Seven Tips From F. Scott Fitzgerald on How to Write Fiction


F. Scott Fitzger­ald is often por­trayed as a nat­ur­al-born writer. “His tal­ent,” says Ernest Hem­ing­way in A Move­able Feast, “was as nat­ur­al as the pat­tern that was made by the dust on a but­ter­fly­’s wings.” But Fitzger­ald saw him­self in a dif­fer­ent light. “What lit­tle I’ve accom­plished,” he said, “has been by the most labo­ri­ous and uphill work.”

Last week we brought you Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion. Today we’re back with a sim­i­lar list of advice from Hem­ing­way’s friend and rival Fitzger­ald. We’ve select­ed sev­en quo­ta­tions from F. Scott Fitzger­ald on Writ­ing, which was edit­ed by Lar­ry W. Phillips and pub­lished in 1985 as a com­pan­ion to the Hem­ing­way book. As in the pre­vi­ous post, we’ve orga­nized the advice under our own head­ings and added some brief com­men­tary.

1: Start by tak­ing notes.

Fitzger­ald made a habit of record­ing his stray thoughts and obser­va­tions in note­books. He orga­nized the entries into cat­e­gories like “Feel­ings and emo­tions,” “Con­ver­sa­tions and things over­heard” and “Descrip­tions of girls.” When Fitzger­ald was giv­ing writ­ing advice to his mis­tress Sheilah Gra­ham in the late 1930s, he advised her to do the same. In her 1940 mem­oir, Beloved Infi­del, Gra­ham quotes Fitzger­ald as say­ing:

You must begin by mak­ing notes. You may have to make notes for years.… When you think of some­thing, when you recall some­thing, put it where it belongs. Put it down when you think of it. You may nev­er recap­ture it quite as vivid­ly the sec­ond time.

2: Make a detailed out­line of your sto­ry.

When Fitzger­ald was work­ing on a nov­el, he would sur­round him­self with charts out­lin­ing the var­i­ous move­ments and his­to­ries of his char­ac­ters. In a 1936 let­ter to nov­el­ist John O’Hara, he advis­es the younger nov­el­ist to start with a big out­line:

Invent a sys­tem Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an out­line of a nov­el of your times enor­mous in scale (don’t wor­ry, it will con­tract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the cen­tral point of the file as your big cli­max and fol­low your plan back­ward and for­ward from that for anoth­er three months. Then draw up some­thing as com­pli­cat­ed as a con­ti­nu­ity from what you have and set your­self a sched­ule.

3: Don’t describe your work-in-progress to any­one.

Fitzger­ald’s pol­i­cy was nev­er to talk with oth­er peo­ple about the book he was work­ing on. In a 1940 let­ter to his daugh­ter Scot­tie, he says:

I think it’s a pret­ty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s fin­ished. If you do you always seem to lose some of it. It nev­er quite belongs to you so much again.

4: Cre­ate peo­ple, not types.

Fitzger­ald was known for cre­at­ing emblem­at­ic char­ac­ters, but he said it was acci­den­tal. “I had no idea of orig­i­nat­ing an Amer­i­can flap­per when I first began to write,” he said in a 1923 inter­view for Met­ro­pol­i­tan mag­a­zine. “I sim­ply took girls who I knew very well and, because they inter­est­ed me as unique human beings, I used them for my hero­ines.” In the open­ing sen­tence of his 1926 short sto­ry, “The Rich Boy,” Fitzger­ald explains the prin­ci­ple:

Begin with an indi­vid­ual, and before you know it you find that you have cre­at­ed a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing.

5: Use famil­iar words.

In a 1929 let­ter to his col­lege friend and fel­low writer John Peale Bish­op, Fitzger­ald says:

You ought nev­er to use an unfa­mil­iar word unless you’ve had to search for it to express a del­i­cate shade–where in effect you have recre­at­ed it. This is a damn good prose rule I think.… Excep­tions: (a) need to avoid rep­e­ti­tion (b) need of rhythm © etc.

6: Use verbs, not adjec­tives, to keep your sen­tences mov­ing.

In a 1938 let­ter to his daugh­ter, Fitzger­ald writes:

About adjec­tives: all fine prose is based on the verbs car­ry­ing the sen­tences. They make sen­tences move. Prob­a­bly the finest tech­ni­cal poem in Eng­lish is Keats’ “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trem­bling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarce­ly notic­ing it, yet it has col­ored the whole poem with its movement–the limp­ing, trem­bling and freez­ing is going on before your own eyes.

7: Be ruth­less.

A writer has to make some hard choic­es. Fitzger­ald warns about the dan­ger of becom­ing too attached to some­thing you’ve writ­ten. Keep an objec­tive eye on the whole piece, he says, and if some­thing isn’t work­ing get rid of it. In a 1933 Sat­ur­day Evening Post arti­cle titled “One Hun­dred False Starts,” he writes:

I am alone in the pri­va­cy of my fad­ed blue room with my sick cat, the bare Feb­ru­ary branch­es wav­ing at the win­dow, an iron­ic paper weight that says Busi­ness is Good, a New Eng­land conscience–developed in Minnesota–and my great­est prob­lem:

“Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?”

Shall I say:

“I know I had some­thing to prove, and it may devel­op far­ther along in the sto­ry?”


“This is just bull­head­ed­ness. Bet­ter throw it away and start over.”

The lat­ter is one of the most dif­fi­cult deci­sions that an author must make. To make it philo­soph­i­cal­ly, before he has exhaust­ed him­self in a hun­dred-hour effort to resus­ci­tate a corpse or dis­en­tan­gle innu­mer­able wet snarls, is a test of whether or not he is real­ly a pro­fes­sion­al. There are often occa­sions when such a deci­sion is dou­bly dif­fi­cult. In the last stages of a nov­el, for instance, where there is no ques­tion of junk­ing the whole, but when an entire favorite char­ac­ter has to be hauled out by the heels, screech­ing, and drag­ging half a dozen good scenes with him.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Rare Footage of Scott and Zel­da Fitzger­ald From the 1920s

Win­ter Dreams: F.Scott Fitzger­ald’s Life Remem­bered in a Fine Film

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Reads From Shake­speare’s Oth­el­lo and John Mase­field­’s ‘On Grow­ing Old’ (c.1940)

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