F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) is the legendary author behind such classics as The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and This Side of Paradise.
Here are five fantastic quotes he shared with us about writing!
1. All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
This quote is kind of amazing. I feel like I’ve heard it before, and I didn’t until now know it was attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It sounds funny at first, but the man is really telling the truth here. Because good writing absolutely is swimming under water and holding your breath, hoping what you’re doing might end up everything you’re hoping it to be once you reach the surface.
Writing a short story, or a novel even, is basically like diving deep into the ocean and not coming up for air until you reach THE END. And when I say deep, I mean really deep. So far down you can’t see much of what’s in front of you. It’s dark. Scary. Intimidating. But you keep swimming anyway. You keep trying to do your best work week after week, month after month, until you reach the other side.
Nobody starts a new writing project knowing for sure it’s going to be good. It’s all a bit of a mystery, and the best thing you can to create something worthwhile is hold your breath and go swimming for an indefinite amount of time… and ultimately see what happens once you’re back to dry land!
2. Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
I use exclamation points all the time in much of my writing. Blog entries for sure. And e-mails, oh my God, I use them so many times in e-mails! Sometimes I need to do a quick read-through on my e-mails to make sure I don’t have too many of them and sound totally like a crazy person.
An occasional exclamation is totally fine in these two modes of writing as long as you don’t go overboard, but when it comes to fiction? Fitzgerald is right in that they should be almost entirely wiped out. My brand new short story published in The Saturday Evening Post has one exclamation point about halfway through. Every time I revised the story I considered taking it out, but it stayed and stayed and stayed. And it’s there in the published version and I still believe it’s warranted.
But there’s only the one, and I think you can always make a case for one. But for three or five or ten? Now you might start losing your reader. I believe the only place you can have a lot of exclamation points in your fiction is in dialogue, and even there you want to be careful about how many of them you’re using.
3. My idea is always to reach my generation. The wise writer writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.
This is one of Fitzgerald’s most famous quotes, and it’s easy to see why. Most of us write for a non-specific audience. We have stories to tell, and we hope there are people out there who might find them one day. But the more you understand the market you’re writing for, and the more you feel inclined to take chances in your material and give something to people they haven’t already read before, you have a chance at connecting with the youth of your own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.
Such was definitely the case for Fitzgerald, who wasn’t exactly appreciated at the time by his peers and didn’t come into fame until after his untimely passing. This is not to mean that we all need to write the kind of work that won’t be read and enjoyed until after we’re dead, but there’s something to be said about writing the kind of material that truly lasts long after its initial publication.
I write young adult novels in the hopes that one or more of them will find the youth of my own generation, that’s what’s most important to me. The critics? The schoolmasters? These things don’t matter as much, and they shouldn’t mean the world to you either. But there’s certainly no doubt it’s almost every writer’s dream to be appreciated one day by them too, is it not?
4. You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.
In the last ten years I’ve written twenty novels, and on too many occasions I sat down to write a novel because I wanted to say something instead of because I had something to say. I found that the best novels I’ve written in the past few years have been the ones where I had a story inside of me just desperate to break out and that I needed to put into the world by any means necessary, not the ones I wrote because I had a free summer and I merely had an idea for something.
To write only to write isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it can actually help you improve your craft, but the best work will always come from you when you’re not writing just to write but are instead writing because you have something important to say. Because there’s something about your take on things — your take on a story, your take on an idea, your take on the world — that will be of value and achieve resonance for your readers.
It’s clear when you read the work of Fitzgerald that he had lots to say on many issues, and his work still remains relevant decades later because he had so much to say in his fiction and he said it so very well.
5. You can stroke people with words.
This final quote is super simple but oh so strong. It’s a reminder of how powerful words can be. About how words and sentences can conjure incredible images in readers’ heads, about how the right story can change the life of another, about how your voice can provide others with something truly special. You can make a huge difference with your words, never forget that!
You can stroke people with words alone, absolutely. It’s a power that you should never take for granted in the work that you do. It’s important not to fixate on that power too much, and instead tell your story, whatever it may be, to the best of your ability. And then repeat, repeat, repeat.
Let your talent shine through with the words that you choose, and then allow the readers of the world to discover all the beautiful things you have to offer!