(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“What we know about writing the novel is the novel.” Eudora Welty

“The disciplines of fiction are few in number, but they are all basic, and not one of them is thoroughly accepted or understood by unsuccessful writers of fiction. Among these unsuccessful writers are many who are published. Publication is not necessarily a sign of success.” William Sloane

“But a writing project begins not just in doubt but also in faith—that if your passion is genuine, if you have mastered the elements of your craft, in the act of writing you will learn the rest of what you need to know in order to do justice to your subject.” Philip Gerard

“If I wanted to write, I had to be willing to develop a kind of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance.” Maya Angelou

“Why study craftsmanship at all? First of all, because it can be studied.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Writing, at least a craft and at its best an art, aspiring to the unique, is the most difficult to learn.” Jacques Barzun

“I don’t think there is a single sentence in this whole book [East of Eden] that does not either develop character, carry on the story or provide necessary background.” John Steinbeck

“General rules have been legislated into being by past masters.” John Ciardi

“The habits of craft, developed day in and day out over a working lifetime, create moments of astonishment, sublime and magical effects, precisely because the writer is not thinking overtly about making art.” Philip Gerard

“It must be admitted that if they neglect a certain old-fashioned form of exercise, speakers and writers have a hard time ascertaining the precise use of all the common-uncommon words they use. That exercise is reading, reading, reading.” Jacques Barzun

“Art is always a result, in any field, whether writing or painting or music, and it is indefinable. Certainly it is not an element of anything that is written, but one effect of what has been written. All great artists appear to be masters of their technique, and masters of that technique in their individual idiom. If the idiom is sufficiently individual, and the technique sufficiently persuasive, many other people are moved to participate in the artist’s experience. But this is clearly a matter of result. Art cannot be taught. No more can the greatness that it conveys.” William Sloane

“Craftsmanship is the use of tools and materials in order to make something in a seemly and economical fashion.” William Sloane

“For instance it is not craftsmanship to decide to build a table and buy half the lumberyard and have, when the table is finished, approximately eighty or ninety oddly shaped pieces of wood lying around on the floor and hundreds of bent nails and screws and great piles of sawdust. Craftsmanship does indeed carry with it the element of economy of materials. And when it is appropriate to the object being constructed (in this case a book), it acts to enhance.” William Sloane

“Skill in writing frees you to write what you want to write. It may also show you what you want to write. Craft enables art.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The craft of the novelist does lie first of all in story-telling.” Elizabeth Bowen

“My four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity.” William Zinsser

“There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.” William Zinsser

“They [writers] sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.” William Zinsser

“Any writer or would-be writer would be well advised to reflect that a mastery of craft it just exactly that and has nothing to do with greatness or power except to enhance it.” William Sloane

“The craft of writing serves the art of writing and sharpens it.” William Sloane

“All writers, given adequate technique—technique that communicates—can stir our interest in their special subject matter.” John Gardner

“Working element by element through the necessary parts of fiction, he should make the essential techniques second nature, so that he can use them with increasing dexterity and subtlety, until at last, as if effortlessly, he can construct imaginary worlds—huge thoughts made up of concrete detail—so rich and complex, and so awesomely simple, that we are astounded, as we’re always astounded by great art.” John Gardner

“Techniques in themselves are always reducible to sciences, that is, to learnability. Once Joyce has written, Picasso painted, Webern composed, it requires only a minimal gift, besides patience and practice, to copy their technique exactly; yet we all know why this kind of technique-copy, even when it is so painstakingly done—for instance, in painting—that it deceives museum and auction-house experts, is counted worthless beside the work of the original artist. It is not of him or her; it is not art, but imitation.” John Fowles

“Technique in the minds of many is something rigid, something like a formula that you impose on the material; but in the best stories it is something organic, something that grows out of the material, and this being the case, it is different for every story of any account that has ever been written.” Flannery O’Connor

“It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in fiction. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” Flannery O’Connor

“If the Holy Ghost dictated a novel, I doubt very much that all would be flow. I doubt that the writer would be relieved of his capacity for taking pains (which is all that technique is in the end); I doubt that he would lose the habit of art. I think it would only be perfected. The greater the love, the greater the pains he would take.” Flannery O’Connor

“The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you. The teacher can help the student by looking at his individual work and trying to help him decide if he has written a complete story, one in which the action fully illuminates the meaning.” Flannery O’Connor

“What personal problems are worked out in stories must be unconscious. My preoccupations are technical. My preoccupation is how am I going to get this bull’s horn into this woman’s ribs.” Flannery O’Connor

“There are techniques—hundreds of them—that, like carpenter’s tricks, can be studied and taught.” John Gardner

“The writer’s business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it’s by training—by studying great books and by writing—that one learns to present one’s fictions, giving them their due. Through the study of technique—not canoeing or logging or slinging hash—one learns the best, most efficient ways of making characters come alive, learns to know the difference between emotions and sentimentality, learns to discern, in the planning stages, the difference between the better dramatic action and the worse. It is this kind of knowledge that leads to mastery.” John Gardner

“What the beginning writer needs, discouraging as it may be to hear, is not a set of rules but mastery—among other things, mastery of the art of breaking so-called rules.” John Gardner

“Mastery—not a full mental catalogue of the rules—must be the writer’s goal. He must get the art of fiction, in all its complexity—the whole tradition and all its technical options—down through the wrinkles and tricky wiring of his brain into his blood.” John Gardner

“Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.” John Gardner

“Every writer at some point must go through an analytical period, but in time he must get his own characteristic solutions into his blood, so that when confronted with a problem in a novel he’s writing he does not consult his literary background. He feels his way to the solution; rather than drawing back from the fictional dream to look at what he’s doing, he solves the problem by plunging deeper into the dream.” John Gardner

“It’s the sheer act of writing, more than anything else, that makes a writer.” John Gardner

“Recognize that the art of writing is immensely more difficult than the beginning writer may at first believe but in the end can be mastered by anyone willing to do the work.” John Gardner

“The best way to become a writer is to go off and write.” Hemingway

“The real importance of literary technique is that it helps the writer check himself and zero in on truth.” John Gardner

“I am speaking of works in which technique is adequate to purpose. (The artist who works at what he’s trying to say so clumsily that he cannot get it said, and the artist whose statement is so much like everybody else’s that nobody finds it worth listening to—these are frauds, apprentices, or fools).” John Gardner

“I have also led you astray by talking of technique as if it were something that could be separated from the rest of the story. Technique can’t operate at all, of course, except on believable material.” Flannery O’Connor

“The less self-conscious you are about what you are about, the better in a way, that is to say technically. You have to get it in your blood, not in the head.” Flannery O’Connor

“As for the blood and the head business, the blood and the head work together and what is not first in the blood can sometimes reach it by going first through the head and what is wrong in the blood can sometimes be tempered by the head.” Flannery O’Connor

“A reader has to be concerned only with the end result; unless he chooses to analyze it, he does not have to know by what means that result was achieved—but it is my job to know.” Ayn Rand

“Many different substances, as distinct to the practiced eye as stone and wood, go to the making of a novel, and it is necessary to see them for what they are.” Percy Lubbock

“I admire craftsmanship. I like to see a literary job well done at whatever level. I go back to Chandler and Hammett. Chandler, especially, is marvelous; his best paragraphs are absolutely tight and hard. Like good furniture.” John Fowles

“The other day I asked a well-known editor to define the general fault in all the books she’d rejected, and she said, ‘Too much imagination, not enough technique.’ But this is the prime source of why people write novels, I think; it’s trying to make the one behind, the technique, catch up. It sounds a negative thing as she put it, but I don’t think it is really. All of us know that our technique is never good enough for our imagination. We can always imagine more beautifully, more precisely, more cleverly, more romantically—more than we can ever get it down on paper. This lack haunts all novel writing.” John Fowles

“All told, the combined instruction and encouragement . . . afforded the part-time or beginning writer is more than sufficient to subtract seriously from the time he ought to be devoting to more important reading.” William Sloane

“This business of abstracting (selecting) events and organizing them so that they bear some meaningful relationship to each other and to the central ‘theme’ of a novel or play constitutes the ‘story-teller’s art.’ Plot construction, development of character, narrative structure, climax, denouement, and all the other things one talks about in technical literary criticism have reference to this organizing of symbolic experiences so that the whole complex of symbolic experiences (i.e., the finished story or play) will have the desired impact on the reader.” S.I. Hayakawa

“Writing is a craft, not an art . . . the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.” William Zinsser

“Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach or Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing.” William Zinsser

“I have no interest in teaching writers how to sell. I want to teach them how to write. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow.” William Zinsser

“I knew at an early age that good writing can appear anywhere, even in the lowly newspaper, and that what matters is the writing itself, not the medium where it’s published. Therefore I’ve always tried to write as well as I could by my own standards; I’ve never changed my style to fit the size or the presumed education of the audience I was writing for.” William Zinsser

“Imaginative writing has always been a solitary and indeed a somewhat antisocial activity. Apprenticeship existed, no doubt, but it was an apprenticeship to books and not to living masters of the craft.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Once fully known, these elements of craftsmanship become reflexive. They are not the property of either the conscious or unconscious mind but of both. Once the tools of craftsmanship have been mastered to that extent, you can use them without thinking about them, to make your imagination more mobile and ultimately more free.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the most necessary discipline for novelists who burn with the ambition to get better.” Pat Conroy

“Learn to write by writing. . . . Learn the sea by sailing it.” Ann Patchett

“You have to roll up your sleeves and be a stonecutter before you can become a sculptor—command of craft always precedes art: apprentice, journeyman, master.” Philip Gerard

“When watching a movie, more than half the time viewers are watching utter darkness. Nothingness. An absence of image and light. As writers, we work in another kind of illusion and we create another brand of persistence of vision in the imagination: We create an interior ‘movie’ in the reader’s head through words on the page. Even in nonfiction narratives, we create the fiction that we are delivering characters’ continuous, whole experiences, when in fact we are pasting together collages of a very few selected scenes connected tenuously by summary and transitional exposition—narrative sleight of hand—and leaving out far more than we can ever include. Like all those frames of darkness.” Philip Gerard [My italics—UW]

“The simplest tool of the writer is repetition. . . . The simplest tool of the writer is repetition.” Philip Gerard

“Storytelling is the art of unfolding knowledge in a way that makes each piece contribute to a larger truth.” Philip Gerard

“Keeping track, in a precise way, of the intricacies of what has happened so far—especially as the book grows into the hundreds of pages and several layers of drafts—is difficult. Again, it’s not a matter of art but of the working craft. Like an outline, it’s scaffolding you dismantle after you’ve built your cathedral.

“For the big stuff to work credibly, you’ve got to get the little stuff absolutely right.” Philip Gerard

“The only way to write a novel is to proceed as if you had all the time in the world.” Philip Gerard

“I think it would be much better to read that book [War and Peace] over and over, to the neglect of books on the art of fiction.” Maxwell Perkins

“I have made three rules of writing for myself that are absolutes: Never take advice. Never show or discuss work in progress. Never answer a critic.” Raymond Chandler

“Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks next time you writer.” W.P. Kinsella

“Writers learn their craft, above all, from the work of other writers. From reading.” Marie Arana