18 September 2020

Steinbeck's Writing Tips

John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Nobel committee cited his "realistic and imaginative writings" noting his "sympathetic humor and keen social perception." This "giant of American letters" gave us six tips about writing which I list below (from multiple internet sources):

John Steinbeck

  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 is 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 one and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a sections 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 you 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.
 Writers don't write the same way. I seem to follow many of these steps, especially #1, 2, 3 and 6.

I follow #2 but using a computer allows me to go back over what I wrote the day before and edit it. That jump starts me to write what follows.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Themes in Steinbeck's fiction included fate and injustice, especially to the downtrodden or the everyman protagonist.

John Steinbeck receiving Nobel Prize
 Here is an excerpt from Steinbeck's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech –
"The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.



  1. All good advice, O'Neil. And I think #2 especially. The best thing I learned about writing is not to rewrite as you go along cause you do get bogged down trying to make everything perfect. So I like to finish and then go back and hone.

  2. I also like Rule #2. Regardless of the length, I like to get the whole thing down and then go back and do the editing.

    Enjoyed this, O'Neil.

  3. As always, Steinbeck is succinct. I follow them but do check what I wrote the day before and then begin. I don't go back and edit for fear of never moving forward. Thanks for posting these, O'Neil.

  4. Great advice. I remember two other Steinbeck gems, too. One was his comparing literary criticism to an "Ill-tempered parlor game in which no one gets kissed." Another was his letter to his editor explaining why he would NOT cut or change the final scene in The Grapes of Wrath. The editor, whose name I should remember, felt it was too random, and Steinbeck said the randomness was the point. Rose of Sharon saves a complete stranger because that is how the poor have treated each other through the entire novel. His notes on his incomplete retelling of the adventures of King Arthur is fascinating, too. Steinbeck doesn't get the credit he deserves as a craftsman.

  5. I'd never read that and I agree with him on most points. Clearly we have a lot in common, Johnny and me. And here is a song by Kris Kirstofferson, based on a tiny incident in The Grapes of Wrath. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ej1I-IrHWCc

    1. I'm a big Kristofferson fan and read the Grapes of Wrath years ago but did not put this together - thank you, now I like this song even more.

    2. Thanks, O'Neil. The hardest for me is #2; the easiest is #6.
      Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are fantastic, fantastic books. I also have a very warm spot in my heart for Cannery Row, which has the best portrait of all the stumblebums and winos and street people I met and hung out with back when I was a runaway.

  6. The above unknown is me, technologically illiterate Patricia Dusenbury

  7. Patricia, we're experiencing technical problems, so don't feel alone!

    O'Neil, that's an astute list. In regards to #3, I don't think I ever consider an audience, it's almost as if I would feel presumptuous. Instead, I try to write what I'd like to read.

    #5 is a hard one to learn. It's much easier to see it in others than in one's self.

  8. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Steve - didn't know about "I remember two other Steinbeck gems, too. One was his comparing literary criticism to an 'Ill-tempered parlor game in which no one gets kissed'." I like that.

  9. Some great advice. I'm getting better at #2, though like others I go back the next day and edit before moving on. But I agree that just completing the entire work, warts and all, is the best approach for a first draft.

  10. Thanks for this! I just watched a video about this a couple of weeks ago!


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