Tolstoy’s Writing Advice

Today, authors approach famous writers for a book cover blurb. Few expect honest advice.

But over a century ago, when beginning writers sent their manuscripts to Tolstoy, they wanted his advice and some even asked him to revise their prose. He was generous with his time and frequently helped authors from underprivileged backgrounds. In some cases, their prose would get published because Tolstoy had marked it.

His suggestions to authors were paradoxical: Tolstoy advised them not to write, unless they felt it was absolutely necessary, and never to write with an eye to publication. In 1887, replying to an obscure writer, Tolstoy suggested: “The main thing is not to be in a hurry to write, not to grudge correcting and revising the same thing 10 or 20 times, not to write a lot and not, for heaven’s sake, to make of writing a means of livelihood or of winning importance in people’s eyes.”

However, most authors approached him precisely because they sought publication and were hoping for praise. Some thought that Tolstoy’s advice would boost their writing skills. This was precisely what Tolstoy warned them against: “God save you from that.” Attaining the skill was secondary to what he called “inner content.”

He did not believe that it was possible to teach one how to become a writer, and was annoyed when authors asked him to share secrets of the trade. In 1895, he replied to an author: “…I won’t answer your questions, or rather interrogation, about writing, because they are all empty questions. The one thing I can say to you is to try as hard as you can not to be a writer, or only to be one when you can no longer help being one.”

As he suggested to another author, “You should only write when you feel within you some completely new and important content, clear to you but unintelligible to others, and when the need to express this content gives you no peace.”

He valued sincerity, but thought this quality extremely rare. His advice to fiction writers was simple, although hard to follow: “…Live the lives of the people described, describe in images their inner feelings, and the characters themselves will do what they must do according to their natures…” A fiction writer “needs two things: firstly, to know thoroughly what should be; and secondly, to believe in what should be…” But, as he complained to a friend, immature writers have one without the other.

Preparation for writing mattered most: according to Tolstoy, one had to sift through 1,000 thoughts before recording a valid one. “Just as in speech the spoken word is silver and the unspoken one gold, so in writing––I would say that the written word is tin, and the unwritten one gold…” Many authors, who approached him, lacked this vital ability to restrain their thoughts and do the necessary work, which precedes writing.

In style Tolstoy valued clarity, and to achieve it, he endlessly revised his own prose. “Don’t spare your labour,” he advised an author in 1890, “write as it comes, at length, and then revise it, and above all shorten it. In the business of writing, gold is only obtained, in my experience, by sifting.”

He wrote nonfiction, he said, to clarify his own thoughts. There were “two kinds of writing.” The first and most demanding, came from the writer’s need achieve “the greatest possible clarity” of expression. Such a writer would work assiduously and reject everything that obscures his idea. But there was also writing driven by ambition and the need to impress. It served “to obscure and confuse the truth for oneself and others.” This second type was prevalent and filled newspapers and magazines. As Tolstoy remarked, “I hate it with all my soul.”

In this blog I relied on R.F. Christian’s translation of Tolstoy’s Letters.

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