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10 Writing Tips from Ursula Le Guin

At the National Book Awards a few nights ago, Ursula Le Guin was honored with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a fancy sounding award that basically means she’s the bomb (she really is).

Ursula Le Guin writing quote

I’ve been reading Ursula Le Guin for a long time, since I first discovered The Earthsea Cycle, which re-invigorated my love for fantasy.

She’s also famous for her science-fiction, especially The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and was one of the first to show the world that women can not only write great science-fiction, they can often do it better than men.

Le Guin is a “genre” writer who constantly worked pushed the boundaries of what we think of as genre. Besides sci-fi and fantasy, she wrote poetry, creative non-fiction, and literary fiction.

I honestly believe she will go down in history as one of the greatest writers, literary or otherwise, of the 20th century.

Ursula Le Guin’s Quotes on Writing

With that in mind, here are ten quotes from Ursula Le Guin on her process as a writer:

1. “Show, Don’t Tell” is for Beginners

From ursulakleguin.com:

Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.… This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.

2. So Is “Write What You Know”

From ursulakleguin.com:

As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.

3. Do Your Job as a Writer, and Do it Really Well

From Paris Review:

But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer (tweet that, emphasis mine). I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.

4. Shoot for the Top, Always.

Ursula Le Guin writing quote

From Paris Review:

When asked what authors she measures her work against, Le Guin says:

Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top? (tweet that)

5. Write Like Who You Are

From Paris Review:

Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.

6. Learn from the Greats

From Paris Review:

It was Borges and Calvino who made me think, Hey, look at what they’re doing! Can I do that?

7. Writing is All About Learning to See

Ursula Le Guin writing quote

From Paris Review:

A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them— yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama—cleanse the doors of perception. (tweet that)

I love this, by the way. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s quote, “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

8. Begin Your Story with a Voice

From Paris Review:

How should you begin your story?

With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.

9. Focus on the Rhythm of the Story

From Paris Review:

I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey—you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.

10. Don’t Waste Time

From Paris Review:

And one of [the things you learn as you get older] is, you really need less… My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there…. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.

How about you? What do you love about Ursula Le Guin? What has she taught you about writing?

PRACTICE

Use tip #5 and write like who you really are.  Write like a woman or a man or an American or an alien or an Ursula Le Guin or a Joe Bunting. Write just as you are.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Happy writing!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Beca Lewis

    Thank you Joe for this post. I LOVE LOVE Ursula’s writing, and these tips make me feel as it might be possible in some galaxy that I could write a tenth as well as she does. Thank you!

    • Perhaps in THIS galaxy, Beca!

      • Margaret Fleming

        Thanks for encouragement.
        MLF

      • Beca Lewis

        Thank you Joe!

    • I think you already do….

      • Beca Lewis

        Jet – thank you!!!

  • Effie

    Of COURSE she has the best writing advice. I recently re-read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and it’s even more brilliant than when I read it as a 13/14 yo. These are amazing, Joe.

    • Isn’t it amazing that she wrote one of the most widely read/taught short stories AND all that “genre” fiction? She’s so flexible. It inspires me. Thanks for the comment Effie!

  • Margaret Fleming

    Who says being a rabble-rouser is not feminine? My hat is off to women who creep by night, if
    necessary, to get around the bullshit of how it sposed to be. What about those women pretending to drink
    tea in the darling tea house the Commodore built for them, where instead they
    were turning out material in support of the vote for women. And I am unable to forget anyone or any group
    who actually make changes – like the police dept. written about long ago in
    Mirabella, the one that offered to teach any woman to shoot if she would only
    come down to the police target range.
    When I read the story, the rate of rape in Atlanta was down 80%. That’s 80 percent! No one knew which women went done there, and
    the women didn’t even have to buy a gun.
    But the word was out – maybe it ain’t safe any more. If we can’t rape our own women, who’s in
    charge? Whose town is this anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever be too old to remember
    that. Nor too old to smirk at the fact
    that no clips about them seem to have made it onto the web. Now suppose every town with a college put
    that offer in the paper. Co-eds come on
    down, spend an hour, and knock this rape culture on its ass. It is okay to say NO, and back up that NO.

    I wonder who would be brave.
    Or have the guts of those tea-drinking suffragettes been bred out of
    us? What if Bubba is over there in
    training camp deciding to tell you he’d better not catch you with a gun? You
    can get a UPS label and send that ring or that frat pin back by mail.

  • This is an excellent list of tips. Ms Le Guin is certainly a rule breaker which in part is what makes her work so unusual. Feeling constrained in your writing will always stop you from writing freely. But I also think we need to truly understand the rules to break them successfully.

    • Agreed on both counts. It was interesting reading her Paris Review interview (linked above), because it made me see her less as a rule breaker and more as someone who got tired of one set of rules (e.g. sci-fi) and decided to switch them for another set (e.g. poetry) and then another (e.g. fantasy) and then another (e.g. creative non-fiction), if that makes sense.

      • It does make sense as they all have their own constraints. All right I’m convinced – I have to go & read the full interview:-)

        • Haha good! Let me know what you think!

          • What a fascinating interview! I got such a sense that she was entirely her own woman and that while she challenged herself continuously, she has done what she has wanted to do and to hell with whoever didn’t like it. But as a writer I particularly liked her notion of story coming from one small voice in your head. To me that broke down the walls of needing masses of information- plot arc, character src, subplot etc etc – before you even get started. As she says towards the end, keep it simple. Thanks Joe for the post & encouraging me to read the interview:-)

  • Ha! I love #2. 🙂 I just watched her acceptance speech yesterday and loved it. Very inspiring.

  • oddznns

    I love Ursula Le Guin. Here’s a fan letter for her. From me. Writing as myself.
    Ursula … How can I want to write like me when I’ve read you. Even your titles were evocative. The Tombs of Atuan. The Wizard of Earthsea. Everything has a true name, that’s what the young wizard of Earthsea learnt. It must be half a century now since I first read that book and still I remember that nugget. I say this to my son, born deaf, repeatedly. Things have names. They’re not just the memory of a shape moving, the feel of a hand against a cheek. To remember, the picture, the touch, must have a name. There must be a word for that which is. To live in the community of the hearing, you must use words, I tell my son. And yet we know, you too, words cannot be enough. As humans, we need that smell, that taste, that hand in ours, those lips against our own. So wh, I wonder after all these years do I still remain enamoured of your words. And how, I wonder, can I ever ever create magic like yours.

    • I loved reading this, odds. Also, what a fun practice this would be, write a letter to your favorite author?

    • Krithika Rangarajan

      BRILLAINT #HUGSSSSS

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  • Krithika Rangarajan

    No.5 is indeed my favorite. While emulating your role models is fine, it is more important to weave your prose with the wonderful eccentricities of your personality! 🙂

    Thank you so much…

    Kitto

  • Keiji555

    I read her book, and honestly… she should go back to learning how to write.

    Number 1 is why her book is honestly crap. When I read a novel, I want a story, I want a plot, and I want characters to be developed. It is hypocritical of her complaining about Shawn Ashmore, when she didn’t even properly expand, and described Ged.

    In the first 150 pages, she spends more time describing the world, and saying “Ged did this, he did that” instead of letting him interact with the world, and letting the readers interact with her world. She had no story, Her plot could have been great, if she actually focused on it, instead of describing all the lands of Earthsea, that Ged doesn’t even visit, and have little implication on the story. In fact, she asserted that Ged was arrogant in the beginning, but didn’t even show HOW he was arrogant.
    She just says “Show, don’t tell” is for beginners in order to explain her quackery. She wants to tell us about a grand wizard that changed the world… Then let us see the story, instead of just saying “he did this and that.” in 6-7 chapters, all there was of characters interacting with the world and each other, there was maximum 5 pages. Out of 150 pages. One can show a world, by letting the readers play with the world, instead of telling us how it is.

    Number 2 explains why so many people get turned off at various types of shows. A lot of cops get turned off at cop dramas, because protocol isn’t respected. As a writer myself, I’ve had to learn so much about certain things, so that I can write it, and not shun a reader that knows a lot more in the topic.

    For example, if I were to describe how a medieval military campaign would work, I’d need to learn how to do it, cause if I just wrote it by the seat of my pants without learning about it, I’m sure there would be quite a few medieval historians that would comment on the inaccuracies that I pulled, and I would hope that I can do some kick ass writing in order to let them forgive me for my uneducated arrogance.

    Number 3… Maybe if there was some order in her stories, instead of a jumbled up mess that worked better in the live action series, as they put order in it that made sense, without her anti-climactic 5 second hug endscene, she’d be able to preach about this. But if Earthsea is the best she could brag about, then I’m not missing much with her. I want more than just a dull Dungeons and Dragons Module to read. I want a story.
    Number 4… Of course I intend to do that. If she can win awards with her lackluster “Storytelling”, then I know what I’m doing next year.
    Number 5: But who is Ged? Who is Ogion? I don’t care about Le Guin. When I want to read a book, I want to know who these characters are. When you get a thorough description of Ged in book 2, when he is nothing but a side character, instead of book 1, when he is the primary protagonist, there is a problem, and one loses permission to bitch about the race of the actor playing him.

    Also, it explains a lot about the boring writing style, that’s nothing but a geography book, instead of a fantasy novel. Must be because of something else.
    As for 6, good advice (For once), The only thing I can take from Le Guin, is what not to do as a writer. I want to take my audience on a journey, on an adventure. I don’t want a dull, detached history lesson. She shouldn’t have been trying to detach herself from the hero’s journey that Campbell put together.
    Number 7 sounds poetic, but contradicts Number 1. She wants us to see, but she doesn’t want to show a story? Let us see the marvels of the fictional world! There’s a celebration at Sparrowhawk’s School? What does he do during that festival? “He enjoyed the festival” then its over? How can we see the festival, when you don’t show us?
    Number 8 sounds truthful… But too bad there were no characters to voice their voices in Earthsea.
    Number 9 would be good advice… if it wasn’t so hypocritical of Le Guin saying “How to tell a story…” when she doesn’t know how to, to begin with! You don’t spend 7 chapters describing the world, only to have 3 chapters to tell the story in the end! There was no rhythm to her tales…
    Number 10 is absolutely hilarious. She really should have taken her own advice on this matter. She wasted so much time describing needless details in Wizard of Earthsea, such as the invader’s home island, when it played no role in that book, and when that took precedence over Ged’s fight against them, (Which lasted but a couple of paragraphs, compared to the pages telling us how the invaders looked like and lived) it really does waste time in story telling.
    We could have easily cut out 150 pages of the “novel” and it would be a lot more gripping, telling and probably wonderful. Writing Duny, Ged and Sparrowhawk felt very tedious for Le Guin to write, when I read her book. I don’t care if she thinks Ged is arrogant, I don’t want her opinion. I want to see his behaviour (And here we see her hypocritical contradiction in number 1 and 7… But then again, she is a feminist, so that shouldn’t surprise me…)
    Why did I read it? I had to choose between “Wizard of Earthsea” and “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” for a class assignment, and rewrite the last chapter, and I chose Le Guin’s work. I was expecting an adventure worth telling and sharing, from all the praise it was getting. I sat down, and I read her opinions on behaviours, Ogion doing nothing to teach Ged the wisdom of magic, and a boring geography lesson, instead of letting Ged see the world with his own two eyes, with the readers seeing that world with awe… And yet she claims that Rowling doesn’t know how to write. At least we can give Harry Potter a physical description, and tell us about his personality… Unlike Duny/Ged.

    What did I learn from Le Guin? Well, I guess what I got from it that can help improve my craft, is that the number one thing that writers need to learn, is to “show, don’t tell.” That is a very important thing that beginners and experts both need to learn. This overrated novel taught me that characters need personalities. My opinions don’t matter, but my characters matter. Writing a story is supposed to bring the readers on an emotional journey, to feel every vibrant piece of sentiment that the readers can imagine. Joy, anger, sadness, rage, grief, laughter, tears. All this plus more. This “Story” that made me feel cheated of my time reading this… these jarbled words that describe landscapes… taught me the importance of a writer’s heart in their craft.

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