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

“How I enjoy the soft sailing sweep of your words, coming down inexorably, like my white owl, upon the very thing.” Virginia Woolf

“We start from scratch, and words don’t;” Eudora Welty

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” Steven Wright

“Shadowy thoughts are brought into the light of reason; echoes are traced to their sources.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention.” Jorge Luis Borges

“I am ready and the words are beginning to well up and come crawling down my pencil and drip on the paper.” John Steinbeck

“Ordering thoughts and ideas, we begin to choose our words. Each choice is made with care, fit with a sense of proportion.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“I try to write down every word with caution and a sense of craft, as though I were carving hieroglyphics on the tomb of a well-loved king.” Pat Conroy

“You don’t read the words—you swallow them. You have to savor words. You have to let them melt in your mouth.” Antonio Skarmeta

“May the words be very clean and sharp like good knives.” John Steinbeck

“We bring up living words like fishes hooked in their gills, leaping from the deep. Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“Luminous words are brought down like a bird on an arrow string shot from passing clouds. Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“Wanting every word to sing, every writer worries: nothing is ever perfected; no poet can afford to become complacent.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“I believe words must be conquered, lived, and that the apparent publicity they receive from the dictionary is a falsehood. Nobody should dare to write ‘outskirts’ without having spent hours pacing their high sidewalks; without having desired and suffered as if they were a lover; without having felt their walls, their lots, their moons just around the corner from a general store, like a cornucopia.” Jorge Luis Borges

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” Ernest Hemingway

“The words grow stiff and unruly, like puppies they want to go their own ways.” John Steinbeck

“I only want to use words that real people say.” W.B. Yeats

“The need for complete familiarity with all the words and idioms one wants to use is evident and unarguable.” Jacques Barzun

“Calm the heart’s dark waters; collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“The pen is the tongue of the mind.” Miguel Cervantes

“The book starts with love of each separate word.” John Fowles

“The power of the writer, controlling and shaping reality with words.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Though words to the writer are of intense concern, it should be his object to make the reader as little aware of them as possible.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Diction refers to the writer’s precise choice of words for their effect.” Sol Stein

“Know what each and every word you use means. Look them up in the dictionaries, especially the ones with good etymologies. There is no substitute for knowing words. Love words. Love language. Read about the English language. Read all about it. Get hold of the Strunk and White essay on style and you better believe it.” William Sloane

“Besides judgment, one must also use caution and not throw in a term that sounds attractive but is not clearly known—it may explode into nonsense or worse in the eye of a knowledgeable reader.” Jacques Barzun

“The test of what word to use, then, is made up of three questions: Do I know what this word means and suggests? Do I know what its quality or atmosphere is? Do I know what its ‘hooks’ are for linking it with other words?” Jacques Barzun

“Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes, slightly rearranged are impotent?” E.B. White

“You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.” William Zinsser

“The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.” William Zinsser

“Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively ‘What’s the phrase for that?’ and try to make more and more vivid the roughness of the air current and the tremor of the rook’s wing slicing as if the air were full of ridges and ripples and roughnesses.” Virginia Woolf

“You are absolutely right to consider nothing but major problems. My major problem is finding the next word.” Flannery O’Connor

“Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply.” William Zinsser

“An exact writer treats words as he would in a legal document. This does not mean using awkward sentences. It means using words with absolute clarity, while still projecting violent emotion, color—any literal quality—by precise means.” Ayn Rand

Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” E.B. White

“Whatever one wishes to say, there is one noun only by which to express is, one verb only to give it life, one adjective only which will describe it. One must search until one has discovered them, this noun, this verb, this adjective, and never rest content with approximations, never resort to trickery, however happy, or to vulgarisms, in order to dodge the difficulty.”  Flaubert

“I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“It is more better, as our help around here says.” Flannery O’Connor

“The only word I feel is not right in the whole story is the word cowering to describe the priest’s bow at the altar.” Flannery O’Connor

“I think an awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Words should be windows that allow us to see thoughts or events.” John Gardner

“[Clichés]—dead expressions, the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for, so that he turns instead to [clichés].” John Gardner

“Every word and phrase, from holy to clinical to obscene, has its proper domain, where it works effectively and comfortably, offending no one.” John Gardner

“Rhodes’ eye, like any fine novelist’s, is accurate both about literal details (where one’s feet touch on a porch swing) and about metaphoric equivalencies. Sitting in his study twenty years later, he summons in his mind’s eye exactly how things looked and finds precise expression for what he sees, sometimes literal expression (Wilson bending over the steering wheel, Della’s feet as she swings), sometimes metaphorical expression (the point that the two are like quiet, careful children).” John Gardner

“Words not only serve but help to shape the fictive vision.” John Gardner

“When a writer finds himself stuck, it is not only because he cannot get down the fictive dream, that is, find the right words for it, but also because he’s unable to go with the linguistic flow, unable to adapt what he wants to say to what his words are suggesting that he might say. He’s like a sculptor so intent on the image in his mind that he’s unwilling to compromise with—take suggestions from—the grain of the marble.” John Gardner

“Sloppy writers tend to hide behind adjectives and adverbs.” Ulf Wolf

“If your nouns are simple, your verbs active . . . , and your pronouns in good order, then you owe it to your reader and yourself to be strict with your modifiers.” Jacques Barzun

“Words are as beautiful as wild horses, and sometimes as difficult to corral.” Ted Berkman

“Gass knows words the way a cabinet maker knows wood; he knows the language the way a lover knows the body of his beloved—that is to say, not ideally or romantically, but intimately.” Donald Guttenplan

“It is [Beckett’s] wonderful rhythms, the way he weighs his words, the authority he gives to each, their measured pace, the silence he puts between them, as loving looks extend their objects into the surrounding space; it is the contrapuntal form, the reduced means, the simple clear directness of his obscurities, and the depth inside of every sentence, the graceful hurdle of every chosen obstacle, everywhere the lack of waste.” William Gass

“If you go to school where there are classes in writing, these classes should not teach you how to write, but to teach you the limits and possibilities of words and the respect due them.” Flannery O’Connor

“I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose.” Flannery O’Connor

“A word stands for something else and is used for a purpose and if you play around with them irrespective of what they are supposed to do, your writing will become literary in the worst sense.” Flannery O’Connor

“Do not use obscenities—and never mind all the arguments about ‘realism.’ Four-letter words all have non-obscene synonyms; they are obscene not by content, but by their intention—the intention being to convey that what is referred to is improper or evil.” Ayn Rand

“Words that are not used orally are seldom the ones to put on paper.” E.B. White

“In old days books were so many sentences absolutely struck with an axe out of crystal.” Virginia Woolf

“I must learn to write more succinctly.” Virginia Woolf

“This is less severe by a long chalk (what’s the origin of that? cricket pitch? Billiards?)” Virginia Woolf

“What is the word for full of the sea?” Virginia Woolf

“Yeats and Aldous agreed, the other day, that their great aim in writing is to avoid the ‘literary.’ Aldous said how extraordinary the ‘literary’ fetish had been among the Victorians. Yeats said that he only wanted to use the words that real people say.” Virginia Woolf

“Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” E.B. White

“Most of the great lyric poetry of the world has been written by adolescents, or people who have only just left that age. Unfortunately the novel is much more earth-bound than poetry and needs the kind of linguistic skills few of us acquire before our fourth decade.” John Fowles

“Storytelling is the way a child learns the delight of the language, of the world of words, and of the bridge words build between people.” William Sloane

“Avoid like the plague the use of clichés. They are motion killers.” William Sloane

“The writer’s problems with words, in the majority of these manuscripts, do not arise out of a vocabulary scarcity. The trouble arises, instead, out of not knowing the dictionary meanings of a word, exactly.” William Sloane

“If we wish to communicate accurately we are under a kind of moral obligation to avoid Humpty’s practice of giving private meanings to commonly used words.” William Sloane

“The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the ‘true meanings’ of words, but the task of recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver.” S.I. Hayakawa

“In choosing our words when we speak or write, we can be guided by the historical record afforded us by the dictionary, but we cannot be bound by it, because new situations, new experiences, new inventions, new feelings, are always compelling us to give new uses to old words.” S.I. Hayakawa

“To say dogmatically that we know what a word means in advance of its utterance is nonsense. All we can know in advance is approximately what it will mean. After the utterance, we interpret what has been said in the light of both verbal and physical contexts, and act according to our interpretation.” S.I. Hayakawa

“You send me the word alcyons [halcyons] to replace libellules [dragonflies]. George Pouchet has suggested gerre des lacs (genus gerris). Well, neither of them suits me, because neither evokes a picture for the ignorant reader.” Gustave Flaubert

“When we are naming something, then, we are classifying. The individual object or event we are naming, of course, has no name and belongs to no class until we put it in one.” S.I. Hayakawa

“For of course the true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.” P.W. Bridgman

“Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similes (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time).” Ernest Hemingway

“The fundamental reason that I used certain words no longer a part of the usual written language is that they are very much a part of the vocabulary of the people I was writing about and there was no way I could avoid using them and still give anything like a complete feeling of what I was trying to convey to the reader. If I wrote any approximation even of the speech of the bullring it would be unpublishable. I had to try to get the feeling by the use of two or three words, not using them directly, but indirectly as I used the Natural History of the Dead to make a point that you may have noticed. . . . My use of words which have been eliminated from writing but which persist in speech has nothing to do with the small boy chalking newly discovered words on fences. I use them for two reasons. 1st as outlined above. 2nd when there is no other word which means exactly the same thing and gives the same effect when spoken.  I always use them sparingly and never to give gratuitous shock—although sometimes to give calculated and what to me seems necessary shock.” Ernest Hemingway

“If you want to write eloquently as a professional, you need to do it with good words. Universal words.” Constance Hale

“Anytime you can replace a cluster of words with one, do it.” Constance Hale

“A sentence brings words together into a stream of thought. It lets fragments flow together and become complete ideas. It has direction, a current, momentum.” Constance Hale

“Much can be gained by knowing what to omit. Clichés, for instance. If a writer lives in blissful ignorance that clichés are the kiss of death, if in the final analysis he leaves no stone unturned to use them, we can infer that he lacks an instinct for what gives language its freshness. Faced with a choice between the novel and the banal, he goes unerringly for the banal. His voice is the voice of a hack.” William Zinsser

“Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables, mostly of Latin origin, many of them ending in ‘ion’ and embodying a vague concept.” William Zinsser

“About the choice, in each given context, of noun, verb, adverb or adjective there is really something momentous, vital; for each of these is a statement, each is a small reality which is, again, to serve to build up the composite reality of the whole—be that poem, novel or story.” Elizabeth Bowen

“‘How am I to know’, the sometimes despairing writer asks, ‘which the right word is?’ The reply must be: ‘Only you can know. The right word is, simply, the wanted one; the wanted word is the one most nearly true. True to what? Your vision and your purpose.’” Elizabeth Bowen

“Prefer the short word to the long; the concrete to the abstract; and the familiar to the unfamiliar. But: Modify these guidelines in the light of the occasion, the full situation, which includes the likely audience for your words.” Jacques Barzun

“The presence of this vogue word [dimension] proves that the writer could not be bothered to discover what he meant. He expects us to do this for him, but does not give us much of a clue.” Jacques Barzun

“Skill in writing (once the rudiments are mastered) consists in having at command an array of synonyms, together with a sense of their fitness.” Jacques Barzun

“Propriety in terms is achieved only through the hard work of acquiring the sort of ‘absolute pitch’ for words that the musician has for notes. By words I mean of course all types of locutions, many of them prepositional compounds.” Jacques Barzun

“To modify with accuracy, a writer must know the force of the words he uses, their proper placing, and their idiomatic habits.” Jacques Barzun

“Don’t be misled by anecdotes about ‘the operative word’; all words are or should be operative.” Jacques Barzun

“To ‘copy’ one’s own idea in words presupposes a working knowledge of those words, which means learning their worth and avoiding confusion among them. That is the positive side of diction. But because of long habit and the continual influence of bad examples from without, the clear writer must also fend off a host of verbal suggestions from within, must by conscious negation reject jargon, pretentiousness, the wish to be coy, arch, jocular, folksy, learned, mysterious, elegant, and inventive: these and a dozen other feelings underlie the phrasings that come first to mind when one begins to write. Those feelings are not fully conscious, or the words would probably be dismissed at once; rather, they are whispered temptations and they must be made conscious if one is to be master of one’s vocabulary instead of mastered by it.” Jacques Barzun

“In learning a foreign language, it is the smallest words that give the most trouble. What they do, for those foreigners, differ from that they mean on the surface. Besides, foreign verbs and adjectives take prepositions different from ours; and still worse, those small words combine with nouns and verbs to form idioms—phrasings that say something (often absurd) and mean something else quite useful. It is these arbitrary combinations and habits of thought that give a language its distinctive character.” Jacques Barzun

“Abide by the general rule: the fewer words the better.” Jacques Barzun

“A language grows rich by distinguishing, through different words, between pairs of feelings or ideas or sensations that are close but in some respects unlike.” Jacques Barzun

“All thought, like all writing, is discrimination—separating ideas and, by means of a word, assigning to each the feature that matters in the present case.” Jacques Barzun

“The failure to distinguish properly and the consequent destruction of crystallized differencesin thought and feeling come from ignorance, usually the result of inattention, often compounded with pretentiousness.” Jacques Barzun

“The two cautions not to be forgotten are: No two words in the language mean exactly the same thing; and: Do not guess at the meaning of a word from its looks.” Jacques Barzun

“The value of distinction is such that the painstaking writer will look for those not yet noted or not apparent on the surface and will observe them scrupulously in his own prose. The distinctions we now have grew in no other way.” Jacques Barzun

“Because distinctions are a natural product of the human mind, the reader of a passage in which the right ones are employed will feel the resulting clarity and distinctness.” Jacques Barzun

“The dictionary is the record of a culture’s history up to this point.” Ulf Wolf

“The English vocabulary is a rich medley because each English word wants its own castle.” Edward Sapir

“English words crave spaces between them, they do not like to huddle in clusters ofslightly divergent centers of meaning, each edging a little away from the rest.” Edward Sapir

“The vocabulary of a language more or less faithfully reflects the culture whose purpose it serves.” Edward Sapir

“Lincoln acquired his power over words in the only two ways known to man—by reading and by writing.” Jacques Barzun

“Writing: the sublime mystery of how the right words in the right order excite our emotions and rouse us to thought and action.” Philip Gerard

“Use the right word, not its second cousin.” Mark Twain

“Think always of what you are doing and why. What effect are you after? Is this the best way to achieve that effect? Be aware of the words you put on the page. In the case of profanity, realize the opportunity it offers to add texture, shock, even humor to a piece—but not if it turns up willy-nilly.” Philip Gerard

“This book [East of Eden] is doing remarkable things to and for me. My memory is sharpened and tightened and sometimes the feel of words is like a round and warm emotion.” John Steinbeck

“The other thing it [writing advertising copy] teaches you is not to waste words because you don’t have them to waste.” Salman Rushdie

“The danger lies in the emptiness of so many of the words we use.” Sherwood Anderson

“I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.” Virginia Woolf