Charles Dickens’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer

Charles Dickens
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Jane Friedman shares some words of wisdom here about the process of becoming a writer, illustrated by a letter written by Charles Dickens.  She’s right, you’ll have to be bad for a while before you become good.

Ira Glass has some of the best advice I’ve ever read for writers, at least in relation to great storytelling. He’s said that you have to be willing to be bad at what you do for a long time until you actually can achieve the vision of perfection you have in your head. He even puts himself out on a limb and offers recordings illuminating how bad he was at radio when he first started.

I was reminded of Ira when my writer-friend Teresa Fleming shared with me the following letter from Charles Dickens, where he responds to an aspiring writer.

Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.
DEAR SIR,

I have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other two volumes.

You will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

On the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavour if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

Faithfully yours.

Yikes, right? (You can read more Dickens letters here.)

Here’s the secret, though: If you’re the writer, do you read this and think: I should just stop trying.

Or do you read this and think: He doesn’t know how wrong he is!


Writers in training know they’re not good, but they know they’re getting better. And they go on to fight another day.

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2 thoughts on “Charles Dickens’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer

  1. “Writers in training know they’re not good, but they know they’re getting better. And they go on to fight another day.” –How very true.

    Many writers also enjoy the fight, don’t you think? It’s both frustrating and satisfying.

    As harsh as Dickens’ letter is, I really enjoyed it.

    Thanks for pointing it out

    • You have to develop some perseverance, and learn to take criticism constructively. Hopefully you’ll experience victories along the way that will encourage you to press on. I think you’re right . . . if you fight, and overcome the odds, and accomplish something good with your writing, you can appreciate the process. Good point!
      Chris

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