That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged.

Raymond Carver, “On Writing,” from Fires (1968)

Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas. It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose.

T. E. Hulme

Plausibility is the morality of fiction

I have scratched out Sr Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables, etc. the very day after his breaking his arm—for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book.

Jane Austen, Letters

 What is she doing and how is she doing it?

My Uncle Castor is rich. He lives in a very large stone house that stands by itself near the lake and is surrounded by tall spruce trees full of crows. He has a fondness for animals and so, over the years, he has acquired dogs, cats, pigeons, geese, a rabbit, and a horse. All his collected animals are pure white. His main irritation now is that he has acquired a second rabbit. He stands in the middle of the lawn and looks at this new rabbit, points at it and says, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” It is mud brown. It is also a very happy rabbit, apparently, and it spreads out on the grass, with its hind legs stretched back, and goes to sleep. My uncle storms away.

Gil Adamson, “Fear Itself,” from Help Me, Jacques Cousteau (1995)

Chekhov’s six rules

1) No undue emphasis on politics, or on social or economic factors

2) Persistent objectivity

To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist; he must abandon the subjective line; he must know that dung-heaps play a very respectable part in a landscape, and that evil passions are as inherent in life as good ones.

3) Veracity in description of active figures and objects

4) Absolute brevity

When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace.

5) Boldness and originality

6) No triteness or insincerity

Anton Chekhov, “Preface” to his Letters on Literature


There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactedness which precludes psychological analysis [i.e., that does not offer, or that discourages us from putting an easy reading on, a character’s motivation]. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller foregoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later.

Quoted in Colin Tudge, Bandits and Neanderthals


It is a truth univerally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Raymond Carver, “Cathedral,” in Cathedral

Fiction is an incarnational art

Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing. . . . The fact is that the materials of fiction are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

How fiction is not subjective

Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse-thieves in two lines I must all the time speak in their tone and feel in their spirit; otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.

Anton Chekhov, Letters on Literature

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The time has come for writers, especially those who are artists, to admit that in this world one cannot make anything out, just as Socrates once admitted it, just as Voltaire admitted it. The mob think they know and understand everything; they more stupid they are, the wider, I think, do they conceive their horizon to be. And if an artist in whom the crowd has faith decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.

Anton Chekhov, Letters on Literature

I am afraid of those who look for tendencies between the lines [of my work], and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist [one who practices indifference or unconcern]. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more . . . . My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever form they may take.

Anton Chekhov, Preface to Letters on Literature

Literary art, how it works (What is the answer to Eluard’s question? How do you know?)

After all that I have said about myself, what remains? I have been keeping false treasures in empty hope chests.

Paul Eluard

Complexity is not necessarily difficulty

Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue: if I had to name one high-cultured notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all—video games.

John Lanchester, London Review of Books, 1 January 2009

Good writing

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

Imagine how long it would take to write something this good, how many drafts. This is complexity, not complicatedness. It’s understood in a second.

Test of good writing

Good writing should be grasped at once—in a second.

Anton Chekhov

Best advice on writing instruction

You take what you need and you leave the rest.

Robbie Robertson, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Greg Hollingshead
December 2015