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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