Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Writing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Like fel­low genre icon Stephen King, Ray Brad­bury has reached far beyond his estab­lished audi­ence by offer­ing writ­ing advice to any­one who puts pen to paper. (Or keys to key­board; “Use what­ev­er works,” he often says.) In this 2001 keynote address at Point Loma Nazarene Uni­ver­si­ty’s Writer’s Sym­po­sium By the Sea, Brad­bury tells sto­ries from his writ­ing life, all of which offer lessons on how to hone the craft. Most of these have to do with the day-in, day-out prac­tices that make up what he calls “writ­ing hygiene.” Watch this enter­tain­ing­ly digres­sive talk and you might pull out an entire­ly dif­fer­ent set of points, but here, in list form, is how I inter­pret Brad­bury’s pro­gram:

  • Don’t start out writ­ing nov­els. They take too long. Begin your writ­ing life instead by crank­ing out “a hell of a lot of short sto­ries,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; he claims that it sim­ply isn’t pos­si­ble to write 52 bad short sto­ries in a row. He wait­ed until the age of 30 to write his first nov­el, Fahren­heit 451. “Worth wait­ing for, huh?”
  • You may love ’em, but you can’t be ’em. Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, to imi­tate your favorite writ­ers, just as he imi­tat­ed H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.
  • Exam­ine “qual­i­ty” short sto­ries. He sug­gests Roald Dahl, Guy de Mau­pas­sant, and the less­er-known Nigel Kneale and John Col­lier. Any­thing in the New York­er today does­n’t make his cut, since he finds that their sto­ries have “no metaphor.”
  • Stuff your head. To accu­mu­late the intel­lec­tu­al build­ing blocks of these metaphors, he sug­gests a course of bed­time read­ing: one short sto­ry, one poem (but Pope, Shake­speare, and Frost, not mod­ern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diver­si­ty of fields, includ­ing archae­ol­o­gy, zool­o­gy, biol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics, and lit­er­a­ture. “At the end of a thou­sand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”
  • Get rid of friends who don’t believe in you. Do they make fun of your writer­ly ambi­tions? He sug­gests call­ing them up to “fire them” with­out delay.
  • Live in the library. Don’t live in your “god­damn com­put­ers.” He may not have gone to col­lege, but his insa­tiable read­ing habits allowed him to “grad­u­ate from the library” at age 28.
  • Fall in love with movies. Prefer­ably old ones.
  • Write with joy. In his mind, “writ­ing is not a seri­ous busi­ness.” If a sto­ry starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that does­n’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audi­ence.
  • Don’t plan on mak­ing mon­ey. He and his wife, who “took a vow of pover­ty” to mar­ry him, hit 37 before they could afford a car (and he still nev­er got around to pick­ing up a license).
  • List ten things you love, and ten things you hate. Then write about the for­mer, and “kill” the lat­er — also by writ­ing about them. Do the same with your fears.
  • Just type any old thing that comes into your head. He rec­om­mends “word asso­ci­a­tion” to break down any cre­ative block­ages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”
  • Remem­ber, with writ­ing, what you’re look­ing for is just one per­son to come up and tell you, “I love you for what you do.” Or, fail­ing that, you’re look­ing for some­one to come up and tell you, “You’re not nuts like peo­ple say.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury: Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion

The Shape of A Sto­ry: Writ­ing Tips from Kurt Von­negut

John Steinbeck’s Six Tips for the Aspir­ing Writer and His Nobel Prize Speech

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (33)
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  • D F Lamont says:

    There’s some­thing miss­ing from one of the sug­ges­tions —

    “You may love ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em. Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, to imi­tate your favorite writ­ers, just as he imi­tat­ed H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.”

    is there an end­ing to this sen­tence that was cut off?

    • daniel says:

      Three years late, but no. I had to read it a few times. He’s say­ing “bear [the first sen­tence] in mind when you…”

  • I have always found the library a place of com­fort. In fact, dur­ing times of greif in my life, the library allowed me to be in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers with­out hav­ing to talk to them. Because I was unable to inter­ract with them; I was too sad. But in amongst all those books and words and pic­tures, I found solace.

    It can’t be too bad to have a lap­top with me in the library — to do a bit of writ­ing, sure­ly!

  • Matt says:

    @D F Lam­ont:

    There’s noth­ing miss­ing from that. “Just as Ray Brad­bury imi­tat­ed H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum, bear in mind when you inevitably attempt, con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly, to imi­tate your favorite writ­ers that you may love ’em, but you can’t be ’em.”


    I’ve always…without fear, doubt or hes­si­ta­tion of any crap form inside me and oth­ers out­side of me…taken every sin­gle word and idea of advice form Mr. Brad­bury, as simply…God’s truth.

    Read­ing his short sto­ries; nov­els; screen­plays; essays and falling in love once a year with­out end, with DANDELION WINE…makes me so fierce­ly cer­tain, to have stuck with writ­ing and liv­ing and eventually…dying, as a write.

    Sales or no sales.

    Throw­ing myself firm­ly and blind­ly into hard and crit­i­cal rewrit­ing.

    Again, as always before Pro­fes­sor Bradbury…thank you for being the great­est teacher, out­side of my par­ents and family…I’ve been blessed to ever have.

  • Jaalah says:

    I think Faren­heit 451 is pret­ty real now days. What do you think? I think peo­ple real­ly are rush­ing around just like in the media.

  • do you not think per­son­al­ly that the ocean is now not only becom­ing the end for aquat­ic fish and preda­tors because of the amount of these ports and fish nets to keep sharks away from humans. Not allow­ing us to expe­ri­ence our self­’s the ways of sharks can be kind and not always harm full to us because. of peo­ple say­ing such things mak­ing out sharks are always bad

  • D. F. Lam­ont, both sen­tences are com­plete. They sum­ma­rize Brad­bury, who said you can imi­tate oth­ers, but can­not be oth­ers, just as he, Brad­bury, imi­tat­ed but was not H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum. There is noth­ing miss­ing.

  • P R James says:

    I spent at least ten years (part-time) on my first nov­el so I think I know where he’s com­ing from!! I’d rec­om­mend NANOWRIMO (Nation­al Nov­el Writ­ing Month) as a pret­ty good way of at least com­plet­ing a nov­el. You end up with 50,000 words of caf­feine-induced crazi­ness. A nov­el. Bet­ter to fly over the Ama­zon than start walk­ing across it. We may nev­er see you again! If you see what I mean…

  • sasha says:

    Thank you so much this was very help­ful,

  • When I met Mr. Brad­bury in 1984, dur­ing the Aca­d­e­m­ic Achiev­ment Awards in Long Beach Cal­i­for­nia (spon­sored by The Dai­ly Breeze)… he said, “James, my advice to you is to nev­er give up on your dreams, avoid dri­ving as much as pos­si­ble, and do not watch the evening news — because it is oth­er peo­ple’s night­mares and funer­als”. I did not fol­low his direc­tions and have suf­fered great­ly as a result.

  • M says:

    Ray Brad­bury’s best writ­ing tips come from the study of his works. Here he sounds like an old grump

    • James Ritchie says:

      A old grump? If you believe this, you will nev­er be a suc­cess­ful writer. Here, from front to back, and with every word, he sounds like exact­ly what he is, a man who loves all of life, who loves learn­ing, who finds joy in every­thing, and who pass­es that joy along with every sen­tence he writes.

  • Anthony says:

    So every sto­ry needs to have a metaphor? Sim­ple mind­ed prick.

  • Lucia K. says:

    With tears in my hap­py eyes whis­per­ing “Thank you, dear uncle Ray” …

  • Carole Brooks Platt, PhD says:

    I’ve been in love with Ray Brad­bury since high school. Then, when I read his Paris Review inter­view, I was head over heels. Now this live lec­ture has sent me into ecsta­sy. He talks about every­thing that mat­ters to me and his advice, through per­son­al tales of his cre­ative process and anom­alous expe­ri­ences, can only make one’s own writ­ing soar. He is a left-han­der with an enhanced right-hemi­spher­ic mag­i­cal mind.

  • Seabreezn says:

    Ou’ this was such a treat — I closed my eyes and pic­tured Ray & me sit­ting on the front stoop as he told his life’s sto­ries , filled with sage wis­dom , laugh­ter and the great advice = just write an let your­self be in it with com­fort , unex­pect­ed joy in the process & out­come …The old addage that ” Artists must suf­fer ” went under the bus for me years ago and the toss­ing out of that brain drain has set my sails aloft .….……Best to you all who can gath­er with an open mind .

  • Xany says:

    Y’know, some­times peo­ple insult­ing favorite writ­ers brings on rage, but call­ing Ray Brad­bury a “sim­ple-mind­ed prick” only brings…pity. It’s like say­ing that Ein­stein was a dim bulb, or that van Gogh was a tal­ent­less hack. You’re free to think that, but most peo­ple around will only pity you for your sad mind, unable to prop­er­ly expe­ri­ence things. That must be what it’s like to go through life colorblind…mentally.

    Yes, every sto­ry worth being told has a metaphor–a point, a uni­ver­sal mes­sage of some kind that it’s giv­ing to the audi­ence. From Shake­speare to the stand-up com­ic. Sug­gest­ing that you write qual­i­ty work isn’t sim­ple-mind­ed at all.

  • Julie Brown says:

    James D Cham­ber­lain: You com­ment­ed over a year and half ago, but I hope you’re around.…
    What you wrote could be a FABULOUS OPENING PARAGRAPH to a nov­el. Tru­ly. I read it three times and (oth­er than ref­er­ences to Long Beach and Dai­ly Breeze) and was drawn in as if open­ing a book. Some­thing to con­sid­er. If you don’t write it, some­body else might.… :)

  • Jed Hamilton says:

    “Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, to imi­tate your favorite writ­ers…”

    Sure­ly he means “sub­con­scious­ly”? — though writ­ing uncon­scious­ly does seem appeal­ing — takes the work out of it.

  • Bob Bello says:

    You got­ta love the good old man: “I quit act­ing! I just got up here to say any­thing I want to say!” That’s my man! True-and-faith­ful to the core of his being to the end, no mat­ter what!

  • Rachel Nichols says:

    I believe it was the end quo­ta­tion mark.

    “…imi­tate your favorite writ­ers,” just as he imi­tat­ed H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.

    Actu­al­ly, it’s there. It just is insert­ed in the wrong part of the para­graph.

  • Sheila Burnz says:

    He was­n’t say­ing writ­ing uncon­scious­ly, Jed Hamil­ton. He was say­ing attempt­ing to imi­tate, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly. Uncon­scious­ly does­n’t always mean being in a coma or a trance. It sim­ply means “with­out aware­ness,” sim­i­lar to sleep­i­ly does­n’t mean some­one is asleep.
    So in this case “uncon­scious­ly” would mean with­out aware­ness of attempt­ing to imi­tate.
    Web­ster Dic­tio­nary defines uncon­scious as “1. With­out con­scious thought or feel­ing, esp. with­out psy­cho­log­i­cal aware­ness and hence not capa­ble of being con­scious­ly scru­ti­nized.”
    For exam­ple: Per­haps his ego is uncon­scious­ly pumped up by find­ing unwar­rant­ed fault with oth­ers speech.

  • jake says:

    You mean amazon.com, right?

  • Jason says:

    You men­tioned High School, and it’s a shame that some kids will resist works from Ray Brad­bury (among many oth­er authors) sim­ply because many teach­ers don’t “sell” the book cor­rect­ly to the kids. They just slap it in front of them and say “read this”.

    Not until I became an adult did I dis­cov­er the won­der­ment that is Far­ren­heit 451.

    I even­tu­al­ly became a High School Eng­lish teacher, and pre­sent­ed the mag­ic of Some­thing Wicked This Way Comes to a class­room of awe­some kids who nor­mal­ly did­n’t like to read, and ran with the local gangs. One stu­dent described the book as “juicy”.

    Peo­ple will read if they find what they like. Some peo­ple may need assis­tance find­ing what they like.

    I enjoy Ray Brad­bury’s short sto­ries sim­ply because he is able to tell a tale with few char­ac­ters, rich detail with­out talk­ing over the read­er’s head with com­pli­cat­ed vocab­u­lary, and includes a clever twist at the end, often times leav­ing a cliffhang­er.

    Brad­bury may not be every­one’s favorite, and that’s ok. Peo­ple need to find their own per­son­al Brad­bury, and sur­ren­der to their imag­i­na­tion.

  • Yorgos says:

    Only a sim­ple mind­ed prick would think a sto­ry does­n’t need to be fash­ioned with metaphor. A sto­ry with­out a metaphor is a car with­out gas or a lion with­out teeth. Antho­ny is one of those pricks– bad mouthing a great writer like Brad­bury because Antho­ny is a con­sumer of the mod­ern New York­er stream of con­scious­ness rub­bish that fla­vor of the month dilet­tantes slap togeth­er for the faux sophis­ti­cates who infest a cer­tain lay­er of New York and L.A. soci­ety to puruse mind­less­ly while nod­ding their emp­ty heads over some over­priced Star­bucks swill as if the mod­ern nihilism they’re read­ing is worth some­thing.

  • Ronda Melendez says:

    I would love to meet Mr. Brad­bury over cof­fee more than any­thing. Him and Stephen King both. Hell I would mar­ry Mr. King if I could! (insert laugh­ter here) It was because of those two great writ­ers along with my hav­ing this odd need to want to tell a sto­ry and yet not feel­ing as if it would fit inside what oth­ers would feel as if it did not belong in their per­fect lit­tle world.

    It all began with the read­ing with the read­ing of the Lau­ra Ingalls Wilder books — all of you know those — The Lit­tle House on the Prairie series. Then I went up to the Nan­cy Drew mys­ter­ies and then there was my all time favorite writ­ten by Wal­ter Far­ley — The Black Stal­lion. I wish I still had those! I have searched for them every­where and still can­not find them.

    My daugh­ter Anjeli­ta has inher­it­ed the love of books and I have encour­aged her to read Brad­bury’s Faren­heit 451 say­ing how at first when we had to read it at school for a book report how much I hat­ed it then I had grown to love it and why, she is actu­al­ly look­ing for­ward to it. I think that the schools should be look­ing at how they intro­duce the read­ing pro­grams espe­cial­ly if it is turn­ing every­thing into a com­put­er. They should encour­age them to actu­al­ly ENJOY and UNDERSTAND what they are read­ing. They should­n’t tell them to — Read it! Do it! Under­stand it! Write about it! Test on it! Pass that test or else! — kind of men­tal­i­ty because that is what kind of turns peo­ple off or against lit­er­a­cy and the appre­ci­a­tion of it.

    Any­way, that is just my 2 cents.

  • Astrid Watanabe says:

    You write “…Yes, every sto­ry worth being told has a metaphor — a point, a uni­ver­sal mes­sage.…”
    It is impor­tant to me to keep this very clear­ly in my mind. Oth­er­wise, why both­er to write? So thank you. I have many sto­ries, and if I live long enough I will write some.
    A metaphor, like a mes­sage in a bottle.…you nev­er know who might find it.
    My aunt, to encour­age me to knit hid lit­tle presents or can­dy into the rolls of yarn she gave me. She called it a “Wun­derkneuel” Sto­ries could be like that.

  • Astrid Watanabe says:

    The above mes­sage was to Xany.

  • Gary B Trujillo says:

    I can’t stand libraries any­more, as they seem to be home­less “hang­outs” on either hot or cold days and they are always fight­ing and argu­ing with librar­i­ans or each oth­er. Half the time I go the police are called for some sort of alter­ca­tion.

  • martin says:

    …or a play­ground for fam­i­ly on week-end…all those kids run­ning around, nev­er sit down with a book dri­ve me crazy

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