Elements of Fiction


(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“There are always too many words at first.” Jacques Barzun

“Rewrite until the story flows as naturally as a river, each element so blending with the rest that no one, not even yourself two years from now, can locate the separate parts.” John Gardner

“Look for all the fancy wordings and get rid of them. . . . Avoid all terms and expressions, old or new, that embody affectation.” Jacque Barzun

“When you read proof, take out the adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired. You can understand what I mean when I say ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.” Anton Chekhov [in a letter to Gorky]

“Writing is . . . like sculpture, where you eliminate to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.” Elie Wiesel

“It’s one of the things writing students don’t understand. They write a first draft and are quite disappointed, or often should be disappointed. They don’t understand that they have merely begun, and that they may be merely beginning even in the second or third draft.” Elizabeth Hardwick

“And I have been writing and writing and rewriting the scene by the Round Pond. What I want to do is to reduce it all so that each sentence, though perfectly natural dialogue, has a great pressure of meaning behind it.” Virginia Woolf

“Only through writing and then revising and revising may one gain the necessary insight.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“The correcting of prose is endless, because it has no fixed laws; a poem comes right with a click, like a box.” W.B. Yeats

“Once you have ‘something down,’ as professional writers say, the job of verifying, improving, cutting, and polishing is pure pleasure. Unlike the sculptor, the writer can start carving and enjoying himself only after he has dug the marble out of his own head — pity the poor writer.” Jacques Barzun

“A good judge of the facts has declared: ‘All writing is rewriting.’ He meant good writing, for easy reading. The path to rewriting is obvious: when rereading after a shorter or longer lapse of time what one has written, one feels dissatisfaction with this or that word, sentence, paragraph — or possibly with the whole effort, the essay or chapter. If, as I shall assume, things are not totally bad, the rewriting affects only bits here and there. The criterion is as it has been throughout: Meaning. If words you have set down puzzle you once you have forgotten how they came to your mind, they will puzzle the stranger and you must do something about them — rediscover your meaning and express it, not some other or none at all.” Jacques Barzun

“Rewriting is called revision in the literary and publishing trade because it springs from re-viewing, that is to say, looking at your copy again — and again and again.” Jacques Barzun

“Exacting writers are known to have rewritten a famous paragraph or chapter six or seven times. It then looked right to them, because every demand of their art had been met, every flaw removed, down to the slightest.” Jacques Barzun

“Revision is the time when survivors of earlier purges are to be eliminated.” Jacques Barzun

“All that matters is that, going over and over the sketch as if one had all eternity for finishing one’s story, one improves now this sentence, now that, noticing what changes the new sentences urge, and in the process one gets the characters and their behavior clearer in one’s head, gradually discovering deeper and deeper implications of the character’s problems and hopes. Fiction does not spring into the world full grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes fiction original and profound.” John Gardner

“The first job, then, is to look at what one has spontaneously written and go over it critically. This is not easy. The minds tends to run along the groove of one’s intention and overlooks the actual expression. That is why writers usually put their work aside for some days and go back to revise when the ideas have faded from the memory and they can scrutinize the wording with a stranger’s eye. But this delay has one drawback. If the first draft is not reread on the very day of writing, one or more phrases may later prove incomprehensible, their meaning irrecoverable. Hence the first brushing up while one’s intent is fresh in the mind.” Jacques Barzun

“The general inspects his men for every minutest detail, down to each single hair.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“Only when revisions are precise may the building stand square and plumb.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.” William Zinsser

“Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try.” William Zinsser

“Where truth and virtue are threatened, I must surrender even my favorite jewels” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“In revision, as a rough rule, if the beginning can be cut, cut it. And if any passage sticks out in some way, leaves the main trajectory, could possibly come out — take it out and see what the story looks like that way. Often a cut that seemed sure to leave a terrible hole joins up without a seam. It’s as if the story, the work itself, has a shape it’s trying to achieve, and will take that shape if you’ll only clear away the verbiage.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Revision writing’s very different — you have to turn yourself into an academic and mark yourself. With this, of course, comes the research. And I find that rather boring.” John Fowles

“You have to be cold-blooded and ruthless. You can fall in love with passages, but if they are not quite what’s needed then you have to strike them out. At the revision stage you’ve got to be the master.” John Fowles

“After I write an article, a chapter or a story, I read it through several times, looking for specific things each time. First, I look for clichés and ways to enliven the images. Then I read it looking only at the verbs — can I get a stronger, more apt verb in each sentence? Next, the adjectives: Do I really need them all? The same with adverbs — do I need any of them? Then I read the dialogue aloud, trying to make it sound more natural and colloquial, seeking to eliminate the words we do in real life (‘Forget something?’ instead of ‘Did you forget something?’ for instance).” Barnaby Conrad

“I begin to see what I had in mind; and want to begin cutting out the masses of irrelevance and clearing, sharpening and making the good phrases shine.” Virginia Woolf

“Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.” E.B. White

“What the honest writer does, when he’s finished a rough draft, is go over it and over it, time after time, refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony or forced.” John Gardner

“Tactically speaking, I’d say go ahead and crowd in the first draft — put everything in. Then in revising decide what counts, what tells; and cut and recombine till what’s left is what counts. . . . in revising consider what merely pads or repeats or slows or impedes your story, and cut it.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“I am about convinced now that my novel is finished. It has reached the stage where it is a pleasure for me to type it so I presume it is done.” Flannery O’Connor

“Write what comes to you — then (next morning, preferably) turn editor and read over what you have written.” Ayn Rand

“Forced to weigh your words, you find out which are the styrofoam and which are the heavy gold. Severe cutting intensifies your style.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“[Review by another] can show the writer that he has at some specific point written misleadingly or has failed to evoke some important element of a scene — mistakes the writer [may] not catch himself because, knowing what he intended, he thinks his sentences say more than they do. Seeing the effects of his mistakes makes the writer more careful, more wary of the trickery words are capable of.” John Gardner

“Fiction, like sculpture or painting, begins with a rough sketch. One gets down the characters and their behavior any way one can, knowing the sentences will have to be revised, knowing the characters’ actions may change.” John Gardner

“Books and stories aren’t written — they are rewritten.” Barnaby Conrad

“No one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader.” Ernest Hemmingway

“Revision will almost always involve some cutting of repetitions, unnecessary explanations, and so on. Consider using revision consciously as a time to consider what could go if it had to. . . . You are allowed to cry and moan softly while you cut them.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Anton Chekhov gave some advice about revising a story: first, he said, throw out the first three pages.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Cutting is an essential and often painful part of the act of revising. You must ask yourself: is this page of introspection or action or dialogue truly helping the story? Does it move the plot? Does it advance the action? Does it reveal motivation? Does it characterize my protagonist? Does it impart information vital to the reader’s understanding of the story?” Barnaby Conrad

“Eliminate the redundance — two images that convey the same thing make the reader conscious of the images instead of letting the reader experience the effect.” Sol Stein

“I revised Mrs. D., the chilliest part of the whole business of writing, the most depressing — exacting.” Virginia Woolf

“If writing it is — this dash at the paper of a phrase, and then the typing and retyping — trying it over; the actual writing being now like the sweep of a brush; I fill it up afterwards.” Virginia Woolf

Orlando was finished yesterday as the clock struck one. Anyhow the canvas is covered. There will be three months of close work needed, imperatively, before it can be printed; for I have scrambled and splashed and the canvas shows through in a thousand places.” Virginia Woolf

“Then re-write, reading much of it aloud, like poetry.” Virginia Woolf

“Form, then, is the sense that one thing follows another rightly. This is partly logic. Turgenev wrote and re-wrote. To clear the truth of the unessential.” Virginia Woolf

“The narrative part is over. What I want is to enrich and stabilise.” Virginia Woolf

“The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work.” Virginia Woolf

“When you first write, you always put in as much as you can. When you revise, if there is the slightest doubt, you should cut.” John Fowles

“Another necessary ability of the novelist is to write almost unconsciously in this first phase, and yet to become his own and very conscious teacher — or corrector — in the final one.” John Fowles

“Some writers devote one entire rewrite to verbs, circling every is and are and trying to replace as many as possible [with dynamic verbs].” Constance Hale

“With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that’s not doing useful work.” William Zinsser

“Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud.” William Zinsser

“With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.” William Zinsser

“What a good editor brings to a piece of writing is an objective eye that the writer has long since lost, and there is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, tidying a hundred inconsistencies of tense and pronoun and location and tone, noticing all the sentences that could be read in two different ways, dividing awkward long sentences into short ones, putting the writer back on the main road if he has strayed down a side path, building bridges where the writer has lost the reader by not paying attention to his transitions, questioning matters of judgment and taste.” William Zinsser

“If there’s one thing almost all writers agree on, it’s that we can’t trust our judgment on our own freshly written work.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“How much and how many drafts? For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish (with the advent of word processing technology, my polishes have become closer to a third draft).” Stephen King

“Let me urge you to take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.” Stephen King

“With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” Stephen King

“The first draft — the All-Story Draft — should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.” Stephen King

“You’ve finished your first draft. . . . If you have someone who has been impatiently waiting to read your novel . . . then this is the time to give up the goods.” Stephen King

“How long do you let the book rest [after the first draft] — sort of like bread dough between kneadings — is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. . . . you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. . . . you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development.” Stephen King

“During that reading, the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents . . . adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course, deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with. . . . Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into song?” Stephen King

“I want resonance. Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions. There’s apt to be a lot of that stuff, especially near the beginning of a story, when I have a tendency to flail. All that thrashing around has to go if I am to achieve anything like a unified effect.” Stephen King

“When I’ve finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it’s time to open the door and show what I’ve written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look.” Stephen King

“In the spring of my senior year . . . I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. . . . ‘Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%. Good Luck.’ I wish I could remember who wrote that note — Algis Budrys, perhaps. Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor.” Stephen King”

“One great aim of revision is to cut out. In the exuberance of composition it is natural to throw in — as one does in speaking — a number of small words that add nothing to the meaning but keep up the flow and rhythm of the thought. In writing, not only does this surplusage not add to meaning, it subtracts from it. Communication is most complete when it proceeds from the smallest number of words — and indeed of syllables. The reason is that in absorbing ideas through words a kind of friction is set up by the stream of syllables employed. Compare ‘He was delighted with the gift’ and ‘He was very much pleased with the presentation.’ The first slips in and is registered before the other is half through; and the second, with its repeated pl-pr and ch-tion makes a lot of mental noise, reducing its movement and leaving a sense of wasted effort.” Jacques Barzun

You read your first draft to find out what you have written. As simpleminded as that sounds, it’s both true and profound. You can’t revise intelligently until you have an accurate and comprehensive sense of what is actually on the page, and the difference between what you intended to write and what you actually wrote can mean the success of failure of the project. Don’t assume that you wrote about what you set out to write about.” Philip Gerard

“Don’t read your draft in self-congratulatory appreciation. Read it instead for what is there, not what you intendedto put there.” Philip Gerard

Don’t fool yourself: Read what is actually on the page, not the brilliant unwritten story in your imagination.” Philip Gerard

“Listen to the story tell you its intentions. Which themes are really coming through?” Philip Gerard

“Usually if you think that a work is too long, your reader will agree with you wholeheartedly.” Philip Gerard

“There are at least three kinds of ‘global’ revisions before the writer gets to the happy stage of pointing the prose. (That is, just as a mason ‘points’ a hearth by carefully filling in mortar around all the joints of the cemented bricks or stones, leaving clean edges and a finished look, at this state the writer fills in all the gaps between words, solidifies the grammatical joints within sentences, smoothes out the transitions between sentences, and makes the whole artifice look straight, clean, and beautiful.) Global revision takes in the following points: 1. Revising for structure (integrity of whole, transitions, integrity of parts). 2. Revising for story (narrative stance, text, and theme). 3. Revising for quality (clarity, tone, emotional impact).” Philip Gerard

“Revising for quality, you pay attention to the texture of the story. You make sure the action is clear, the emotion hits the right pitch, the narrative stance is appropriate to the effects you are after.” Philip Gerard

“Any old hack can recognize an eyesore. But it takes a disciplined professional to recognize a lovely but redundant sentence, a clever but inapt metaphor, an arresting but distracting image, a beautifully crafted — and utterly incongruous — scene.” Philip Gerard

“It is crucial to know exactly what you are trying to achieve: What is your main theme? Sever that. All else is expendable.” Philip Gerard

“There is always too much: Any good book spills over the sides, overwhelms the structure created to contain it. Now you have to have some backbone and keep the book honest to its cause.” Philip Gerard

“I want those [draft] pages nearby because there’s always a chance I’ll have to refer to something that’s scrawled at the bottom of a sheet of paper somewhere. Discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer’s labor — you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage, of first draft pages. The first draft of Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes. I like knowing it’s in the house. I feel connected to it. It’s the complete book, the full experience containable on paper. I find I’m more ready to discard pages than I used to be. I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph of sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it’s almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don’t think I’ve become ruthless or perverse — just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself. The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith. It tells me there’s a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time.” Don DeLillo

“I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outline of the story, then I can begin to see it.” Maupassant

“All first drafts are shit.” Ernest Hemingway

“A careful first draft is a failed first draft.” Patricia Hampl

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.” Pablo Picasso

“But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” Colette

“The main rule of a writer is never to pity your manuscript.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

“It doesn’t matter how slow you go, as long as you don’t stop.” Confucius

“All the sentences changed, because in the first draft I wasn’t too worried about the actual words, I was trying to get the story down. I use first drafts in a very rough way, almost to find out what’s happening.” Salman Rushdie

“My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying . . . one must ruthlessly suppress everything that is not concerned with the subject.” Anton Chekhov

“The adverb is the enemy of the verb.” Mark Twain

“The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” Voltaire

“The secret of being tiresome is to tell everything.” Voltaire

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Blaise Pascal

“I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence — no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” Dorothy Parker

“Track down and cross out the literary touches — adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it.” Georges Simenon

“I don’t usually write drafts. I may write slowly, but once I have decided what to set down I rarely rewrite much.” John Crowley

“I sit around and think an awful lot before I write. Well, I write longhand. Smoky’s italics are my own. That happened around 1967, also, when I got tired of my own handwriting and decided to learn all over again. And when it’s all done longhand, or at least mostly done, I’ll start typing it and make some changes as it’s being typed.” John Crowley

“I always see something I could press tighter or enwrap more completely. There’s no trifling with words — can’t be done: not when they’re to stand ‘forever.’” Virginia Woolf




Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write. Wolfstuff.com.

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Ulf Wolf

Ulf Wolf

Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write. Wolfstuff.com.

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