Literary Pick-Me-Ups: 30 Writing Quotes

To me, they can be like poems—quick, insightful bursts of meaning or humor; encapsulations of small but powerful moments that might help you get through other small but taxing moments in a manuscript, in an article, off the page.

Ah, the zen of writing quotes.

At the end of this month, I’ll be bringing back the Top 20 Lessons From WD series I first ran in 2009—basically, a retrospect of quotable quips featured in the magazine in the last year. To gear up for the series, I looked back through some of my favorite quotes from last year’s entries … and fell headlong into an afternoon odyssey where I rounded up some lines from interviews/articles that we’ve run in the magazine, random quotes I’ve spotlighted in WD, and a few of my favorite non-WD writing passages.  

They’re all below (and a regular Promptly prompt follows). What would you add to the quote list?

* * *

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”
—Philip Roth

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
—Stephen King

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
—Allen Ginsberg, WD 

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
—William S. Burroughs

“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction.”
—Steve Almond, WD

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
—George Orwell

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
—Jack Kerouac, WD

“Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
—Hunter S. Thompson

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell

“I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
—Roald Dahl, WD

“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”
—Robert Benchley

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
—Stephen King, WD

“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.”
—Peter Handke

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”
—William Zinsser, WD

“If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us.”
—William Faulkner

“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. … I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”
—Gore Vidal

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
—John Updike, WD

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
—Samuel Johnson

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
—Elmore Leonard

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
—Larry L. King, WD

“Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.”
—Allegra Goodman

“I’m out there to clean the plate. Once they’ve read what I’ve written on a subject, I want them to think, ‘That’s it!’ I think the highest aspiration people in our trade can have is that once they’ve written a story, nobody will ever try it again.”
—Richard Ben Cramer

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
—Doris Lessing

“Style means the right word. The rest matters little.”
—Jules Renard

“Style is to forget all styles.”
—Jules Renard

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
—Tom Clancy, WD

(By the way, if you’re hungry for more quotes, check out our 90th Anniversary issue, featuring our editor’s roundup of 90 great bits of advice on all things writing, culled from our 90-year history.)

* * *

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

His father said it once when he was a kid, and it had such an impact on him that it
became his mantra, his catchphrase, his go-to quote. For better or worse. Write a scene in which he uses
it today.


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6 thoughts on “Literary Pick-Me-Ups: 30 Writing Quotes


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  2. nizhuce

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  3. Mark James

    Zac, thanks for all the quotes. . . they’re awesome

    ‘Dead men tell everything.’ When you’re a kid and your dad says something like that, it stays with you. Maybe I turned into a Spirit Talker because of him, or maybe I just wanted to hear what dead men had to say.

    My first call that week came on the right day of the month: just before rent was due. I would have raised demons to pay my landlord. It wasn’t anything complicated; a young widow who wanted her husband to give up the combination to the wall safe.

    I was at the widow’s house in less than thirty minutes. She lived out on the coast. Her back yard was the ocean. Her tight-waisted body, her long legs and wide lips were a dead man’s dream.

    “Afternoon, Mrs. McQuiddy,” I said, hat in hand. “Sorry for your loss.” I always said that, gave me a good idea how clients felt about the dearly departed.

    In her left hand, just below the curve of her hip, she was squeezing a black cigarette holder longer than Babe Ruth’s bat. She slid it between her red lips, pulled on it a way that made my knees weak and said, “Loss is a relative term, Mr. Sedler.”

    When clients said something like that, it was a sure bet the dearly departed had been stepping out on them. If Mr. McQuiddy had been stepping out on his wife, it meant only one thing. I was looking at a ghost maker.

    Mrs. McQuiddy looked me up and down, her grey eyes stopping at nothing. “Before I let you in,” she said, “you must promise me something, Mr. Sedler.”

    Even though everything in me was saying I should break an ankle running to my car, I said, “What’s that, ma’am?”

    “You must keep my secrets.” Her accent was smooth, hypnotic.

    I said, “I work strictly confidential, ma’am.”

    “Very good,” she said too slowly, and let me in.

    Inside, I sacrificed the sight of how her hips and legs moved like she was born for a man to look at, and took in the house. It was black; black walls, curtains, chairs, doors.

    “You need something of his, yes?”

    Her voice, low and sweet as honey, drew my eyes to her round hips, her long legs. “It can be anything,” I said.

    “Are you sure, Mr. Sedler?”

    I gave up the act we’d both been dancing through. She wanted me in her bed, and I knew damn well I was too weak to say no. “Where’d you keep him fresh?”

    She turned to me, a slow smile on her red lips, pressed her body into mine, molded herself to my arms. “A place where he can wait.” She moved against me like a cat, all soft and lithe and purring.

    We didn’t make it to the bedroom.

    Turned out Mr. McQuiddy was cooling in the wine cellar. I asked him what she wanted to know, leaned over his dead lips and listened for his whisper. Then I told Mrs. McQuiddy. Then I left.

    That was two years ago. This morning, I saw the front page of the paper. The former Mrs. McQuiddy wasn’t so young anymore, but she still made a pretty widow. My phone was ringing. I was scared. I knew it was her. I could tell by the ring. I was scared because I still remembered the feel of her skin against mine.

  4. Dare Gaither

    Grandpa loved that old Jeep truck.
    Some say if it came right down to it
    he’d take the truck over his wife any day.
    I don’t doubt it.
    She was wise enough not to find out.

    The truck was older than I am, bought
    brand new from the local dealership.
    That was 30 years ago.
    Friends asked him, “Jimmy, when ya gonna buy a new truck?”
    His reply was always the same:
    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    He lived at the top of a winding mountain road with a sharp
    hairpin curve halfway up. If you dared look over the edge,
    you could see the road below heading back toward town.
    I was with him that day.
    He wanted me to help work his bees.
    The honey was ready to take off and by some
    strange coincidence all his friends were busy.
    They were happy to get some of his honey….
    as long as they didn’t have to pay in bee stings.

    We turned the hairpin curve just in time to see
    a huge buck leap across the road and disappear up
    side of the mountain. Forgetting the road ahead of us,
    we both watched him in admiration of his untamed beauty.
    I felt the truck tip just as Grandpa turned the steering wheel
    hard to the left. He was too late. We teetered on the
    edge for an agonizing moment of hope before gravity
    won and we tumbled over the side.

    The truck did one complete roll and landed upright
    on the road below, headed back toward town.
    When my brain caught up with my body, I looked
    over at Grandpa. He was still holding the steering wheel
    firmly with both hands as if nothing had happened.
    His glasses were broken and dangled from one ear.
    He stared fiercely ahead, as if willing the truck to move.
    The truck wouldn’t start, or I’m sure Grandpa would have
    just driven home without a word.

    “You okay?” I asked.
    “I reckon,” he replied, “You?”
    “I think so.”

    The stuck door screeched open as Grandpa butted
    it with his shoulder. I got out the other side and walked
    around the crumpled truck to check on him. He retrieved
    the cracked mirror from the side of the road and threw
    it in the cab with a sigh. He smacked me with his cap
    when I tried to put my arm around him.

    “That fancy phone of yours work out here?” he asked gruffly.

    “Yeah, I think so.”
    The signal was weak, but usable.

    “Well, call Don and tell him to haul us in.”

    Don laughed when I told him what had happened.
    One more story in the saga of Cathey’s Creek Road.
    Grandpa was determined to salvage the ruined truck,
    no matter what it cost. Don told him it would be
    cheaper to give in and buy a new one. Grandpa just
    shook his head and said,

    “If it’s broke…..Fix it!”

  5. Nathan Honore

    “Come on.”
    Disappointed pause.
    “Get it right.”
    Ethan is well known for saying those lines with the same pause between them. Every time a project is just slightly underdeveloped or a detail missed, his phrase emerges. We have never brought it up to him. We kind of assume he knows.
    Ethan Kath is the managing director of Mock Your Sins, the online guide to mockery and hilarity. When the site was in it’s contemplative stages, we discovered that we all wear moccasins, thus the name. His signature line is the only constant in the MYS environment. It hurts a little more each time he says it. I think it’s because we’ve known each other so long and his disappointment has grown proportionally.
    It had been two weeks since his last uttering and work was going fine. My stories and essays each passed his desk with nods of approval. Life was good. The site even seemed to be getting more hits than usual.
    Then, of course, shit hit the fan. Ethan walked in this morning ten minutes late. It wasn’t necessarily weird, but it sure wasn’t normal. The Beatles on his tie stared at us in their post-1967 way, the same as the day before. His bedhead was definitely not intentional, as opposed to his usual Joaquin Phoenix style. He was usually the epitome of trendy professionalism, aside from the moccasins. We were all taking our first of many coffee breaks, standing around the ole water cooler. Silence took our work-related gossip by the throat.
    “What’s up Ethan?” my bravest coworker asked after half a minute of silence.
    Ethan dropped his briefcase. His gaze left the floor to scan each of our faces.
    “I called all of you last night.”
    We dared not check our phones. We knew we ignored his calls. There was no point faking it.
    “The biggest story of our generation and you guys can’t answer your damn phones?” He didn’t sound angry, just exhausted.
    “I’ve been up all night trying to get a hold of you all. I needed help.”
    We all wanted to ask what had happened. Each of us had a work iPhone and were notorious for searching the web at inappropriate times. How did we miss it?
    “You have all let me down.”
    I knew it was coming and braced myself for the signature Phrase of Ethan.
    “Come on.”
    Ethan picked up his briefcase. The disappointed pause was longer this time.
    But he didn’t finish it. He just turned and left.
    I never thought that not hearing that line would be worse than actually hearing it. Guilt ran through me. It hurt. It still hurts.


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