The Secret of Great Writing

In the autumn of 1938, a sophomore at Radcliffe College, Francis Turnbull, sent her latest short story to family friend, F Scott Fitzgerald.  His response is recorded in F Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters.


F Scott Fitzgerald

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. 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.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.


F Scott Fitzgerald makes a very good point: that the most important skill of a writer (of fiction) is to be able to convey the feelings of his/her characters to the reader in a unique and compelling way.  It is not enough to tell the story clearly and neatly, gaining the reader’s attention. As he puts it, we have little interest in a ‘soldier who is a only little brave’.

How does one convey feelings in this compelling way?  First of all, as a writer, one must feel the feeling; it is not enough to imagine how it would feel.  Then, one must place oneself into the character so that the expression of the feeling is consistent with the character’s personality: different people express anger (for example) in different ways.  Finally, one has to ‘paint the picture’ carefully selecting from all the many available devices:  How does the character look?  What does she say?  What does he feel?  How do others react?  What does it sound like?  What’s a good analogy?

Easy to say.  Not so easy to do!

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