28 Tips for Writing Stories from Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway & F. Scott Fitzgerald

Faulkner Hemingway Fitzgerald Poe

Most writ­ers find their indi­vid­ual voice only after they sojourn through peri­ods of imi­ta­tion. Though it’s an excel­lent way to appro­pri­ate exper­i­men­tal tech­niques and move out of com­fort­able ruts, imi­ta­tion can only take us so far. But more pre­scrip­tive guide­lines from famous authors can offer ways to refine our indi­vid­ual styles and visions. Advice, for exam­ple, from such a clear and suc­cinct the­o­rist as Kurt Von­negut can go a very long way indeed for aspir­ing fic­tion writ­ers.

Anoth­er rea­son for appre­ci­at­ing great writ­ers’ how-to guide­lines accords with the injunc­tion we often hear: to read, read, read as much as pos­si­ble. Learn­ing how William Faulkn­er con­ceived of his craft can give us use­ful insights into his nov­els. What did Faulkn­er think of the writ­ing enter­prise and the social role of the writer? How did he come to for­mu­late his impres­sive­ly dense style? What was his view of learn­ing from oth­er writ­ers?

We can answer the last ques­tion by ref­er­ence to sev­en writ­ing tips we pre­vi­ous­ly com­piled from lec­tures and Q&A ses­sions Faulkn­er con­duct­ed while serv­ing as writer-in-res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia from 1957 to ’58. The first tip? Take what you need from oth­er writ­ers. To that end, we offer sev­en writ­ing tips each from four Amer­i­can greats (or 28 tips in total). As writ­ers, we’re free to take or leave their guide­lines; as read­ers we may always find their philoso­phies of keen inter­est.

William Faulkn­er: 

Take What You Need From Oth­er Writ­ers

Dur­ing a writ­ing class on Feb­ru­ary 25, 1957, Faulkn­er said the fol­low­ing:

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.

Faulkner’s advice can help tremendously–at least in a psy­cho­log­i­cal sense–those writ­ers who might have qualms about “steal­ing” from oth­ers. You have per­mis­sion to do so from none oth­er than per­haps the great­est Amer­i­can mod­ernist writer of them all.

Faulkn­er also said “the young writer would be a fool to fol­low a the­o­ry,” a piece of advice we might bear in mind as we peruse famous writ­ing the­o­ries. “The good artist,” he said, “believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.”

See the full list of Faulkner’s sev­en tips here.

Ernest Hem­ing­way:

Faulkner’s mod­ernist foil and some­time rival Ernest Hem­ing­way had some char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly prag­mat­ic advice for bud­ding writ­ers. Like many writ­ers’ tips, some of his advice may do lit­tle but help you write more like Hem­ing­way. And some of it, like “use a pen­cil,” is per­fect­ly use­less if you’ve already found your pre­ferred method of work­ing. One guide­line, how­ev­er, is intrigu­ing­ly counter-intu­itive. Hem­ing­way coun­sels us to

Nev­er Think about the Sto­ry When You’re Not Work­ing

This is one thing Faulkn­er and Hem­ing­way might agree on. In an Esquire arti­cle, Hem­ing­way describes his expe­ri­ence dur­ing the com­po­si­tion of A Move­able Feast, one Faulkn­er char­ac­ter­izes in his writ­ing advice as “nev­er exhaust your imag­i­na­tion.”

When I was writ­ing, it was nec­es­sary for me to read after I had writ­ten. If you kept think­ing about it, you would lose the thing you were writ­ing before you could go on with it the next day. It was nec­es­sary to get exer­cise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was bet­ter than any­thing. But after­wards, when you were emp­ty, it was nec­es­sary to read in order not to think or wor­ry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already nev­er to emp­ty the well of my writ­ing, but always to stop when there was still some­thing there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Read all of Hemingway’s 7 writ­ing tips here.

F. Scott Fitzger­ald:

Despite his rep­u­ta­tion as an undis­ci­plined and messy writer, Fitzger­ald has some of the most prac­ti­cal tips of all for orga­niz­ing your ideas. One of his more philo­soph­i­cal pre­scrip­tions takes a sim­i­lar tone as Hemingway’s in regard to the pri­vate world of the imag­i­na­tion:

Don’t Describe Your Work-in-Progress to Any­one

Fitzger­ald offered this piece of advice in a 1940 let­ter to his daugh­ter, Scot­tie, writ­ing,

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.

This seems to me a good piece of advice for hold­ing on to the mag­ic of a cre­ative­ly imag­ined world. Try­ing to sum­ma­rize a good sto­ry in brief—like try­ing to explain a joke—generally has the effect of tak­ing all the fun out of it.

Read Fitzgerald’s 7 tips for writ­ers here.

Edgar Allan Poe:

Final­ly, we reach back to the 19th cen­tu­ry, to the father of the Amer­i­can goth­ic and the detec­tive sto­ry, Edgar Allan Poe, who had some very spe­cif­ic, very Poe things to say about the art of fic­tion. In his essay “The Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion,” Poe focus­es on how to achieve what he vague­ly called a “uni­ty of effect,” the qual­i­ty he desired most to pro­duce in his nar­ra­tive poem “The Raven.” Per­haps the clear­est piece of advice Poe offers in his trea­tise is:

Know the End­ing in Advance, Before You Begin to Write

You will like­ly find oth­er authors who advise against this and tell you to write your way to the end. Bear­ing in mind Faulkner’s disclaimer—that we would be “fool to fol­low a theory”—we might at least try this prac­tice and see if it works for us as it did for Poe. As he described it, “noth­ing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elab­o­rat­ed to its dénoue­ment before any thing be attempt­ed with the pen.”

Keep­ing the end “con­stant­ly in view,” wrote Poe, gives “a plot its indis­pens­able air of con­se­quence.” Poe’s advice applies to short works that can be read in a sin­gle sit­ting, the only ones he gen­er­al­ly allows can achieve “uni­ty of effect.” Nov­el-writ­ing is dif­fer­ent. I don’t know if it’s nec­es­sary to ful­ly know the end­ing of a short sto­ry before one begins, but Von­negut coun­sels writ­ers to “start as close to the end as pos­si­ble” when writ­ing one.

See Poe’s full list of 7 tips here.

Should you desire more writ­ing advice, you’ll find no short­age here at Open Cul­ture, from writ­ers as diverse as Stephen King, Toni Mor­ri­sonRober­to Bolaño, H.P. Love­craft, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Ray Brad­bury, and many more. Whether or not we decide to take any of their advice, it always opens a win­dow onto their art of cre­at­ing fic­tion­al worlds, which can seem to many of us a cre­ative act akin to mag­ic.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Rober­to Bolaño’s 12 Tips on “the Art of Writ­ing Short Sto­ries”

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Lists the Three Essen­tial Qual­i­ties For All Seri­ous Nov­el­ists (And Run­ners)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.