Charles Dickens – Three Principles of Writing

Only jolter-headed, conceited idiots suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.

~ Charles Dickens

To be fair, this quote took a little remanufacturing on the part of yours truly. The original quote comes from The Letters of Charles Dickens. In the original, Dickens was writing to Wilkie Collins to congratulate Collins on “Basil”. Dickens was delighted to find that the author took great pains to be discriminating and yet to also deliver casual blows to the aforementioned “jolter-headed, conceited idiots”.

Personally, I loved the idea of Dickens railing about people believing that writing was as easy as tossing off pancakes. If you consider the sheer volume of work produced by the man, you have to wonder just how he managed it.

Of course, there is just one answer to that… he wrote.

It’s true that Dickens lived in an age without electronic diversions, but it was not without any diversions. Still, he managed to create volume after volume by following the formula:

UTMOST APPLICATION + GREATEST PATIENCE + STEADIEST ENERGY = WRITING (AND ANYTHING ELSE WORTH DOING RIGHT)

UTMOST APPLICATION

Of the three principles, the craft is the one I think most writers tend to gloss over when starting out. It sounds weird to say that of course. If you consider any other profession, it would be strange for one to simply dive in and have at it. Yet, this is how most writers get into the craft and like a surgeon who has no training the patients seldom see the light of day.

But the real application goes much further than training and practice. Writing is a lifelong pursuit of skill and knowledge. The writer must work within the medium but they most also read and learn from others practicing the craft as well, pick up new techniques, experiment, and seek opinion. Writers who fail to do this are as unlikely to get a letter of praise from Charles Dickens’ (he’s dead after all) as they are from the Charles Dickens’ of their day.

GREATEST PATIENCE

If patience is a virtue, then I’m afraid I’m going straight to Hell.

All writers have some method of beginning, some bit of inspiration that sparks the burning need to put words down and create something from the void. We write these beautiful, fevered phrases while hoping to catch all the vibrance of the vision before it fades. We scribble and scribble and scribble till our hands become raw and our minds race at speeds our words cannot hope to keep up with.

Then we get muddled.

We call this writing ourselves into a corner and it happens whether you cautiously plan your narrative or go straight at it free form. The writer with patience understands this happens. They wait and watch while the paint dries and then go back and fix things up. The rest of us (meaning everyone) just walk across the wet floor, leaving footprints everywhere and start over.

STEADIEST ENERGY

Write every day. The End.

Alright, that isn’t quite the end. It should be, but it’s not. You see, it isn’t enough just to say you need to write every day. Yes, “Steadiest Energy” implies that you must be consistent in the practice of the craft, but you must also apply sustained effort.

This means that you must develop the ability to do more than write the fevered words I mentioned in the last section. You must also learn to write all the other words that need to be said as well.

When I first wrote this little bit, it was just the opening quip:

Write every day. The End.

I was going to leave it at that because I thought it was clever. Then, as I was wrapping things up, I realized I skipped over the meaning of the phrase entirely. I wasn’t patient and I wasn’t adhering to the utmost application of the writing craft. I was coasting.

So, yes, you must write every day. However, you must apply a consistent effort across every bit of your practice. You must write and read and edit with equal vigor but also maintain a sense of calm about it.

It isn’t a race. It’s a practice.


Which of these three principles give you the most trouble? How do you deal with it?

11 thoughts on “Charles Dickens – Three Principles of Writing

  1. Jamie, it is a great comfort to my soul when I read your words which always illuminate the writer’s heart and mind. No matter where I am on my journey writing with feverish intent or languishing in painful silence your words always pull me through. In answer to your question, I struggle with all three at different points and sometimes all at one time. Last year I no longer called myself a writer, even though I do it for a living, I felt unworthy of the title since my “true” writing life had gone completely silent. I have now come to understand that silence is part of my journey, sometimes to find your way out of the corner of muddled thoughts and fevered phrases, you have to shut up.

  2. For me, it is the last one. I struggle setting aside time to write. Somedays the idea of writing sounds better than the actual work involved. Other days, I am just too busy during the day and too tired in the evening. I am getting better though. I am conquering the life sucking vampire called the Internet and reducing time spent on other hobbies. 2011 is going to be a good year.

  3. @Karen Aww thanks. And yes, it does come and go like that. It all becomes so clear once there is nothing else you can do. :)

    @Jimm Death to the Interwebs!!! Well, at least when I should be writing that is. Best of luck to you in 2011!

  4. Yes, it’s definitely number 3 for me. I’ve tried scheduling time to write around my other commitments, tried different times of the day or weekends instead of work days, etc., etc., and when I finally do get the time to write, I’m so daunted by the amount of research and study of the subject I’m writing about (a non-fiction book) that just working on it here or there for 20 minutes or an hour at a time in amongst the daily demands is actually quite de-motivating. How can one possibly get anything worthwhile accomplished when one is so often just getting going, then has to finish and switch gears to another completely unrelated task?

  5. @Kathy That kind of writing is a painful slog isn’t it? When I was working on my second novel, I tried to parcel it out in 60 minute chunks. I gave myself a schedule and a daily word count goal. I tried to organize things very tightly so that I could make the most of the time. By the end of the first week, I felt like I was in the middle of a death march. The story was going nowhere. The writing was mechanical and uninspired.

    It was enough to put me off writing forever.

    I only began to make real progress again when I set up a specific time to write and forced everything else to fit that schedule. I had to get up very early to make this work with other commitments but I got it together. In a word, I had to be selfish. I had to put me and my writing first above all else.

    I don’t know if this is the only way to do it, but whenever I’ve stopped being selfish about my writing time the work has suffered terribly.

  6. Thank you so much for your response, Jamie. It’s good to hear of similar struggles, not that I’d wish them on another writer but it’s an occupational hazard for sure. I guess, in the end, we all have to decide what the priority is and give that task the due time it deserves. I will definitely try your suggestion and see where it leads me. I’ll keep you posted if you like. If I may be so bold to ask, what do you think about having a writing accountability partner? Have you done that and has it been successful? Again, thanks for your response.

  7. @Kathy You should always be bold. You’re a writer. :)

    I’ve heard that having a writing partner works for some people. It’s like having someone to work out with. However, I’ve not had much success with it. It isn’t that I mind being beholden to someone, but rather that I find being accountable to myself is a stronger medicine for getting the work done. Now, editing is something else entirely. There, I think it is a good thing to have a partner if not several. More eyes and more opinions can help build a work into something magnificent, but in the end it’s still you getting up out of bed at 5AM and setting down at the keyboard when you’d rather be tucked into the warm covers.

  8. It is nice to learn from the likes of Charles Dickens – thank you for bringing this to us!

    I lack patience, which is funny because in my day job, I teach and train with endless patience. I have little to none left over for myself and it shows in other areas of my life. Sometimes when there is a lot of revising to do, it takes everything I have to keep my butt in the chair and JUST DO IT.

    As you all are well aware, this writing business is certainly not for the faint of heart. Thanks for reminding us that we are not *completely* alone in the endeavor.

  9. UTMOST APPLICATION
    This would be the most important to me; it’s also what can drain your life. I’ve been a composer, a poet and a visual artist. Writing requires an UTMOST APPLICATION which can make the other arts seem easy. I wrote four symphonies, and orchestrated them on a 20 line manuscript, that took 8 years to complete. I’ve written one and half books, these have taken 30 years to do. The editing that goes into a book is far greater than the editing that goes into any other art form.

    The reason for this is improvised music and visual art is far more accepted that improvised prose; yes they are clear transitions in some music, and clear forms and styles in some visual art but if these things are not in theses arts, they are still accepted as an art form. Try having poor transitions in prose, don’t have a style, write without form and see what sort of audience you get.

    Application to writing has to be complete, or you will have wasted your life.

  10. …the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.

    I guess the hardest would be the utmost application for sure. Although I’m not completely sure of what that means as of yet. Patience, got it. The steadiest of energy, somewhat. Writing every day is something I can attain to( just started yesterday). The whole writing thing is new to me. But I’ve been wanting to do this for years. So it helps to here from experienced, well seasoned, accomplished writers such as Charles dickens.

    This Charles dickens quote was very useful! Thanks a bunch…

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