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Writers on Writing: Selected Quotations


…the first value of a writers’ workshop is that it makes the young writer feel not only not abnormal but virtuous. John Gardner

I believe firmly in workshop classes, but it is essential to remember that on a good day only 20 percent of the advice you hear will be useful for what you’re working on. Elizebeth McCracken

It’s quite true that fiction can’t be taught; but you can pass along a few shortcuts and get (students) interested in the craft of it. I don’t think any student wastes his time in a good fiction workshop, not even the talentless ones. Martin Russ

Workshops taught me to trust my instincts. When I was writing, I might have known that part of my story was weak, but I hoped no one would notice. People would pounce on those parts I knew needed work. Once I know something’s wrong, I have to trust myself and fix it. Judy Budnitz

Talent cannot be taught, but techniques of writing can be shared and thus stimulate whatever talent a writer already has. My experience has been that one of the most effective ways to teach the techniques of writing is to compare the different early versions of a writer’s published work. David Madden

Unfortunately, all too many perfectly intelligent people, generally of the writing-can’t-be-taught school, really believe that writers are supposed to teach themselves everything, all alone, and by magic. Stephen Koch

Don’t be too complimentary to the one student who is unusually intelligent and articulate and/or talented….If you acknowledge the relative brilliance of such students in any way, their classmates will begin to think of them as teacher’s pets. Martin Russ

Go to the most celebrated writing program that you can win admission to. Its director is likelier to know which good writers are also effective mentors and coaches, and likelier to have the wherewithal to attract a staff of them. John Barth

….I want my students to see that most aspects of a literary work are down-to-earth matters that are perfectly understandable to a moderately intelligent reader using common sense. Throughout my high school and undergraduate education I encountered teachers who tried to elevate literature to a level apprehensible only by an elite few….The message of that kind of teaching is that there is such an immense distance between literature and the student that the idea of any but the most gifted student having literary aspirations is absurd. David Huddle

….writing can be taught, but only to writers….By writers, I mean anyone simultaneously seized by the senses and by the possibilities of language. Hilma Wolitzer

A (writing) course that confined itself to a study, not of excellence in writing, but of the ways of going wrong, conceivably could save a would-be writer some time. You could point out to him, by simply exhibiting examples, a few of the things that his inexperience might make him attempt, in that hope of extra or larger or more exact communication which no one who writes seriously can help having; but which aren’t going to work. James Gould Cozzens

I took all those damn things in college myself. I wasted months in things called narrative writing and playwriting. I would have been better off taking something where you actually learned something, even economics, than taking narrative writing. Mary McCarthy

Prior to World War II, the brightest young women went into teaching….Today the brightest young women find many other opportunities opening for them….The old professional associations of teachers…turned into trade unions….No wonder Johnny can’t write! His teacher doesn’t know how to write either. James J. Kilpatrick

I think one reason you can’t teach writing—and certainly not novel writing—is that young people haven’t had enough experience. They may have enough to write a short story, but they haven’t had enough worldly experience. Mary McCarthy

The people whom God or nature intended to be writers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who want to be writers. Raymond Chandler

Writers are endlessly taught how to write a clear declarative sentence. But ask them to try something more extensive—an article or an book—and the sentences leach out all over the floor like marbles. William Zinsser

One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not. What Sophomore English does (or tries to do) is little more than the naming of parts. Stephen King

It’s often said of aspiring young writers in creative writing courses that they write the same six stories. Old man dies; old woman dies; why I hate my mother; why I hate my father; how I lost my virginity; how I tried to and failed. That’s it. George V. Higgins

I’ve come to believe that the most important function of writer’s conferences is the opportunity they afford writers to confer with one another. The company of our fellows at such gatherings far outweighs the value of what the lecturers tell us or what criticism we get of our work. Lawrence Block

Sometimes…(writing) instructors have their own jealousies and agendas. Some enjoy the process of talking about writing more than writing itself. Jan Burke

Recently, I’ve learned that I can teach a kid how to write far more efficiently if the student comes to my office where I can take a page of what he’s written, put it down on my desk and rewrite it for him. Then I hand him the page and get him to admit that what I’ve done is better that what he’s done. Then I give him another page and have him do to that page what I’ve just done to the other. Stanley Elkin

Creative-writing teachers, poor souls, must immerse themselves in slop and even take it seriously….It is probably impossible to teach anyone to be a good writer. You can teach people how to read, possibly. William Gass

A creative writing class can at least be good for morale….There’s no body of technology to impart. But that doesn’t mean classes can’t help. Robert Stone

Most of the desultory courses that I’ve taken in literature have had a peculiar snobbism about them. An adulation of certain writers is inculcated in the student by the instructor….Moreover, most of the instruction seems to be concerned with writing rather than how to write, which is impossible to teach anyway. James Jones

You can talk to people about how they should structure their sentences or how information should unfold, but I think, in writing classes, one of the big things that people don’t talk about enough is content. A. M. Homes

I think for any writer who wants to be serious about writing, just being in a workshop, if it’s a good workshop, is just really the place to be. John Rowell

Ideally, a college creative writing program should accept only those applicants who have raw talent; but of course that’s impossible for many reasons, one being that talent often remains hidden behind timidity until the junior or senior year. Martin Russ

I’m always embarrassed when I go to writing conferences. Crowds of people who “studied English in college” and know how to diagram sentences stand around sipping expressos, chatting about their favorite authors and comparing the classics. Then, inevitably, someone will turn to me and say, “So, who’s your favorite 17th-century novelist?” Steven James

…this chapter (“The Graves of Academe”) is the only piece of writing I’ve ever done that required a college education. If I could be transported back in time to my high school graduation, I would not go to college. I would turn down the scholarship, get a proofreading job with a printer, and write on evenings and weekends. Florence King

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com