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“The Greatest Menace to the Writer is the Reader” and Other Advice from Shirley Jackson

(But don’t worry, you can beat them at their own game.)

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In case you haven’t noticed, at Literary Hub, we love Shirley Jackson. We might even say that we stan Shirley Jackson. We would all like to be more like her. And in fact, if you’re reading this space, I’m sure you too would like to be a lot more like her—so in lieu of suggesting that you learn the zither (or any amount of black magic), please enjoy a selection of some of her best writing advice. It’s much safer.

Use everything in your life as fodder for your work.

“One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever get wasted. . . A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday. . . I believe that a story can be made out of any such small combination of circumstances, set up to best advantage and decorated with some use of the imagination.”

– From Jackson’s lecture “How I Write,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

Be as weird as you like—and keep writing.

“The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. . . All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing. As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”

– From Jackson’s lecture “Memory and Delusion,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

Keep the reader’s attention by any means necessary.

“Far and away the greatest menace to the writer—any writer, beginning or otherwise—is the reader. . . . The reader is, in fact, the writer’s only unrelenting, genuine enemy. He has everything on his side; all he has to do, after all, is shut his eyes, and any work of fiction becomes meaningless. . . . It is, of course, the writer’s job to reach out and grab this reader: If he is a reader who cannot endure a love story, it is the writer’s job, no more and no less, to make him read a love story and like it. Using any device that might possibly work, the writer has to snare the reader’s attention and keep it.”

– From Jackson’s lecture “Garlic in Fiction,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

Keep it simple.

“Use all your seasoning sparingly. Do not worry about making your characters shout, intone, exclaim, remark, shriek, reason, holler, or any such thing, unless they are doing it for a reason. All remarks can be said. Every time you use a fancy word your reader is going to turn his head to look at it going by and sometimes he may not turn his head back again.”

– From Jackson’s “Notes For a Young Writer,” as collected in Come Along With Me.

Restrain your metaphors (but not your inventions).

“Naturally, every writer has dealt in one way or another with metaphor, and there are few more pathetic sights than a writer hopelessly entangled in a great unwieldy metaphor that has gotten out of control and is spilling all over the story, killing off characters and snapping sentences right and left; huge metaphors, such as this one, as far better left to people with a lot more time and space to write. Adjectives are always good, of course; no short story really ought to be without adjectives, particularly odd ones—such as ‘fulsome’—that the reader usually has to go and look up. And of course adverbs such as ‘unworthily’—even if you have to make them up yourself—are always very useful.”

– From Jackson’s lecture “Garlic in Fiction,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

You can’t write dialogue if you don’t know how people talk (and think). 

“Listen always to people talking. Listen to patterns of thinking displayed in talking. Think about this: if a husband comes home at night and says to his wife, ‘What do you think happened to me? When I got onto the bus tonight I sat down next to a girl and when the conductor came along he had a live penguin riding on his head, a live penguin, can you imagine? And when I looked at it, it turned out it was a talking penguin and it said “Tickets, please,” and there was this guy across the aisle and you really won’t believe this but it turned out he had a parrot in his pocket and the parrot put out his head and he and the penguin got to talking and I never heard anything like it in all my life,’ don’t you know that after the husband has said all this his wife is going to say, ‘What did the girl look like?’”

– From Jackson’s “Notes For a Young Writer,” as collected in Come Along With Me.

Count on your commonality.

“Many experiences in life are common to all of us, and a word or two is frequently enough to enrich a story with a wealth of recollection; take, for instance, the words ‘income tax.’”

– From Jackson’s lecture “Garlic in Fiction,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

Don’t be obtuse.

“Do not try to puzzle your reader unnecessarily; a puzzled reader is an antagonistic reader. Do not expect him to guess why a character does something or how it happens that some remark is made; it may be that you want him to stop and wonder for a minute; if so, make it perfectly clear that everything is going to be all right later on.”

– From Jackson’s “Notes For a Young Writer,” as collected in Come Along With Me.

Always be writing.

“I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.”

– From Jackson’s lecture “Memory and Delusion,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

But above all else, always be interesting.

“Here is one of the greatest pitfalls for beginning or inexperienced writers: Their stories are, far too often, just simply not very interesting. It is easy to be trapped in a story you are writing, and to suppose that the interest you feel yourself in the story is automatically communicated to the reader; this is terribly important to me, the writer tells himself, this is a matter of the most extreme importance to me, and therefore a reader will find it important, too. And the reader, opening one sleepy eye, thinks that the fellow who wrote this thing was certainly pretty worked up about something, wasn’t he; funny how hard it is to stay awake while you are reading it.”

– From Jackson’s lecture “Garlic in Fiction,” as collected in Let Me Tell You.

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

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published August 8, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.