What Is Writing?

20 Writers Define the Essential Characteristics of Writing

"There has to be something you're trying to communicate," said novelist, poet, and critic John Updike. "Writing is, among other things, a relationship: it can be flirtatious, confiding, or it can almost be hostile, but there has to be some relationship that you're trying to establish with your imaginary reader" (quoted by Sanford Pinkser in The Sewanee Review, 1996). (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

What is writing? Ask 20 writers and you'll get 20 different answers. But on one point, most seem to agree: writing is hard work.

  1. "Writing is communication, not self-expression. Nobody in this world wants to read your diary except your mother."
    (Richard Peck, writer of young adult fiction)
  2. "Writing has been for a long time my major tool for self-instruction and self-development."
    (Toni Cade Bambara, short story writer)
  3. "I don't see writing as communication of something already discovered, as 'truths' already known. Rather, I see writing as a job of experiment. It's like any discovery job; you don't know what's going to happen until you try it."
    (William Stafford, poet)
  4. "I think writing is really a process of communication. . . . It's the sense of being in contact with people who are part of a particular audience that really makes a difference to me in writing."
    (Sherley Anne Williams, poet)
  5. "Writing makes no noise, except groans, and it can be done everywhere, and it is done alone."
    (Ursula K. LeGuin, novelist, poet, and essayist)
  6. "Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."
    (Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer)
  1. "Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself."
    (Franz Kafka, novelist)
  2. "Writing is a struggle against silence."
    (Carlos Fuentes, novelist and essayist)
  3. "Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it."
    (David Sedaris, humorist and essayist)
  4. "Writing is its own reward."
    (Henry Miller, novelist)
  5. "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”
    (Molière, playwright)
  6. "Writing is turning one's worst moments into money."
    (J. P. Donleavy, novelist)
  7. "I've always disliked words like 'inspiration.' Writing is probably like a scientist thinking about some scientific problem or an engineer about an engineering problem."
    (Doris Lessing, novelist)
  8. "Writing is just work—there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or write with your toes—it's still just work."
    (Sinclair Lewis, novelist)
  9. "Writing is hard work, not magic. It begins with deciding why you are writing and whom you are writing for. What is your intent? What do you want the reader to get out of it? What do you want to get out of it. It's also about making a serious time commitment and getting the project done."
    (Suze Orman, finance editor and author)
  1. "Writing is [like] making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. . . . What is a privilege, however, is to do a job to your satisfaction."
    (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist)
  2. "People on the outside think there's something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn't like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that's all there is to it."
    (Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer)
  3. "Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind."
    (Catherine Drinker Bowen, biographer)
  4. "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia."
    (E.L. Doctorow, novelist)
  5. "Writing is the only way to talk without being interrupted."
    (Jules Renard, novelist and playwright)