On Writing: And What Writers Say About It

By Mike Feinsilber

After I retired as assistant chief of the Washington bureau of AP, I returned as the once-a-week writing coach, usually on Fridays. My job was to be helpful to writers. People came to me for help in finding a lead to their story, or to complain about the butchers who edit their copy. I wrote notes to the authors when I found something good on the wire or something not so good.

I liked the work. The only problem was that I was on the 6th floor and most of the bureau was on the 5th. People forgot that on Fridays Doctor Feedback was one flight up. So I took to sending a bureauwide email every Friday to remind staffers of my availability. To make the emails readable—to get them read—I’d start them with a catchy, maybe funny, quote about writing. The quotes were meant to be instructive, too. People told me they liked the quotes; some forwarded the emails to daughters in college and buddies in the business.

Soon I had a collection of quotes and when I re-retired 10 years later, I lugged them home. So the only thing left to do with them is to share them with you. From time to time. Starting here and now:

“The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with.” — Marty Feldman, an English comedy writer, comedian, and actor. He smoked as many as six packs of cigarettes a day, drank unreasonable amounts of coffee, and ate a diet rich in eggs and dairy products. Dead at 47.

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, as quoted in Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s paramour, and Gerold Frank.

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more. I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” — Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe would not have cared for Fitzgerald.

“The English language was carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary.” — Dave Kellett, creator and cartoonist of the web comic Sheldon and author of Living Dangerously with Saturated Fats.

“Only a mediocre writer is always at his best.” — W. Somerset Maugham, said to have been the world’s highest paid writer of the 1930s.

“Remember the waterfront shack with the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. Of course it’s fresh, we’re on the ocean. Of course it’s for sale, we’re not giving it away. Of course it’s here, otherwise the sign would be someplace else. The final sign: FISH.” — Peggy Noonan. She thinks everybody needs an editor.

“Not every story has explosions and car chases. That’s why they have nudity and espionage.” — Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, from www.unshelved.com, a blog.

“I cut class, he, she, it, cuts class. We cut class, they cut class. We all cut class. I cannot say this in Spanish because I did not go to Spanish today.” — Laurie Halse Anderson, who writes books for children and young adults. (She writes in English, maybe because she cut Spanish class.) She grew up in New York State, near Canada. While attending Onondaga Community College, she worked on a dairy farm, milking cows and perhaps conjugating.

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” — Elmore Leonard, 87, author of 49 novels and lots of short stories, called “the Dickens of Detroit” because of his intimate portraits of people from there. His ear for dialogue has been praised by fellow writers. He was nicknamed “Dutch” because of his love of the Detroit Tigers, which once employed a ballplayer, “Dutch” Leonard.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, preferably whimsical? Send it to the comment section below.


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