured piece of writerly advice by visiting What's Your Favorite Writing Maxim? and clicking on "comments" at the end of the post.

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