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In The Spotlight: John Steinbeck’s Top 6 Writing Tips

All About John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s an author best known for the Pulitzer-prize winning The Grapes of Wrath and his novella, Of Mice And Men. (Went to school in the UK in the last thirty years?? You will have almost certainly have read the latter, it’s been on the English Literature curriculum for decades!).

Living between 1902-1968, Steinbeck wrote stories about The Great Depression decade and migratory farmworkers. He spent much of his life in Monterey county, California, which was sometimes the setting of some of his fiction.

It may also interest Bang2writers that before Steinbeck ‘made it’ as a writer, he supported himself as a manual labourer himself while writing. He then went on to win The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962!

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If you follow Bang2write on instagram (and if you don’t, WHY NOT?), then you have probably seen John Steinbeck’s top 6 writing tips doing the rounds. (If you haven’t, check it out at the bottom of this post).

Just like Elmore Leonard’s Top 10 Writing Rules, John Steinbeck’s tips go viral every time B2W draws attention to them. They’re also tips I have used personally again and again, not only in my own writing but in working with writers.

With this in mind then, I thought it was way overdue to spotlight them on the main site …  Without further ado, here’s B2W’s thoughts on Steinbeck’s tips, with some key takeaways. Enjoy!

1) You will never finish … until you do

‘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 gets finished, you are always surprised.’

I love this one. Not only is it true that ‘all’ writing adds up, it is particularly useful to writers with day jobs, family commitments and other time constraints. Lots of Bang2writers stress about getting their writing done, but whether you have five hours or five minutes, ultimately it’s about self-belief and perseverance, as Steinbeck says.

B2W TAKEAWAY: Write whatever you can, when you can.

2) Just get it written!

‘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.’

Bang2writers often confess to me they are perfectionists. NoNoNoNoNoNO! Perfectionism is the enemy of creatives. We can’t write a ‘perfect’ first draft, no matter how much we edit as we go along. There will always be opportunities missed and things that go wrong. So don’t sweat it … just get it written.

B2W TAKEAWAY: Ignore the desire to write a perfect first draft. It won’t happen.

3) Keep one special audience member in mind

‘Forget your generalised audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, 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 person and write to that one.’

Steinbeck had a certain amount of leeway as a literary author in days gone by. In contrast, target audience is super-important in 2019 when audiences are increasingly media literate.

That said, Steinbeck’s idea of the ‘special audience member’ still holds water. Knowing WHO your story is for (rather than ‘just’ yourself) is a great start and will always help you focus.

B2W TAKEAWAY: Know WHO your story is for.

4) You don’t have to write in chronological order

‘If a scene or a section 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 trouble is because it didn’t belong there.’

Sometimes we get stuck and this leads us to getting blocked. But what if you just didn’t get stuck? Sure, you might not be able to *write that particular bit* … so write the next bit you CAN.

(I also agree with Steinbeck here, too: very often the bits that cause us the most trouble are the ones we don’t need. More on this, next).

B2W TAKEAWAY: Stuck? Then skip to the next bit and go back, if necessary.

5) Kill your darlings

‘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.’

Steinbeck is echoing the advice of countless other writers here. It might be one of the 10 Top Rules Writers Love To Hate, but ‘kill your darlings’ is the real deal. Whether we like it or not, we MUST get rid of the bits that don’t fit, even if they are great.

B2W TAKEAWAY: It’s gotta be done!

6) Speech needs to sound real

‘If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.’

I’m always saying on this blog that there’s too much dialogue in the spec pile … In addition, waaaaay too much of it sounds like crap!

So I love Steinbeck’s last tip here … It’s so simple. Also, I love how he writes ‘IF you are using dialogue’.

Lots of writers believe they ‘have’ to, especially in screenwriting. In reality, this is not true. As another uber-writer David Mamet points out, we can pretend we’re writing a silent movie. This means our characters have to ‘earn the right’ to speak.

B2W TAKEAWAY: Use all the tools at your disposal, including dialogue, WISELY and AUTHENTICALLY.

Good Luck!

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