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5 Famous Writing Quotes You Mustn’t take at Face Value

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on February 26, 2016

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This article was updated on March 30, 2017

One of the things that frequent reading awards you is the development of critical thinking. The more you read, the more variety of viewpoints you incorporate to your repertoire, the more competent you will become at judging what other people say and write. Reading and Writing go together. So let’s apply some common sense to decide whether these famous claims about writing stated below work for us. Remember: only because they come from recognized authors does not mean they can’t be disputed. You have a brain.

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1. It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. - Ernest Hemingway. If you’re a teacher, for example, that is probably a terrible idea. To make students believe that a piece of writing just materializes itself on the blank page without effort, which includes sessions of brainstorming, a great number of drafting and redrafting, revision and editing, is a myth that should not be perpetuated. Writing is rewriting – I don’t know how many times I must have written this in my blogs, and people should be made aware that they can do it too, but that it is not easy, and few will acquire the virtuoso scribbling skills of a Hemingway or Wilde. However, progress is within everyone’s reach.

2. Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.- Mark Twain. Although I love this quote for its irony and witticism, and despite the fact that I know many lesser authors behave like that, I’m positive great writers do not use this stratagem. Honest writing is the pillar of great literature. It does not mean that authors should expose their private lives to the world. Their works, however, must ring true and reflect the bigger reality of human experience. Authors such as Philip Roth use a game of mirrors, never allowing the reader to be sure whether they are talking about themselves or the character, and that’s fine. But one thing you can’t deny after finishing a Roth’s novel is that there’s no bullshit there: you will have understood an important facet of what makes human beings tick afterward.

3. If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.- Somerset Maugham. Again, all this sounds very encouraging, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, so to speak. If you do not expose yourself to a lot of great texts (or take lessons – which is less effective, though) to acquire firm and powerful writing skills, you will not be able to structure all those great ideas and breathe life into those interesting characters. Good writing goes beyond inspiration, it requires hours of practice and technique. If you already have the inspiration, you are miles ahead of the pack, but unless you can put all those gems down on paper in ways that intrigue, fascinate and persuade the reader, you will have accomplished nothing.

4. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.- Herman Melville. If you make the mistake of mixing up theme and topic, or, even worse,  substitute in the quote the word event instead, it does not hold true. You don’t have to write an overwhelmingly complex, long and megalomaniac book about a whale chase (I’m trying to make a point here, although I love Moby Dick) to be able to tell a story that will resonate deeply with the readers and give them a totally new perspective on the world. Take Amsterdam by Ian McEwan; Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolf or Animal Farm by George Orwell: these are all short books with a lot of punch. They have become classics and deal in events that would seem far from grandiose (respectively, the petty plot of a jealous husband to destroy the lives of his dead wife’s former lovers; a day in the life of a high society English lady who’s preparing a party; and a political parabola that takes place on a farm, telling the story of a social revolution led by animals). These are small events involving great themes. So the quote is perfect, if you understand it correctly.

5. I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.― Douglas Adams. Because I write professionally and am a stickler for productivity and organization, I can’t condone what Mr. Adams says here, funny as it may sound. In the real world of publishing, writers must work professionally and meet their deadlines. It may sound boring, but, having worked in the corporate world for most of my life, I know that rules need to be followed; things need to fit a structure to be able to function. Not keeping deadlines will affect the work of many other professionals who depend on a smooth  flow of events to operate. Think of Hollywood as a business model: the fact that producers keep a tight schedule and exert careful control over the budget of a movie doesn’t necessarily hinder creativity (quite on the contrary, many people work best under pressure). If you wish to be an independent writer and self-publish, you are free to change your deadlines as often as you wish. But do not expect to have a publishing house look after your book if you are loose with your obligations.

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Well, I hope this post has encouraged you to think more critically about what well-known writers say. They are usually clever and precise, but, being human, they come up with some nonsense now and then. Just like the rest of us.

Jorge Sette

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More

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