When setting out to write, it’s hard not to compare yourself to those classic authors whose work has endured for hundreds of years. Don’t let the thought of competing with Dickens or Austen leave you paralyzed, though. Harness their writing habits and tips to further your own work. Here are 15 tips you can take away from the famous authors of yesteryear, in honor of National Novel Writing Month:
1. KEEP YOURSELF MOTIVATED BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY // FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
The 18th century poet and playwright reportedly had an ingeniously weird way of keeping himself motivated at his writing desk. He kept a bunch of rotting apples in his drawer, claiming they sparked creativity. The writer definitely thrived on discomfort. Since he wrote at night, he would take extreme measures to keep himself awake, including sticking his feet into tubs of cold water.
2. IGNORE THE HATERS // EZRA POUND
Pound may have been giving advice to aspiring poets in this quote from 1913, though his words apply to writers of all stripes: “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.”
3. DON’T WAIT AROUND FOR INSPIRATION // JACK LONDON
“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it,” the author advised in a guidebook for aspiring writers. His other piece of advice? Make it a habit. “Set yourself a ‘stint,’ and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day,” he wrote.
4. DON’T GET TIED DOWN BY LESSER PURSUITS // ELIZABETH CADY STANTON
Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton once wrote to publisher and fellow suffragette Susan B. Anthony complaining that Anthony hadn't written to her in a while. She joked, “Where are you, Susan, and what are you doing? Your silence is truly appalling. Are you dead or married?" Stanton herself was married with seven children, so she knew what she was talking about. Even if you aren't married, it’s important not to let your creative pursuits disappear under the weight of your other responsibilities.
5. FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY // FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
In a series of 1882 letters to another writer, the philosopher—who also wrote poetry throughout his life—recommended that writers know where their work is going to go before they sit down to write. “First, one must determine precisely ‘what-and-what do I wish to say and present,’ before you may write,” he told her. “Writing must be mimicry.”
6. DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT YOUR “PROCESS” // LOUISA MAY ALCOTT
“Dear Sir,” Louisa May Alcott began in a letter to a fan and aspiring writer. “I never copy or ‘polish’ so I have no old manuscripts to send you; and if I had it would be of little use, for one person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in his own way; and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit by criticism.” Whatever your writing habits, she continued, write plainly and avoid fanciful language: “Young people use too many adjectives and try to ‘write fine.’ The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped.”
7. LOCK YOURSELF AWAY UNTIL YOU FINISH // VICTOR HUGO
Sometimes, we all need to shut ourselves in to get down to work, as even the most successful writers would tell you. If you’re having trouble getting started, you’ve just got to give yourself no other options. When he was writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo pursued this artistic isolation in a particularly extreme fashion. He had a servant hide all his clothes and wore only a full-length knitted shawl around his body so that he couldn’t go outside, no matter how much he was tempted to. Presumably it deterred anyone from visiting, too. He successfully cranked out the novel in six months.
8. DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT ORIGINALITY // MARK TWAIN
While reading his friend Helen Keller’s biography in 1903, author Mark Twain was shocked to hear of an incident more than a decade prior (when she was 11) when she had been accused of plagiarism in one of her short stories. In a letter to her, he told her not to worry too much about echoing the works of other writers. “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism,” he declared. “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.” The lesson here? Prioritize your language.
9. KEEP YOUR DIALOGUE NATURAL // JANE AUSTEN
In 1814, Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Austen, was writing a novel that she naturally sent along to her Aunt Jane for editing notes. “I do not like a lover speaking in the 3rd person,” she wrote. “I think it not natural.” However, Austen maintained that the author knows best, even over the advice of a famous writer like herself. “If you think differently,” she wrote, “you need not mind me.”
10. READ YOUR IDOLS // H.P. LOVECRAFT
In 1920, the horror writer advised young writers on the importance of careful reading of literary masters: “No formal course in fiction-writing can equal a close and observant perusal of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce. In these masterpieces one may find that unbroken sequence and linkage of incident and result which mark the ideal tale.”
11. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS // CHARLOTTE BRONTE
In reply to a critical review of her work, Charlotte Brontë observed that she could not predict what her next book would be like until she had written it. “When authors write best, or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master—which will have its way —putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature, new moulding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.” Basically, there’s no point in trying to counteract your writerly muse.
12. DON'T BE LONG-WINDED // D.H. LAWRENCE
In a 1906 letter to his future fiancé, Louie Burrows, the then-21-year-old D.H. Lawrence haughtily panned an essay she wrote, giving his ladyfriend a few tips on tightening up her prose. “Do be careful of your adjectives—do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details,” he wrote. “Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line.” Despite the fact that he insulted her writing as wordy “like most girl writers,” four years later, the two would be engaged. (They cancelled the pending wedding 14 months later.)
13. WRITE BELIEVABLY (AT LEAST TO YOU) // JOSEPH CONRAD
“In truth every novelist must begin by creating for himself a world, great or little, in which he can honestly believe,” Joseph Conrad wrote in 1905. “This world cannot be made otherwise than in his own image: it is fated to remain individual and a little mysterious, and yet it must resemble something already familiar to the experience, the thoughts and the sensations of his readers.”
14. APPRECIATE THE EXPERIENCE // THOMAS JEFFERSON
The writer of some of America’s most important founding documents had several general rules for living, which he documented in a letter to his granddaughter in 1783. One of them every writer should take to heart: “Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.” Writing a book of any length is hard work, but for true writers, it’s also a pleasure. Jefferson knew what he was talking about, too. He sat down at his writing desk every day from sunrise until 1 p.m. answering letters to friends, scholars, political colleagues, and admirers, sending off almost 20,000 missives throughout his life.
15. DON’T COMPARE YOURSELF TO ANYONE ELSE // RILKE
It can be crippling to think about all the authors who are more successful, more well-known, and who you may perceive as more talented than you. But as Rainier Maria Rilke wrote to a young admirer in 1903 (later collected in the book Letters to a Young Poet), such comparisons are useless to you as an artist. “You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself.”