9 Things I Learned from Other Writers

Everything I know about writing I learned from other writers. Mostly from reading their stories and novels, but also from what they have had to say about writing. Below are seven choice tidbits.

1. Use your best idea first. Otherwise that good idea is going to act like a plug or a cork in your brain, keeping all the other good ideas from getting out. I’m not sure whose original thought this was, but I’m sure it wasn’t mine.


Guest column by Margi Preus, playwright and
children’s book author. Her first novel for young
people, Heart of a Samurai, received four starred
reviews and was named one of the Best Children’s
Books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly, the New York
City Public Library and Kirkus Reviews. It was awarded
a 2011 Newbery Honor and the Asian Pacific American
Award for Children’s Literature. Her next
Celebritrees: Historic and Famous Trees of

the World, a nonfiction picture book
(March 2011).
See her website here.


2. “You must write, write, write every day” (George Bernard Shaw). This is great advice that many writers, not necessarily including me, follow. I mean to write every day, I really do, but am I the only writer on earth with a chaotic life? I’ve been reading about other writers’ habits and schedules, and they always sound so orderly and tranquil: “I write from 8 until noon, then I go for a walk and eat an omelet, then go back to work from 1 until 4. Then I take a bath in milk and honey, have my valet mix me a dry martini, and listen to chamber music and smoke my pipe by the fire until I go to bed at 10 pm.” Or something like that.  Rudyard Kipling worked from 10 until 4. Anne Perry works “probably eight or nine hours a day, six days a week.” Stephen King works in the morning. “Afternoons are for naps and letters.” Naps and letters? What I want to know is, besides the fact that these people don’t have to have other jobs (yes, I was going to say real jobs but I don’t mean that) when do they grocery shop, do their laundry, shovel the driveway, fill the bird feeders, take their child/elderly parent/dog/car to the doctor/vet/muffler clinic? Do they ever pay bills? waste 45 minutes trying to find a hex key in the basement? When do they buy their printer cartridges? How much of their writing time is actually allotted to staring out the window?

3. “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend” (Isaac Bashevis Singer). Be prepared to throw out your best stuff. Or what seemed like your best stuff when you wrote it. Trust the fact that there is always something better (see #1).

4. Ideas breed ideas (Me). Ideas are like mice. If you have one or, I guess you really need two, you’ll have more ideas than you can use in no time, all mating away in your amygdala, while also probably chewing through the synapses in your cerebral cortex.

5. Crappy first drafts (Anne Lamott). She didn’t use the word “crappy”, but I write for children and have to watch the swears. If I didn’t have this advice to live by, I would probably have thrown myself or my first drafts, or both, off any conveniently located precipice.

6. Recognizing that your first draft is crummy is another thing. “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector” (Hemingway). I meant crap detector. This is not so much advice as an observation. Definitely a skill worth nurturing, however.

7. “Writing is rewriting” (Richard North Patterson). As far as I’m concerned, truer words were never spoken. Some people (William Kent Krueger is one of them) claim to do little or no revision. These people are freaks.

8. “The real dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion that has set it going”
(Eudora Welty). Welty was talking about short fiction, but it can also apply to any kind of fiction or creative nonfiction or nonfiction, for that matter. Also, of course, blogs. Operating manuals and software installation guidelines might also benefit.

9. Don’t expect writers to keep track of how many things they originally said they were going to write about.

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6 thoughts on “9 Things I Learned from Other Writers

  1. Sophia Chang

    This is funniest post I’ve read all month…probably all year. So good to know I’m not the only one who has to factor in returning phone calls, squirting meds into my dog’s ear and wasting time.

  2. CJ Black

    Loved the list! I have to ask as well…I mean number two, I got a good laugh out of that one. I’d love to write several hours a day but I don’t think my boss would appreciate it! 😉

  3. Lisa von Lempke

    Anne Perry works "probably eight or nine hours a day, six days a week."

    How…how do people DO that? I’m exhausted after, at the most, 2 hours.

    And yes, how come people don’t spend many hours a day searching for a key, talking on the phone with their mother in law, going to social things which they don’t want to go to but which take all day and/or leave one too drained to write…


  4. Kristan

    Lol to #9.

    And you know, I constantly wonder the same thing about #2. I try to keep a calm, orderly writing life, but the rest of the world keeps trying to intrude. It’s a daily struggle, and I don’t always win. (But I’m happiest when I do!)

    Love the list, thank you!


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