Seven Tips From William Faulkner on How to Write Fiction


“The young writer would be a fool to fol­low a the­o­ry,” said the Nobel Prize-win­ning author William Faulkn­er in his 1958 Paris Review inter­view. “Teach your­self by your own mis­takes; peo­ple learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.”

All the same, Faulkn­er offered plen­ty of advice to young writ­ers in 1957 and 1958, when he was a writer-in-res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. His var­i­ous lec­tures and pub­lic talks dur­ing that time–some 28 hours of discussion–were tape record­ed and can now be heard at the uni­ver­si­ty’s Faulkn­er audio archive. We combed through the tran­scripts and select­ed sev­en inter­est­ing quo­ta­tions from Faulkn­er on the craft of writ­ing fic­tion. In most cas­es they were points Faulkn­er returned to again and again. Faulkn­er had a way of stam­mer­ing when he com­posed his words out loud, so we have edit­ed out the rep­e­ti­tions and false starts. We have pro­vid­ed links to each of the Vir­ginia audio record­ings, which are accom­pa­nied by word-for-word tran­scripts of each con­ver­sa­tion.

1: Take what you need from oth­er writ­ers.

Faulkn­er had no qualms about bor­row­ing from oth­er writ­ers when he saw a device or tech­nique that was use­ful. In a Feb­ru­ary 25, 1957 writ­ing class he says:

I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is com­plete­ly amoral. He takes what­ev­er he needs, wher­ev­er he needs, and he does that open­ly and hon­est­ly because he him­self hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him peo­ple will take from him, and they are wel­come to take from him, as he feels that he would be wel­come by the best of his pre­de­ces­sors to take what they had done.

2: Don’t wor­ry about style.

A gen­uine writer–one “dri­ven by demons,” to use Faulkn­er’s phrase–is too busy writ­ing to wor­ry about style, he said. In an April 24, 1958 under­grad­u­ate writ­ing class, Faulkn­er says:

I think the sto­ry com­pels its own style to a great extent, that the writer don’t need to both­er too much about style. If he’s both­er­ing about style, then he’s going to write pre­cious emptiness–not nec­es­sar­i­ly nonsense…it’ll be quite beau­ti­ful and quite pleas­ing to the ear, but there won’t be much con­tent in it.

3:  Write from experience–but keep a very broad def­i­n­i­tion of “expe­ri­ence.”

Faulkn­er agreed with the old adage about writ­ing from your own expe­ri­ence, but only because he thought it was impos­si­ble to do oth­er­wise. He had a remark­ably inclu­sive con­cept of “expe­ri­ence.” In a Feb­ru­ary 21, 1958 grad­u­ate class in Amer­i­can fic­tion, Faulkn­er says:

To me, expe­ri­ence is any­thing you have per­ceived. It can come from books, a book that–a sto­ry that–is true enough and alive enough to move you. That, in my opin­ion, is one of your expe­ri­ences. You need not do the actions that the peo­ple in that book do, but if they strike you as being true, that they are things that peo­ple would do, that you can under­stand the feel­ing behind them that made them do that, then that’s an expe­ri­ence to me. And so, in my def­i­n­i­tion of expe­ri­ence, it’s impos­si­ble to write any­thing that is not an expe­ri­ence, because every­thing you have read, have heard, have sensed, have imag­ined is part of expe­ri­ence.

 4: Know your char­ac­ters well and the sto­ry will write itself.

When you have a clear con­cep­tion of a char­ac­ter, said Faulkn­er, events in a sto­ry should flow nat­u­ral­ly accord­ing to the char­ac­ter’s inner neces­si­ty. “With me,” he said, “the char­ac­ter does the work.” In the same Feb­ru­ary 21, 1958 Amer­i­can fic­tion class as above, a stu­dent asked Faulkn­er whether it was more dif­fi­cult to get a char­ac­ter in his mind, or to get the char­ac­ter down on paper once he had him in his mind. Faulkn­er replies:

I would say to get the char­ac­ter in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work him­self. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the inges­tion and then the ges­ta­tion. You’ve got to know the char­ac­ter. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a cer­tain amount of pick­ing and choos­ing among the pos­si­bil­i­ties of his action, so that his actions fit the char­ac­ter which you believe in. After that, the busi­ness of putting him down on paper is mechan­i­cal.

5: Use dialect spar­ing­ly.

In a pair of local radio pro­grams includ­ed in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia audio archive, Faulkn­er has some inter­est­ing things to say about the nuances of the var­i­ous dialects spo­ken by the var­i­ous eth­nic and social groups in Mis­sis­sip­pi. But in the May 6, 1958 broad­cast of “What’s the Good Word?” Faulkn­er cau­tions that it’s impor­tant for a writer not to get car­ried away:

I think it best to use as lit­tle dialect as pos­si­ble because it con­fus­es peo­ple who are not famil­iar with it. That nobody should let the char­ac­ter speak com­plete­ly in his own ver­nac­u­lar. It’s best indi­cat­ed by a few sim­ple, sparse but rec­og­niz­able touch­es.

6: Don’t exhaust your imag­i­na­tion.

“Nev­er write your­self to the end of a chap­ter or the end of a thought,” said Faulkn­er. The advice, giv­en more than once dur­ing his Vir­ginia talks, is vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to some­thing Ernest Hem­ing­way often said. (See tip num­ber two in “Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion.”) In the Feb­ru­ary 25, 1957 writ­ing class, Faulkn­er says:

The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Nev­er write your­self out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s eas­i­er to take it up again. If you exhaust your­self, then you’ll get into a dead spell and you’ll have trou­ble with it.

7: Don’t make excus­es.

In the same Feb­ru­ary 25, 1957 writ­ing class, Faulkn­er has some blunt words for the frus­trat­ed writer who blames his cir­cum­stances:

I have no patience, I don’t hold with the mute inglo­ri­ous Mil­tons. I think if he’s demon-dri­ven with some­thing to be said, then he’s going to write it. He can blame the fact that he’s not turn­ing out work on lots of things. I’ve heard peo­ple say, “Well, if I were not mar­ried and had chil­dren, I would be a writer.” I’ve heard peo­ple say, “If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.” I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and noth­ing will stop you.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

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

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