10 Writing Tips from F. Scott Fitzgerald
Years: 1896 - 1940
Notable Works: The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon
Quote: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
Trivia: F. Scott Fitzgerald was the second cousin three times removed from Francis Scott Key.
1. “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
Wise words, indeed. Exclamation points are best used sparingly, according to The Chicago Manual of Style. Use them for “out[cries] or. . . emphatic or ironic comment[s].”
2. “You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.”
Fitzgerald wrote this advice to his daughter, Scottie. A great piece of literature can make readers think or feel. To get your readers to feel, examine the emotions of your characters and describe them as best you can.
3. “About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move."
This is a rather new view on writing, but still very much valid. Instead of focusing on words to describ the action (adverbs), pay attention to the action itself; I promise you that doing so will make your writing smoother. For example, “she cried a lot” doesn’t tell us too much. Okay, she cried and she did a lot of it. What kind of crying was it? What picture should I, as the reader, have in my head? “She bawled” gives me something to work with; it’s more informative and colorful. This rewording is also less wordy, making me move to the next sentence with ease.
4. “You ought never to use an unfamiliar word unless you’ve had to search for it to express a delicate shade–where in effect you have recreated it. This is a damn good prose rule I think…. Exceptions: (a) need to avoid repetition (b) need of rhythm (c) etc.”
In other words, don’t use a synonym unless you know the meaning thoroughly. You may use the synonym if only that synonym has the exact meaning you want. Yes, Fitzgerald does provide other exceptions, but still be careful about knowing the exact meaning of words. Too many times authors use a synonym not knowing its exact meaning, only to have their editors highlight the improper use.
5. “You must begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years…. When you think of something, when you recall something, put it where it belongs. Put it down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second time.”
If you are really serious about having a writing career, then definitely take this advice to heart. Carry a journal wherever you go. You have no idea when or where you’ll find inspiration.
6. “To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.”
What I like about this lesson is that it acknowledges how long it takes to get a manuscript to not just be publishable, but memorable. I find that many aspiring authors (and some established ones) do not realize how much work is involved in getting to such a point. You may think it took some time to write your manuscript, but how long have you practiced reading people’s emotions, understanding motives, learning the art to writing, etc.? Draw on what you’ve learned throughout your life.
7. “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
Some people write because they always dreamed of seeing their name in print. Their stories, however, are not always memorable because the authors didn’t draw on what they wanted to say to the readers. What you want to say can be anything, but say something that honest and important to you.
8. “Invent a system Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.”
I included this lesson because Fitzgerald is telling us what worked for him in writing. You don’t really have to do this. Do whatever works best for you to organize your thoughts. Perhaps, the best method for you is just to wing it. The only thing that matters is that you know what kind of writing practice works for you.
9. “Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy.”
The hero of every story has to go through something. That’s the point of reading it: see what the hero has to go through and find out how the problem will resolve. A hero only becomes that when he or she has faced terrible odds. Think about the books you’ve read. Who was the hero and what life experience made him or her come out stronger? Please note, Fitzgerald is not using tragedy in the classical sense.
10. “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”
Did a publisher not accept your manuscript? So what? If the publisher took time out to detail what did not work in your manuscript, then take it up as a challenge. The publisher is not criticizing for the sake of being mean to you. Take the comments and see if you can make your manuscript even better. And if you think everything that publisher said was baloney, then find other publishers.
Thanks to the people of Good Reads, The Atlantic, Open Culture, Content is Currency, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society for providing the information used here.