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Photo by Flickr user niallkennedy

Photo by Flickr user niallkennedy

Oddly enough, I was never made to read John Steinbeck in high school that I recall. I may have read an abridged version of Of Mice and Men at some point, but I didn’t read his other books until much later in my life, when I gobbled many of them up with great relish. If you haven’t read East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath, do yourself a favor by walking away from the glowing screen and my inane ramblings and picking them up from the library or bookstore for immediate consumption.

It’s been years since I’ve read Steinbeck, but he recently came to my attention again when the curator of the Brain Pickings blog published a list of his writing tips as part of a series of such posts. I’ll reproduce the list here, but you should visit the Brain Pickings article, which links to related posts with tips from other important authors.

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

These seem very useful tips in general, and several play pretty nicely with the idea I proposed a few weeks ago that sometimes it might be best to abandon (at least for now) something that’s giving you fits to get down in print.

How do Steinbeck’s tips strike you?

Note: I’m out of town this week and won’t be around to respond to any comments. I hope you’ll carry on as usual without me!

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  1. Good tips. I’m just getting started writing and use my blog as just a place to jot down my occasional scenes and short stories (as well as photographs). Would you be willing to look over some of my writing and tell me what you think? Feel free to be as critical as you like 🙂

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  2. I remember reading Travels With Charlie as a young man. And I have plans to take off across America with my electronic gadgets in the next year or two. Blogging along the way! Firing up Skype to talk to the wife. Thanks for reminding me about this wonderful author.

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  3. His tips sound pretty valuable–especially the one about worrying about the rewrite later! I know that is one that I usually practice when writing anything. And not getting too attached to a particular scene or sentance…. I would add just one more thing–read it all out loud! I like to hear how everything sounds, not just the dialogue. When this is done, the whole thing usually flows better and you find those words that rhyme right where you don’t want them too! 🙂 I love reading work that has a good rhythm to it.

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  4. I have loved John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” – both the book and the movie – for many years. His characters were believable, the setting based on actual events in our history, and it helped shape my thinking. As a reporter, I’d think of Steinbeck, about people who had no voice and needed to be heard. Thanks for sharing his writing tips.

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  5. Steinbeck has always been one of my favorites. He was one of my inspirations to become a writer. I agree totally with these tips. Especially the one about putting your head down and thinking page by page. I really struggled getting my first book going until I remembered his advice and stopped thinking of the 400 pages ahead of me and thought of the one. A page a day….and my book “Notes for the Aurora Society” was ready in just over a year.

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  6. I think it’s true especially the tip about dialogue. You must read it aloud. Dialogue is a special art within the writing itself. Becoming too attached to the scene is very helpful also.

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  7. I read Steinbeck as a teenager; when my dream to write began. Then life came and the eagerness to write was thwarted with experiences. Now 40 years on I have the time (ish), the flame and the experience; not perhaps just the skills but fear of the audience; This advice about writing for one person is like a gift!! Thank you. My OU tutor said I should imagine I am telling an interested friend. Thanks again and for the reminder The Red Pony calls!!

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  8. Always enjoy reading about how great writers have gone about their business, even if their methods are far removed from what I normally follow. The only scenes that generally bring me to a halt are those requiring some research of background. Otherwise, I let the characters take me where they want to, even if I disagree with them at the time.

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  9. I like #1 and #2 the most. I think it’s important to just “write”. Just get your thoughts down, however random they may be. if it’s a particular topic or project, start thinking about it and your thoughts will flow.
    Fortunately— sometimes unfortunately—my writing computer is in our combination great room, dining, and kitchen area. I fnd myself snatching little writing times in the midst of life, but I get those thoughts down.
    I like the idea of “one page per day”. Keeps it from being overwhelming.

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  10. I had read Steinbeck’s East of Eden a few years back and found it enthralling. I had also come across his tips for writing. I have followed his tips in my books and found them extremely useful. It is nice to be reminded as one gets bogged down in ones own ideas. My favorites are 5 and 6. It is quite easy to get stuck on a “nice” scene and jumble up the rest. Speaking out loud makes more sense than it sounds. Try it.
    Thanks David for a timely post!

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  11. Tip #4 is particularly useful for me. I apply it when handling a problem or a sticking point while working on a paper sculpture or other art piece. (right brain) I hadn’t thought of doing this with my writing. (poking left brain with a stick)

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  12. How interesting that I’ve accumulated the same tips over many years of teaching! These tips are exactly what I tell my research-based graduate students [if I remember (embarrassed blush)] when they write their theses/dissertations. It is interesting that Steinbeck’s writing points have bled into the non-fiction world in bits and pieces. Thanks for sharing this list!

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  13. I think if you allow the whole stream of your idea out, you are in the flow and broadcasting. The writing is the party, the high that attracts amazing creativity. The review is the Monday-morning character that sees rationally what works, after the party lights and the emotion have fallen away.

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  14. I’ve also found that the best way to write is without stopping. I write the whole thing, let it rest a day or so, and then come back to it. I do this as many times as necessary (or possible, when I have time constraints).

    His advice about writing for a specific person is new to me. He’s right–that generalized audience is the same as no audience at all. His technique reminds me of what my favorite authors C.S. Lewis and Tolkein did. They wrote the kind of stories that they wanted to read, and people who liked the same stuff they did read and enjoyed what they wrote. I find that when I try to write what I think a general, faceless audience wants to read, I get bored with what I’m writing and have no motivation to write.

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  15. These are such brilliantly simple tips that it makes me feel silly for never having considered them before! I’m a massive perfectionist, and I feel that this post has given me ‘permission’ to just write and write and write until I finish, and not keep doubting everything and trying to perfect it all before I carry on. I feel that my writing could flow in a more organic manner if I follow these ideas, thank you!

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