5 Pieces of Writing Wisdom from Willa Cather

Willa Cather

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was a craftswoman of the written word. Known for their stark beauty and spare language, her novels reflected her philosophy that writing is a craft to be honed and perfected. Cather’s considerable writing wisdom has been fully preserved.

She always had a great deal of wisdom to impart on the art of writing. Here’s a sampling, excerpted from several of the numerous interviews she granted (despite her professed disdain for the press and with fame in general) between 1915 and the mid-1920s.


Write what you know, at least at first

The young writer must learn to deal with subjects [s]he really knows about. No matter how commonplace a subject may be, if it is one with which the author is thoroughly familiar it makes a much better story than the purely imaginational.

Imagination, which is a quality writers must have, does not mean the ability to weave pretty stories out of nothing. In the right sense, imagination is a response to what is going on — a sensitiveness to which outside things appeal. It is a composition of sympathy and observation.

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Willa Cather - My Antonia

Willa Cather on the Art of Fiction

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It’s natural for beginning writers to imitate

When I was in college, I admired certain writers and read the masters of style, who gave me great pleasure. Those ideas have changed. All students imitate, and I began by imitating Henry James. He was the most interesting American who was writing at the time, and I strove laboriously to pattern after him.

All students began imitating those they admire, and it is a perfectly right form of education. It takes a long time to get out from under the traditions which hamper a young writer. It is a recognized fact that young painters should imitate the work of the great masters, but people overlook the fact that it is equally dangerous, however, to try to be ‘original’ too early.


If you don’t have a fierce need to write, don’t bother!

Unless you have something in you so fierce that it simply pours itself out in a torrent, heedless of rules or bounds—then do not bother to write anything at all. Why should you? The time for revision is after a thing is on paper — not before.

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Willa Cather quotes
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Don’t work long hours and don’t make writing a chore

I work from two and a half to three hours a day. I don’t hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn’t gain by it. The only reason I write is because it interests me more than any other activity I’ve ever found … on the whole writing interests me more than anything else.

If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day. I get more entertainment from it than any I could buy, except the privilege of hearing a few great musicians and singers. To listen to them interests me as much as a good morning’s work.

For me, the morning is the best time to write. During the other hours of the day I attend to my housekeeping, take walks in Central Park, go to concerts, and see something of my friends. I try to keep myself fit, fresh: one has to be in as good form to write as to sing. When not working, I shut work from my mind.

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Willa Cather

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Work out your “purple prose” phase

When I was in college and immediately after graduation, I did newspaper work. I found that newspaper writing did a great deal of good for me in working off the purple flurry of my early writing. Every young writer has to work off the “fine writing” stage.

It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree period. I knew even than it was a crime to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful fervor worked off.

I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out. It is agony to be smothered in your own florescence, and to be forced to dump great carloads of your posies out in the road before you find that one posy that will fit in the right place …

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