Quotations from Writers on Writing

Compiled by Richard W. Slatta

This first section of Quotations comes from a wonderful online source, Bartleby.com
  1. William Strunk, Jr., Elements of Style ,1918: Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.
  2. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.
  3. The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.
  4. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive: owing to the fact that since (because) in spite of the fact that though (although) Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
  5. Theodore M Bernstein: If writing must be a precise form of communication, it should be treated like a precision instrument. It should be sharpened, and it should not be used carelessly.
  6. Cyril Connolly: Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.
  7. John Gregory Dunne: Writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.
  8. W H Auden: It's a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.
  9. American Heritage Book of English Usage: One big reason for being aware of passive and active verbs in your writing is that overrelying on the passive voice can lead to prose that is boring, difficult to understand, and needlessly verbose. When you're concentrating on the content and organization of your writing, it can be hard to tell if you've used too many passive constructions. A good test is to look down the page and circle (or make a note of) every form of the verb be (is, are, was, were, etc.) and any other weak verbs like seem, appear, and exist. If the page is covered with circles (or if you've grown tired of counting), you should consider rewriting the page using active verbs and the active voice.
  10. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944). On the Art of Writing. 1916: Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its's and was's, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man's style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or 'composition.'
    Quotes from John Winokur, Advice to Writers (Vintage Books, 1999)
  11. Rita Mae Brown: Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it.
  12. J. Anthony Lukas: If the noun is good and the verb is strong, you almost never need an adjective.
  13. Kansas City Star Style Sheet: Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. Eliminate every superfluous word.
  14. William Zinsser: Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read.
  15. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge: A paragraph should concern one one phase of a narrative or argument. This phase may be large or small, but must be self-contained.
  16. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge: A sentence may be as long as the writer pleases, provided that he confines it to a single connected range of ideas, and by careful punctuation prevents the reader from finding it either tedious or confusing.
  17. Stendhal: I see but one rule: to be clear. Beatrix Potter: The shorter and plainer the better.
  18. Matthew Arnold: Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style. Anatole France: You become a good writer just as you become a good joiner: by planing down your sentences.
  19. Mark Twain: Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial "we."
  20. William Safire: When "whom" is correct, recast the sentence.
  21. David Lambuth: Never use an abstract term if a concrete one will serve. Appeal directly to your reader's emotions rather then indirectly through the intermediary of the intellectualizing process. Tell him that the man "have a dollar to the tramp" rather than he "indulged in an act of generosity."
  22. David Lambuth: The fewer the words used, the more concentrated the attention; and the greater the concentration, the greater the power.
  23. E. B. White: English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street.
  24. E. B. White: The best writing is rewriting.
  25. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.
  26. Harry Kemelman: Don't think and then write it down. Think on paper.
  27. Jacques Barzun: Read and revise, reread and revise, keep reading and revising until your text seems adequate to your thought.
  28. William Zinsser: There's not much to be said about the period except that most writers don't reach it soon enough.
  29. William Zinsser: Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be tired. Be confused Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
  30. Mark Twain: Don't say the old lady screamed--bring her on and let her scream.
  31. Barbara Tuchman: An essential element for good writing is a good ear: one must listen to the sound of one's prose.
  32. Nat Hentoff: Read what you've written aloud--you'll learn the rhythms that work for you.
  34. Sydney Smith: In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give to your style.
  35. Vladamir Nabokov: A first-rate college library with a comfortable campus around it is a fine milieu for a writer. There is, of course, the problem of educating the young.
  36. Gordon Lish: I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
  37. W. Somerset Maugham: There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.