Writing Advice From John Steinbeck

Whether a fan of his writing or not, John Steinbeck has been integrated into the American canon and shaped the way American literature has been perceived, moreso than any other writer has done. In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Not only have his works been frequently taught in schools around the country, his books have also been subject to numerous book-burnings  and demonstrations; which is the landmark of any great writer.

At times Steinbeck was hesitant towards interviews, but the Paris Review has recently compiled a mix of different conversations, interviews, and writings about his art. It’s broken up into different sections, such as “On Work Habits”, and “On Publishing” for ease of finding the best piece of advice. But there’s one section in particular that sums it all up best. It comes from a section titled “On Getting Started” but it’s an excerpt from a letter Steinbeck wrote to someone asking for advice. Steinbeck Advice

I especially like the third and sixth points. Too much stress will be induced if you try to write for a thousand people, instead writing for just one person will let everyone enjoy it. And speaking dialogue has to fight robotic conversations in writing. I’ve found that saying it aloud, almost like in a play, improves the writing a great deal. It can even be with another person for that effect.

The next section I have taken away the most from, is titled “On Publishing.” It begins with some remarks on publishing and then transforms into a lofty dialogue between a writer and his editors. Even if a writer has no intent to ever publish, the passage does reveal the major 1442532625716flaws of a writer’s personality. He can be stubborn, he can be naive, and he can be childish. In the dialogue the writer quickly gets upset and feuds with the editors, proofreaders, sales department, and even the reader itself.

Steinbeck has a great deal of authority on the subject of writing. Some of his novels have endured since they were published, others are rediscovered with each generation. But what remains clear is that there is no Steinbeck for our time, no other champion to take his place and there might never be one. This cold fact makes it all the more important to look back to the man’s writing and learn what we can from him.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” – Winter of Our Discontent.

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30 thoughts on “Writing Advice From John Steinbeck

  1. Reasonable advice for writing fiction, which I don’t. “The Grapes of Wrath” was hard to finish, perhaps because it was a school assignment. I watched the movie version with Demi Moore where she talked with an English accent, but t was hard to connect to Steinbeck’s story. 🙂

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  2. Thank you for this read. I found this very helpful. I resonate with first and second. It makes sense to break up the challenge into smaller chunks and streaming consciousness works for me…maybe I’m on the right track. I am only just finding my short fiction voice as poetry is my first passion. Jx

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  3. Very enlightening post. Also wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog. This should really be of great use to me, as I’m nowhere close to being a writer. Fact, fiction & everything in between should be greatly enhanced using these guidelines. #NOTHINGMatters, but You!

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  4. I’ve written 4 “novel size” pieces that remain unpublished (for whatever reason I don’t feel compelled to put them on Amazon or wherever as ebooks, maybe I just like writing for the sake of writing, and re-reading later, like a memory, or a dream record) but I find the advice quite accurate actually. Especially the one focusing on one reader. The other, about dropping a pet part that won’t fit in is good too. Of course with digital, cut n’ paste, you just make a new file and hold back for review, see if it fits later in the story, or can be used in an introduction. Digital writing is light years beyond typewriting! I am, unfortunately not as well versed in Steinbeck writing as I think I should be. I liked “The Grapes” but “The Pearl” novella remains my favourite, for whatever reason. Good advice and well presented here.

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  5. I totally agree with number #6, but I don’t just read the dialogue, I read it all out loud – like an audio book. I have found sentence that are hard to say or just don’t flow right. It has helped me to smooth out areas.

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  6. I have read advice from Steinbeck but I have not encountered these particular items before. I find number two exceptionally good since writing short stories one needs to get the story down first. If it’s a good story then revision will make it better, if not, well, it’s good practice. In a way, this also relates to the novel since that longer form of fiction is a series or conglomeration of shorter stories. The point about sections that give you trouble one can easily label “falling in love with your own voice or words.” Indeed, some novels read just that way are are tiresome after a few pages. A story should flow as if it were a dream guided by your vision, your hearing, and your touch and smell. Once you force the telling, try to direct it by logic or other foreign objects the story is lost. Never story board a story unless you are using film. Film needs a story board because you must keep track of the visual and oral actions, the physical act of filming real people. Dialogue is an adjunct, and assistant in telling that visual and oral story. But the printed page relies as much on the reader’s imagination as it does the author’s. One cannot force imagination.

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  7. Thanks for posting this sage advice from one of my literary heroes. Point 2 is the one I find the most helpful… I can and do drive myself to despair by revising when I should be typing full speed ahead. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is the story-line I can relate to the most. I suppose that’s because, for thirty years, I was underpaid, exploited and abused by power-tripping bosses. To cite just one incident, (let’s call him) Boss #1 had to complete payroll. I watched in amazement while he falsified all of our time cards… actually went over to the time clock to violate company policy and federal laws by punching out all who were working that night. I asked if that meant we were through for the night. He replied “No” and so I asked, “But we will be paid in the next pay period for ALL the hours we’re working tonight, right?” He ducked my question by silently shrugging his “I dunno” and then left his office. I put on my jacket and, just as I neared the rear service door, (let’s call her) Boss #2 walked on by. I asked her to let me out, calmly explaining what had just happened as well as my no pay / no work stance. But instead of unlocking the door / disarming the alarm system, she got this horrified expression on her face. She rushed off to fetch Boss #1 and when he reappeared he looked angry enough to ACTUALLY punch me out / “clock” me. I said to him, “Just promise that all of us will be paid for our work, I’ll take off my jacket and get back to work.” Again he stood there glowering in silence. Somehow I summoned up the courage to stare this bully down until he said to Boss #2, “Oh let him out”… in a contemptuous tone of voice unlike any I had ever heard before (or even since).

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  8. I felt so excited when I stumbled across this post. Steinbeck is my favorite author. The one-page-a-day method has been working out for me for a few years now, but it wasn’t until reading this that I found out Steinbeck recommended the method! Thanks for sharing.

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