John Steinbeck on getting started with writing

Today is the 110th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s birth. In 1975, the Paris Review magazine collected a number of comments he made and published them as an article. The article includes his advice “on getting started” with writing, which I’ve listed here and know you’ll enjoy and appreciate.

On Getting Started

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Each one of those is a gem.

The article includes more of John Steinbeck’s thoughts on the writing life. Read it to learn what he thought about work habits, inspiration, verse, short stories, and much more. There is a humorous dialogue on publishing (about two-thirds down) where Steinbeck makes it clear that a book does not go from writer to reader.

Question: What John Steinbeck novels have you read and enjoyed? Or was he a writer whose work you didn’t enjoy?


6 thoughts on “John Steinbeck on getting started with writing

  1. I remember reading “Of Mice And Men” and “The Pearl” for school. I wasn’t a big fan of “The Pearl” but I did enjoy “Of Mice And Men”. “East of Eden” has been on my list for years. I finally saw the movie recently (which I know only covers half the book). I like his first two pieces of advice – not to worry about the page count or about getting perfection right away, but just to let the words flow. If it worked for Steinbeck, certainly worthwhile for the rest of us to give it a shot.


    1. That’s what was so freeing to me with NaNoWriMo. I just let it flow and ended up with over 50,000 words to play with!

      Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath is another one to try. (The movie version is another great one.) Steinbeck doesn’t hold back with his gritty realities, and some of that was a turn off for me. The Red Pony — so much sadness for a child to endure. But I do like his writing advice.


  2. A piece of advice I received by reading Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, is that I’m going to write a lot of crappy, uninspired writing – a LOT of it – before I get to the gems… A liberating feeling, not having to be perfect right out of the gate! The beauty is, a page or two into the dross, inspiration begins to flow… 🙂


    1. That’s what I like about Steinbeck’s tip #2. Write freely and just get the whole thing down. That’s how I find myself writing. I’m still reading Cameron’s book. It hasn’t grabbed me yet. I think it’s the spiritual aspect of it that’s getting in the way. Some of what she says doesn’t sit well with me. I know it’s a very popular book with writers, so I’ll continue reading and see what I can glean from it.


      1. I’ve shared that book with several friends/family, and it just did not resonate with them like it did with me. It must have come at just the right time for me… I just kept my Jesus filter on while reading it – she’s trying to be way too inclusive – it comes across as new-agey. So I kept the baby and tossed out the bath water. 🙂


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