5 Oft-Misquoted Pieces of Writing Advice (And Which Ones You Should Still Take)
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 years ago
No matter what your writing goals, you’ve probably sought some wisdom from the greats at one point or another. Whether you wanted to learn how to write faster, build up your confidence, or simply get started, a Google search would usually provide some sort of famous truism. But while there are some genuine gems out there in terms of writing advice, a lot of “writing advice from famous authors” isn’t actually the real deal.
So what do we do with the phony quotes? If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, should we let the dubious origin of internet-muddled quotes discourage us from using them entirely, or is there still something to be gained from these impostors?
From incorrect attributions, to paraphrases, to downright fabrications, here are five frequently misquoted pieces of writing advice — and whether you should listen to them anyway.
1. “Write what you know” – Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s alleged “write what you know” principle is about as basic as it gets: if you don’t know about something first-hand, you’re not the right person to write about it. It’s an iconic and frequently quoted piece of advice, but has long been a controversial one. Not only is there confusion over its attribution — Mark Twain doesn’t appear to have ever said it, or even followed it — but there’s ongoing debate regarding whether it’s actually sound advice.
It’s certainly true that personal experience can add depth and color to your writing, and that channeling authentic emotion leads to effective writing. But fear not: having actual experience of the things you want to write about isn’t the entry qualification to becoming a writer. Most of us don’t lead novel-worthy day-to-day lives, after all.
Part of the challenge (and the pleasure) of writing is using imagination to realize situations we have never experienced ourselves. Plus, sticking religiously to the “write what you know” rule would mean we’d have to kiss entire genres goodbye (so long, beloved science fiction books)! This kind of advice has also become problematic in that it reduces writers from marginalized groups to a single subject: their marginalized status.
With all that in mind, this particular commonplace is probably not worth following too closely. In fact, we owe the range and diversity of modern literature to the writers who chose to ignore it (or who tongue-in-cheekily interpreted it to suit their needs, à la Ursula Le Guin).
2. “Kill your darlings” – William Faulkner
This is another quote of dubious origin, but one thing is for sure: Faulkner didn’t come up with it. The famous call to dispassionately edit out any try-hard prose and “kill your darlings” (or rather, a variant of that phrase) saw its first recorded use in Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1914 lecture “On Style.” The novelist and critic advised listeners, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Despite Faulkner not coming up with it and the precise origin of the sentiment being unclear (as is its exact wording — should we merely “kill” or violently “murder” our literary favorites?), it’s one that has stood the test of time. Pro authors today still quote it as one of the things they wish they knew when starting out.
No matter who originally told us to do it, the fact remains that we all have to practice self-discipline and cut those verbal flourishes we love once in a while, for the greater good of the work. It can be a bitter pill to swallow but, unfortunately, you’d better keep killing your darlings.
3. “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother” – Albert Einstein
While not exclusively writing advice, this truism is often espoused to aspiring writers of non-fiction. As a rule of thumb, proponents claim, if you can’t break something down in simple enough terms for a complete novice to understand, you don’t know enough about it to impart the info to someone else. Never mind if your grandmother has a PhD in astrophysics — she’ll be lumped in with the “novice” group. But injustices to grandmothers aside, we can probably agree that if there’s anyone whose word we can take on teaching complex principles, it’s Einstein.
However, there’s no evidence Einstein ever said this. In fact, Einstein is a bit of a magnet for misquotes. All sorts of things he never said are attributed to him (most famously “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” which is more likely a quote from novelist Rita Mae Brown). So where did the grandmother aphorism come from?
Theories vary, but some believe it’s a distortion of a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, which similarly claims that “any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan” (you can find more of Vonnegut’s advice here). But should we listen to either version?
Funnily enough, “Einstein” and Vonnegut’s advice might not apply to scientists themselves — Richard Feynman famously stated he probably wouldn’t have gotten the Nobel Prize if he could explain his work to any old person. Yet the fact remains that most non-fiction writers should still keep accessibility to the layperson in mind. Don’t treat your readers like eight-year-olds, but it doesn’t hurt to start with the basics and work your way up. Just promise you won’t underestimate your audience if it consists of grandmothers!
4. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” – Ernest Hemingway
This quote was first attributed to Hemingway several years after his death, at a time when the quote itself was already widespread. This image of writing as bleeding used to suggest that authentic literature should flow forth easily — if painfully — provided the author is willing to be vulnerable, was apparently in circulation (if you’ll pardon the pun) from the mid 19th-century onwards. So from the timeline alone, it’s decidedly not Hemingway’s handiwork.
But beyond the questionable citation, it’s also just not great advice. Writing is a skill and, as with any other, it takes time to perfect your craft. So don’t be disheartened if you sit down to start writing your book and find that it doesn’t just come gushing out straight away. While that may be the case for a lucky few writers, the rest of us usually have to put in a little (read: a lot) more elbow grease.
5. “Show, don’t tell” – Anton Chekhov
This misquote is actually a telescoped version of another misquote. It’s often claimed that Chekhov came up with this golden rule for exposition, writing a longer version of the same idea: “don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
In fact, what he was advising was more specific (and wordy) — namely, “in descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
Not a great start as far as this quote’s authenticity goes. But what it may lack in historical accuracy, it makes up for in value. “Show, don’t tell” provides writers with a snappy reminder to not veer into clunky exposition, but to instead allow their descriptions and dialogue to do the heavy lifting in conveying important information. Chekhov may not have come up with it, but it’s still an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.
We hope you’ve enjoyed dipping into the surprisingly murky world of counterfeit writing advice! Besides getting to the bottom of exactly who said what (or rather didn’t), we also hope it serves as a reminder not to be swayed by a famous name attached to a quote — you never know who’s actually behind it. What matters is not how beautiful a piece of advice sounds, nor who said it, but whether that advice works for you.
Author Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world's best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.