On August 9, 2020, the New York Times Book Review ran a piece by Amitava Kumar called “Literary Advice.” Kumar is a writer who sometimes asks other writers to sign their book for him. When he does, he asks them to add a piece of writing advice. The Times piece includes some of what the other writers said. Here are the quotes that spoke particularly to me. Maybe they’ll resonate with you too.
Read the masters and, at least occasionally, read them closely! (Lydia Davis)
When I’m writing, I find it useful to read the best books I can find. Good writing seems to stimulate the creative part of my brain, even if the book is in a genre I don’t write. I get excited enough that I can’t wait to get back to my own manuscript.
Davis’s advice to occasionally read “closely” sounds good, but I have to admit, I don’t do it. Reading closely presents a chance to analyze what the writer is doing, and that can be instructive. My only excuse for not doing it is that there are so many books, and so little time.
There is always more than one story. Your job is to find that story you did not start to tell. (Yiyun Li)
I do a lot of planning before I write. So when I do start, I think I know what my story is about. I think I understand how my characters will act and why they act that way. But I always find that as I write, I learn more about the potential in that story. I realize again that I don’t know my characters until I see them in action. If I allow myself to learn from that experience, the story can grow deeper and more honest.
Read out loud! (Tommy Orange)
This writing advice works best for me when I’m editing. My ear is much better than my eye at doing things like picking out awkward sentences or repeated words. I typically read my own draft. But these days it’s possible for writers to have one of their devices read the book out loud to them. I highly recommend this as a late part of the revision process. You’ll be amazed at what you hear.
Don’t confuse honors with achievement (Zadie Smith)
This advice aims to keep writers from fixating on how they’re faring in comparison to other writers. That’s a fool’s game and will only lead to unhappiness. Focus on the work. Don’t waste energy on matters beyond your control.
Always put a dog in your book (Jenny Offill)
Because dogs are a good thing, here’s a picture I took in the park recently of a dog who looks like how I picture Tuc. And see? There are few pieces of writing that can’t be improved by including a dog.