Writing Quips and Tips From John Irving

What can writing advice can we absorb from American best-selling novelist John Irving? Here are several writing quips, from which I’ve teased tips about the definition of a “real” writer, the importance of action in writing, and how to be brave enough to live the life you love.

First, a quip from The World According to Garp.

“’All men are liars,’ said Roberta Muldoon, who knew this was true because she had once been a man.”



If you haven’t read The World According to Garp – or watched the movie, which starred Robin Williams and Glenn Close – you’re denying yourself a great literary pleasure. Truth be told, I liked A Son of the Circus more than Garp, because it was more complicated and exotic. Anyway, enough about Irving’s novels. Here are a few writing quips and tips to chew on…and an assignment for my fellow scribes at the end!

Writing Quips and Tips From John Irving

Quip: “I always begin with a character, or characters, and then try to think up as much action for them as possible.”

  • Writing Tip: Even if you’re writing a non-fiction article for a health magazine about different types of holistic healing (like I currently am), make sure you’re dumping as much action in as possible — without getting too crazy with exclamation points!!!!! And smiley faces 🙂 (which don’t count as active writing, by the way). Give your readers sharp verbs, active sentences, short snappy phrases, colorful characters. Plant seeds throughout your writing; your keep readers both hungry and fed.
  • Writing Tip #2: Just because Irving begins with characterization – and just because he’s one of the most successful writers in the world – doesn’t mean you have to start with your characters in mind. All writers write differently, right? And, there’s no “one size fits all” or formula for successful writing.

Quip: “If you care about something you have to protect it,” wrote Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany. “If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”

  • Writing Tip: If you were brave enough…what kind of life would you be living? What kind of career would you build? You’re obviously interested in writing – else you wouldn’t be here. What are your writing goals… and do you have the guts to pursue and maybe even achieve them? If you wish you were more productive, here are some tips for staying motivated to write.

Quip: “There is no living writer of whom I am simply in awe, except Gunter Grass.”

  • Writing Tip: It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of John Irving’s hero (I just learned that Grass is a Nobel-prize winner German author)…what matters is you hold on to the authors you admire and are inspired by. (Maybe don’t hold on to them physically; that could turn bad for you).  Stay with those successful writers, fellow scribes. Meditate on their words, think about their lives, re-read their books, post their quips on your bulletin board. You’re absorbing more than you realize.

Quip: “The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute,” said Irving. “If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.”


  • Writing Tip: Not only do writers write every second they get (or think about writing even when they’re scrubbing dirt from under their fingernails), they have their own definitions of what it means to be a writer. This means that my definition of being a “real” writer or blogger is different that your definition…and it’s not worth arguing about. You’re a writer if you live up to your own expectations of yourself as a writer. You’re a writer if you haven’t given up on your writing dreams.

Here’s an assignment for my fellow scribes:

What writing tip(s) would you pull from this last quotation from John Irving? Don’t be shy – there isn’t a wrong answer! And, trust me, nobody will make fun of you here…

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“A writer uses what experience he or she has,” said Irving. “It’s the translating, though, that makes the difference.”

What do you think of John Irving’s writing quips and tips – for instance, do you see yourself as a “real” writer? Are you protecting your writing dreams and goals by being deliberate and disciplined? I welcome your comments below…


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