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“Make Them Care About What You Think” and Other Writing Advice from Nora Ephron

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Read when you’ve got time to spare.

I’ve been rereading the work of American treasure Nora Ephron recently; this is something I can freely say at almost any time. No one never really needs an excuse to revisit her genius. I do, on the other hand, appreciate the excuse to pluck out some of her best writing advice from essays and interviews and share them with you here. I mean, I’m always trying to be more like Nora Ephron anyway. I mean, honestly, I just assume everyone is always trying to be more like Nora Ephron, so I expect you’ll all find this useful.

Surround yourself with writing, one way or another:

First of all, whatever you do, work in a field that has something to do with writing or publishing. So you will be exposed to what people are writing about and how they are writing, and as important, so you will be exposed to people in the business who will get to know you and will call on you if they are looking for someone for a job. Secondly, you have to write. And if you don’t have a job doing it, then you have to sit at home doing it.

–from a 1974 interview with Writer’s Digest

Mind your structure:

Structure is the key to narrative. These are the crucial questions any storyteller must answer: Where does it begin? Where does the beginning start to end and the middle begin? Where does the middle start to end and the end begin? . . . Each of those things is entirely up to the writer. They are the hardest decisions for any writer to make about any story, whether fiction or nonfiction. If you make the right decision about structure, many other things become absolutely clear. On some level, the rest is easy.

–from Ephron’s essay “What Narrative Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters”

Make people care:

You better make them care about what you think. It had better be quirky or perverse or thoughtful enough so that you hit some chord in them. Otherwise it doesn’t work. I mean we’ve all read pieces where we thought, Oh, who gives a damn.

–from a 1974 interview with Writer’s Digest

Keep the ideas coming by keeping the ideas coming:

One exercise is to write. That’s one of the reasons I became interested in blogging—it was a new muscle to flex. I mean, I’m not even sure it is any longer, because things move very quickly in internet culture, but six years ago it was a new form. It wasn’t quite an essay, but it was essayish. It had to be short because of the concentration span of the reader. It had a different function from other kinds of writing, in that it wasn’t meant to just be this piece of writing that people read, it was meant to be a piece of writing that started a conversation among the readers. Which became a reason for people to read it, so that they could then express what they thought about it. And once you learn that about blogging, then you first of all have the sense not to read any of the comments—because at a certain point they will be mean about you. . . The thing is, you don’t really have to believe what you write in a blog for more than the moment when you’re writing it. You don’t bring the same solemnity that you would bring to an actual essay. You don’t think, Is this what I really want to say? You think, This is what I feel like saying at this moment. So that’s one way to stay fresh.

–from a 2012 interview with The Believer

Trust your own point of view:

My point of view happens to be faintly cynical or humorous—and that’s just the way I see things and that’s how it comes out when I write it. It is not anything I am conscious of, though. A piece about a “heavy” subject can be written a little bit light so the piece doesn’t seem quite as heavy. You’ve mainly got to trust yourself to write the way you feel about something.

–from a 1974 interview with Writer’s Digest

Hone your voice:

I started out [framing I Feel Bad About My Neck] with the idea that it should be about getting older. Then a collection needs a voice. If you look at David Sedaris’s books their subject is David Sedaris and his adventures. I think that’s the main thing one is looking for when one is buying an essay collection: a voice. You want to be with somebody for a couple of hours.

–from a 2006 interview with The Wall Street Journal

Write your way through writer’s block:

I’ve had friends who occasionally call and say, “I’m blocked!” And I’ve said, “Well, how are you going to pay the rent?” To me it was so obvious, you just had to work through it. In the old days, I would just type the piece over and over in the hopes that it would somehow push me into the next sentence. But you don’t do that anymore with computers.

I think one thing that you do is just make notes. You have to sit in a period called “not-writing” and write pages and pages of anything that crosses your mind. Or you can read things that will help you. I just did a script that has Pride and Prejudice as one of its themes . . . I read the book a zillion times, and I did a kind of outline of the book, and in the end I used absolutely none of it except maybe the first six chapters. But the point is you do something, whether or not it’s the actual writing. When I work with my sister Delia, we outline everything we’re doing. Completely. The outlines are endless, at least fifty pages long. But when I write by myself, I almost never have an outline; I just do it. I know the structure. I know the beginning, the middle, the end.

–from a 2012 interview with The Believer

Stay warm:

I am never completely cold. I don’t have writer’s block, really. I do have times when I can’t get the lead and that is the only part of the story that I have serious trouble with. I don’t write a word of the article until I have the lead. It just sets the whole tone—the whole point of view. I know exactly where I am going as soon as I have the lead. That can take me three or four days and sometimes a week. But as for being cold—as a newspaper reporter you learn that no one tolerates you if you are cold; it’s one thing you are not allowed to be. It’s not professional. You have to turn the story in. There is no room for the artist.

And so trouble with the lead is as close as I get to being cold, and yes, I do go away from it for a while and go buy a pair of shoes or have dinner. And I know that maybe if I can talk to someone at dinner I’ll find the thing I am looking for.

–from a 1974 interview with Writer’s Digest

Learn from people who know:

The only way to learn is to keep doing something new, and, if you’re lucky, learning with people who really know how to do it. People who will say, “No, no, no! Let’s turn this scene over,” or “Let’s try this, let’s do that, let’s talk about breakups so we can make this breakup better.”

–from a 2012 interview with The Believer

Know what you can and can’t control:

If you want to be successful and you are a woman, you have to understand that there’s all kinds of horrible stuff that comes with it, and you simply cannot do anything about it but move on.

–from a 2009 interview with The New Yorker

Use what you’ve got, even if it’s bad:

Any catastrophe is good material for a writer.

–from a 2007 interview with The New York Times

(After all, as Ephron’s mother told her and Ephron herself repeatedly told us: everything is copy.)

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published May 21, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.