Three quotes that will help you improve your writing

I am not a Mason! Obviously not; I am a woman and I am not married to, or the daughter of, a Master Mason. Regardless, I have long believed in the ‘as above, so below’ principle. My interpretation of this is that our actions are determined by out thoughts (well, there are exceptions but these are probably not worth mentioning here). Further, our thoughts are shaped by our beliefs – this is why in any culture there is a wealth of sayings that embody the wisdom that has developed for centuries. If you want to understand a culture, learn about its saying.

For the last several months I have been almost exclusively preoccupied with writing; all kinds of it. I have written a number of academic texts, I have been writing this blog, I am considering writing a racy novel (well, not entirely a joke – the novel bit). Because I am a reflective kind of person I have been thinking about ways to improve my writing. Looking back at this period of intense writing, I can say that three quotes really helped me – again, please remember that this blog is a very small part of my writing.

So these work not only with blogging, but can help improve your writing regardless of what kind it is.

“How I sculpt? It is very easy; I get a block of marble and get rid of anything that doesn’t look like a lion.’

This was the response of one of the great Italian sculptors (regretfully don’t remember which one) when asked how come he is so good. This is how it works with good writing as well, the difference being that we have to produce the block of marble as well. Once we have ‘the marble’ and an idea of ‘the animal’ it is easy – just re-write until everything that doesn’t look like the animal you are carving is gone.

Remembering this helped me write the article published in Science; after all putting forward a coherent argument in 2,000 words (I am a sociologist, you see) meant that the animal had to be very well defined and all un-necessary marble ruthlessly chipped away.

“Don’t keep anything that you don’t find useful or beautiful.”

All good texts are parsimonious, they say exactly as much as they should say. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one should not use ‘frilly’ language but it does mean it has to be appropriate and beautiful.

“Never hang a gun on the wall in Act 1 of a play if you don’t mean for someone to get killed with it in Act 3.”

This is easily my favourite. It is a quote by Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director from the beginning of the 20th century. Translated for writing it means that all ends in a text have to be connected. A good piece of writing is like dancing the tango – there is connected passion and tension in it. It doesn’t matter how long the text is – this rule should be followed. This is why it is important to have the whole idea roughly mapped out before generating ‘marble’.

This quote, I found really useful when writing a very complex piece (and a long one) of academic writing on how to study impact. In fact, I probably couldn’t have done it if I didn’t remember my old friend Stanislavski. Don’t ask!

Do you have any interesting and useful tips?

9 thoughts on “Three quotes that will help you improve your writing”

  1. Another quote that fits in so well with this is “Murder your darlings.” This, I believe came originally from Arthur Quiller-Couch

    It is quoted by many later writers (and pundits on writing) and not often attributed to him!

    Even Stephen King, whose ‘On Writing’ I would highly recommend, says :“kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”

    Well done on all your writing, Maria. Moving between genres or styles is not easy!

  2. Good points! I really like your sculpture quote, it fits almost everything. I am putting that one in my memory. I think it helps if you enjoy writing. If you enjoy what you do, you will become good at it. I enjoy writing about the subjects, I write about.

  3. It’s interesting. During times when I’ve had my head down writing, I don’t realize it until later, but I’ve always come out better at the end. My writing is crisper (more crisp?). Plus, I can tackle pieces more quickly. I love your quotes. I can’t believe I haven’t heard the Mason quote before…love it.

    1. @AverageJoe: I am very partial to the third quote and see it as the most powerful one. This is the one that make your writing such that it draws people in; beyond the 10 secs they give anything on the web anyway.

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