Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the National Bestseller Last Child in the Woods

From the Blog

WRITERS ON WRITING

Jack London. Writing. Outdoors.

As mentioned is an earlier post, when working with grassroots leaders some years ago, my job was to help them communicate more effectively with the public -- something they usually did just fine on their own. Still, we all need a boost from time to time. For myself and for them, I gathered a collection of my favorite quotes from writers about writing -- and offered a few thoughts of my own:

“No Music + Bad TV = Bad Mood + No Pages."  — Hunter S. Thompson

“You only want to work on the stuff you're not supposed to be working on. That's how it always is. I'll always be working on five things at once, usually with those documents open at the same time because if I get stuck somewhere I'll jump over to something else. That's how my head has always worked. I don't know if it's 'cause I watched too much TV as a kid or what. It really could be that.”   — Dave Eggers, author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little.” — 
Anne Lamott, author of “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”

Writing Columns and Op-Eds

Writing is thinking, with punctuation. William Faulkner put it this way: “I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it.”

— Keep it short. Every word over 700 words decreases your chance of being published on an opinion page. This is harder to do than you’d think. As Mark Twain surmised, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

— Match your piece to current headlines. To put this crassly, if you want to make a statement about crime, mention this week’s lead crime story — then say what you need to say.

— Remove jargon. “Try to leave out the parts that people skip,” as Elmore Leonard said. And don’t write like you think a writer writes; write like you talk — assuming you talk well.

— Kill most adjectives. Or, take Twain’s advice: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you're inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

— Rewrite. Rewrite it again. Then send it to your editor, and rewrite the edits. On this matter, James Michener said, “I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” Mario Puzo (best known for his novel and screenplay “The Godfather”) wrote, “Rewriting is the whole secret to writing,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne opined, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” See a pattern here?

— Rant logically. Write from your heart more than your head — or at least get your heart and head on even footing. Anatomically, this is possible.

— Mainly, just try it. Take that screed you spewed to your co-workers at lunch, and throw it on paper as quickly as you can. Some of the best pieces begin as e-mail tirades.

— Believe me, as a newspaper columnist for 21 years (see link below), I know this isn’t easy. As the great sports columnist Red Smith said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." (Writers love that quote. Oh, the humanity.) But, despite what Red said, writing an op-ed can be fun, and it’s one of the best ways of refining, controlling and distributing your message.

— Never write to the readers; write to one reader.

Writing Books

— “A person who publishes a book appears willfully in the public eye with his pants down.”— Edna St. Vincent Millay. Right. But did she wear pants?.

“There are too many books in the world. The only good reason for writing a book is because you can’t help it.” I recall this Hemingway quote, but have yet to verify it. If he didn’t say it, he should have.

— He also said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

—  “The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business,” said John Steinbeck. True, but your acquiring editor has to convince his company that your book is going to make money. Then, let the rationalizing begin.

— A book proposal is a business proposal. End of story. Typical package: a one page description of the book (if you can’t say it in a page — no, make that a paragraph — something’s gone terribly, terribly wrong); five pages describing who would plunk down $30 to do the work of reading your book, what organizations are going to do the heavy lifting for your publisher, and why your book is different from anything else out there.

— The better thought-out the proposal is, the easier the book will be to write. For the first three chapters. After that, you’ll throw out the proposal and start over.

—  Focus, focus, focus. An agent once said to me, “A book that is for everyone is a book that is for no one.” I didn’t hire him, partly because he said that. He was right. I was wrong. Focus.

— A one-year contract means that you’ll need two years to write the book. Trust me on this.

— When the book is finished, the real work begins. Don’t be surprised if your publisher acts puzzled about promotion. Ellen Goodman once said, “To Houghton Mifflin, selling books is in bad taste.” Still, you could find a publisher who defies convention. They exist. They do. Really.

— “Books are never finished, they are only abandoned.” — Credited to writers and poets Paul Valéry, W. H. Auden and Oscar Wilde; or, when referencing art, attributed to Picasso or Leonardo da Vinci. And others. It’s a meme more than a quote.

The Three R’s: Rejection, Rewriting, and Redemption

— “You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” — Jack London

— If you’re tempted to join a writers’ group, lie down until the urge passes. Spend that time writing. “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.” — Barbara Kingsolver

— “I type in one place, but I write all over the house.” — Toni Morrison

— Insecure? Afraid of the page? Get in line. Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, "Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out."  

While trying to finish a book, and feeling hopeless, I taped a quote from one of John Steinbeck’s journals to the top of my computer screen: “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself…..it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.”  The book? “The Grapes of Wrath”

— It’s all about rejection and redemption. “The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.” — William Saroyan

 

Richard Louv is the author of "The Nature Principle,"Last Child in the Woods," and other books about the human-nature connection. Among his other roles, he is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and a board director of ecoAmerica, a nonprofit building a broader base of support for climate change action.

 

More writing and resources:

15 Characteristics of Leadership Writing
The Lady Across the Lake: How nature stimulates creativity and community
The Hybrid MindThe More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature they Need
Are You a Leader?
Dear Virginia: On Writing

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