Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?

John Steinbeck Photo,A.k. Andrew,,A Writers Notebook

John Steinbeck 1962


This week marks the 75th anniversary of the the film release of Grapes of Wrath so I thought it was appropriate to re-purpose this post. If you want to start writing like Steinbeck, then take a look at some of the things he found important and include them in your writing.
 “Learn from the best”

John Steinbeck’s writing methodology was stringent and meticulous. When writer’s you love talk about how they write, it’s hard not listen.

Steinbeck really wanted Grapes of Wrath to be good  – exposing the exploitation of people in 1930’s Southern California, was a story he thought needed telling. I re-read the novel a while ago, and the style blew me away.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a book with such valuable social commentary that’s also just a damn good story. Part of its success lies in the fact that we live, eat and sleep with the Joad family. Everything is personal, so we care about what happens to the characters, and it allows us to see the injustice very clearly, without the point being hammered home. Steinbeck simply tells a story.

Below is part of John Steinbeck’s interview in the Paris Review*

(Please note: Steinbeck died in 1968. A lot of the quotes were compiled in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters and published in October 1975 by Viking. Hence the Paris Review article was not until 1975.)

The comments in italics are mine.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
 1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.

Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

This is the most important one & can’t be said too often. One page at a time.

 2. Write freely

…and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

 Don’t worry about anyone looking over your shoulder. Just get the work written. Good tip for all of us procrastinators.

 3. Forget your generalized audience.

In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

I’ve heard this before, and I think it’s an excellent way to keep yourself on track. You can’t write for everyone. So write for one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you

…and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

Rewriting – its all there is. But don’t be afraid to write non-sequentially. Sometimes one just isn’t in the mood to write about a dramatic moment, so switch gears and go to a section you do want to write today.

 5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you,

…dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

Tough to give them up isn’t it?

 6. If you are using dialogue

…say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Excellent tip. If you read it out loud it will sound strained immediately if it’s not working.

On my writers resources page I refer to his book Working Days, which is the diary he kept while he was writing Grapes of Wrath. (He wrote his first draft in 6 months BTW!). It’s a great book for writers if only to show how persistent one has to be to make the end product worthwhile.

Signature of John Steinbeck,a.k. andrew, a writer's notebook

Signature of John Steinbeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are these methods  you can work with? Do you have different ways of attacking the same problems?


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Many Thanks!


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*Paris Review has rich resource material in their decades of interviews of famous people, writers included.

I first saw part of this particular interview in one of my favorite blogs


  1. Tip #5 is the tough one for me.

    “Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest…”

    I sometimes fall in love with my own words. They are like little children, and mommy hates to favor one over another. I love them all equally. And so I breed them like rabbits in dark corners until they overflow off the pages and onto the floor, piling up until I am drowning in them.

    And you are right — it’s tough to give them up. Especially if you have worked hard on them……

    How do you do it? How do you take your hard work and brilliant thoughts and banish them with a single push of the “delete” button? Do you not hear their cries in the night? And after you have published, do you still hear the lambs, Clarice?

    Kay in Hawaii

    • You’ve got that right Kay – it’s tough. But if it really is a great piece, then I save it in another document. You never know when the essence of it might be changed and used in another work. Thanks for your comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Like SteinbeckMy Profile

  2. These are great tips. I especially like #6. I already do #3 when writing my essays (I have not yet worked myself into fiction yet but it’s a goal). John Steinbeck seems so human, so ordinary in this interview. I will definitely reread The Grapes of Wrath.
    Carol Apple recently posted..Palm Sunday – A song and a memoryMy Profile

  3. I learnt #2 the hard way, writing the first half where I checked and edited as I went and then after reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ wrote the rest without rereading or correcting. My first reader told me something happened at page 90, it just kind of took off – so that was a lesson in how to create pace and also not to prejudge the outcome if you don’t think too much – let the subconscious get to work. Thanks for sharing, great tips.
    Claire ‘Word by Word’ recently posted..Eden’s GardenMy Profile

    • Hi Claire – well that’s really interesting there was such a marked difference for you. The proof was certainly there in that pudding! I’ve read ‘On Writing ‘ also, and I think he makes a lot of good points. At the moment I’m doing a little of both, which is working. Sometimes , if I don’t have a lot of time, then a bit of editing will keep me in touch with the work, and makes it easier to go back into the work , when time comes available. I say go for whatever works for you. Thank you for your comment.
      akandrewwriter recently posted..Writing Like SteinbeckMy Profile

  4. Hi A.K.:
    I think #1 was the key for me, when I began writing books. I had trouble transitioning from being an article writer with a short attention span, to being a book author who had to research a subject for extended periods of time (as is the case with my chocolate book, which has taken me 2.5 years to get to the point where I can now sit down and write it.)

    As I mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts, the way I tackled that subject was to break my writing down into sizeable bites. As I write non-fiction, that means breaking it into chapters. Writing a chapter is much easier than writing a book. So when I was working on my last project, I just wrote one chapter at a time and considered that to be a major achievement.

    We’ve all got to find the right formula and tricks of the trade that will work for us.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..the different stages of a creative writing projectMy Profile

    • Hi Doreen -Nice to see you here again! It’s really interesting that you found #1 the main issue after being a journalist. It makes complete sense, but was one aspect of writing I hadn’t thought of in those terms. I certainly found the same in moving from short story to novel writing. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott really addresses this issue well.
      As you say we each have to work out our own formula, which for me also has to be fairly organic. Thanks so much for the comment. Looking forward to reading your post on the different stages of a creative writing project.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Like SteinbeckMy Profile

  5. I was putting off my blog writing. Procrastinating is easy…Easier than doing stuff. So, I put mental note to make at least one blog entry a week. Recently I started taking a piece of blank paper with me. Whenever I get free uninterrupted time, I will write…Just let the words flow…It makes me writing. It is not for anyone just for me. Sometimes, it will give me an idea or two to make a blog entry.
    I know my writing style is not that engaging like you, Andrew. I read and learn from your blog. Thank you for writing and sharing.
    Also, I am going to get the book,Working Days,
    Rewriting is the hard thing for me….
    Bindhurani recently posted..Apple and Oats crunch with craisinsMy Profile

    • Hi Bindhurani -thanks so much for your comment. I think we all have a different writing style, and each one appeals to different people. So don’t sell yourself short by saying your writing style is not engaging. It isn’t true, and I think we are all learning how to improve all the time.
      Procrastination is a big one for me too. Then when I get to the work I can’t understand why I put it off as I enjoy it so much. I think procrastination also has to do with fear of failure, which needs a separate blog to really discuss.
      You’re doing all the right things – I think having a notebook or piece of paper with you all the time to jot down ideas or actual prose, as it comes to you is fantastic. As you say , the important thing is just to write!
      Good to see you.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Like SteinbeckMy Profile

  6. It is very easy to marry ourselves to our own words. We think we reach out and look for other inspiration but in truth we are only trying to validate our own voice. To break out of that I find a subject I am not as familiar with that will require some research and thought. It forces me to put a different perceptive on what I am communicating.

    I also like #6. I find that when I say it out load or read it out load it changes everything for me and I often change and edit what I had originally created.

    Love the post. 🙂
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Judge A Book By Its Cover?My Profile

    • Great comment Susan. I hate to admit it, but you’re right. Getting outside our comfort zone can certainly prompt a fresh viewpoint, and I completely agree about writing something that requires research. It opens your mind to both style and content. Unless it’s integral to the plot it’s easy to avoid, but then when you take the time, you’ve gained a whole bunch of information you wouldn’t otherwise have given yourself access to.
      Speaking dialogue out loud is really the only way to go.
      Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you here again.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Writing Like SteinbeckMy Profile

  7. Steinbeck died in 1968…but the interview is from 1975?

  8. I can see these applying to the indie book writer. But if you are blessed to have a publisher, #1 is almost irrelevant: there is a due date.

    While I write business non-fiction, the rest of Steinbeck’s point are spot on. Now to make them a HABIT as no doubt, he practiced what he teaches here. Thanks A.K.
    Patricia Weber recently posted..Pet Peeves Are as Bad as You ThinkMy Profile

    • I know what you mean about No. 1 Pat, but I think he was referring to the overwhelming thought of 400 pages, and breaking it down to one page at a time. Any other way & you’ll never finish. He was def. the maestro of habit , at least in terms of writing Grapes of Wrath. And on top of writing the novel , he also wrote an in depth journal about his process. Talk about a workaholic. Mind you he had a wife who seemed to do everything for him including typing up the manuscript!! That said, I feel I have a lot to learn from him.Thanks so much for the comment Pat.
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  9. I have the hardest time with writing freely, especially if I’ve been away from the work for awhile! I can resist the urge to editing as I go along. Also have that problem with falling in love with a certain section and not wanting to chop it when necessary. Oh dear, that can be so painful.

    • Oh you’re so right Jan! I’ve become much better of letting go of my darlings, but it’s not easy. And it really is hard to get back into the work if you’ve been away from it for a while. I try and keep in touch with my work even if it’s just to edit a sentence, and it keeps it at the forefront of my mind. perhaps doing a freewrite on something other than your novel might help you limber up. Thanks so much for stopping by , and good luck with your work:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  10. Hi, A. K.,
    Number 3 spoke to me. I do have a generalized audience in mind, but I need something to make that audience crystal-clear. Steinbeck’s idea of identifying one person who would be interested in my book. That means I am listening to my work with that one person’s ears, instead of becoming victim to a general censor that can wreak havoc with what I am trying to do!
    My best,

    • For a long time I wasn’t sure about who I had in mind for number 3, but I do feel more secure in who I have in mind. It made it easier when it became someone I knew , rather than a made up ‘ideal demographic ‘ . Often with writing , I think personal is better, and as you say help to stop you wrestling with those inner negative thoughts that mess up what we’re trying to do. Thanks so much for your comment:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  11. One of my favorite posts; love the suggestions on writing and re-writing. Number two is one I should work on as I tend to edit and re-write as I go along which I can see probably interferes with flow. Will change it up and see how it works for me.
    Tim recently posted..No Butcher or Candlestick MakerMy Profile

  12. I do love reading Steinbeck. Maybe I should watch the movie. Ah, the benefits of deciding I want to be a reader instead of a writer. (But you if were writing about art or photography, I might have to get cracking).
    Leora recently posted..Website Redesign: New Look for LeoraW dot comMy Profile

    • actually Grapes of Wrath is one of the few movies that I’ve felt was both faithful to the book and neither did it spoil it. But then I felt that about East of Eden. Maybe it’s Steinbeck’s style that makes for a good movie. I can totally see you writing about art and photography Leora – you already are really. Maybe more in depth in the future.
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

    • Actually Grapes of Wrath is one of the few movies that I’ve felt was both faithful to the book and neither did it spoil it. But then I felt that about East of Eden. Maybe it’s Steinbeck’s style that makes for a good movie. I can totally see you writing about art and photography Leora – you already are really. Maybe more in depth in the future. Thanks for stopping by as always:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  13. Obviously I’m not the only one challenged to revisit John Steinbeck’s works – not only this one, but others as well. So happy they’re waiting patiently for me on my copious bookshelves. Isn’t it fabulous that his suggestions never lose their value?
    Now to remind self of them and put them to work even stronger than before. Thanks AK.

  14. #2 will be the death of me!!

  15. This is terrific. I love all of his suggestions. I thought the comment about “forget your general audience” is especially important at this time. There are so many different types of publishers who think that the key to success is in the data. Data that tells you what the audience wants so you can write to that requirement. Steinbeck would have taken a printout of this data, crumbled it in his hands, and tossed it in the wastebasket.
    Ken Dowell recently posted..Americans Discover Vacation: The Cigar Store Indian SyndromeMy Profile

    • Thanks Ken for such an insightful comment. And I completely agree that Steinbeck would have readily tossed his data printout into the wastebasket. I think if we don’t write for ourselves, we’re in danger of not being true to our own work . Which doesn’t mean to say that you can’t deliberately steer your work in a particular direction of your choosing. I think the word choosing is the key part of that. Good to see you here:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  16. First of all, The Grapes of Wrath is such a timeless piece, as you say. And I loved reading all of his writing wisdom. I learned a long time ago, that reading everything out loud is my most valuable tool. Particularly when it comes to dialogue!
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  17. Sincerely hope that one day I will be able to write like Steinbeck. That’s most likely wishful thinking. Like the advice you give and when I get down to writing books I will take them into account.
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  18. Wow… These are really great tips! I guess I missed this the first time. The nice thing about these is that anyone can use them, even non-fiction writers.
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  19. Hi AK, Grapes of Wrath is one of my Favorite books and Steinbeck and incredible writer. Who wouldn’t want to write like him? :). His tips from the interview are fantastic and some I wouldn’t have thought of…like writing out of sequence. Interesting. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  20. Great tips. I like the idea of forgetting about the generalized audience, he’s right, it doesscare you to death. 🙂 Like Bindhurani, I realized I needed to be able to write when ideas occurred, so I started carrying the ability to write at anytime. I bought myself a book of blank pages to fill when when inspiration struck.
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  21. Good tips, I am writing a novel and I practice better writing on my blog with flash fiction. Baby steps is indeed best and finding a mentor who does not bite your head off but allows you to learn along the way.
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  22. All the tips and suggestions are very nice. They can help many to learn a lot. I am learning a lot with every passing day. This is good idea to write everyday … baby steps can help us learn and move firmly towards our goal.

    Thank you for letting me know about a great man.
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  23. Inspiring and I especially relate to point #3 which for me holds equally true when I am speaking to an audience. As a classic Introvert public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me so when I first found myself in a job that required it on a regular basis I purposely spent the first couple of minutes in light banter and that gave me the time to scan the audience and pick out someone – just one person – who smiled back at me. Once I had that connection even when I wasn’t looking at that person, in my mind I was speaking just to them. I use the same method when I write – makes all the difference. Great read – thanks!
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  24. Great advice from a great Author. Steinbach is one of my favorites, not only because of how he wrote, but what he wrote about. He had the ability to look at the struggle of common people, and make them more than common.

    • I’ll second that William. His message , particularly in Grapes of Wrath, was very powerful. But his other books are really strong too, and he was definitely a shining light in literature for being able to write about the struggles of the day without it coming across as a political tract, or beating his audience over the head. Not an easy task in and of itself. Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  25. Great tips, A. K.

    Shared on Twitter!
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted..My #bookreview of Melissa Bowersock’s BURNING THROUGH (#paranormal #books)My Profile

  26. Those are great tips! Love tip #1 forgetting that you’re ever going to end and writing one page a day. A big project seems impossible until you break it down into very small projects or tasks.
    Steve GuyFoodGuru recently posted..Sausage Cream Cheese DipMy Profile

    • I completely agree Steve. It really does need to be broken down, not only to stop it being overwhelming, but to focus on each section fully as it comes up. But it’s a good way of thinking about it. I also like Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, which has this as it’s central premise.Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  27. A.K. — great tips from a great writer. One thing I try to avoid is editing myself while writing. That really slows me down and interrupts the flow. It’s more important to do a “brain dump” and just get your ideas down on paper. If you torture yourself over every word writing will become a chore instead of a means of self-expression.
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    • I completely agree Jeanette, though I have to say that after a writing session I often go back and at least do a spell check otherwise I find it overwhelming at the end of the project. I’ve got much better at being able to let go and as you say do a brain dump! Love that expression. Thanks so much for your comment:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  28. I like the thought of writing for a single person. I tend to do that most of the time as I am first writing for my own enjoyment.
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    • I struggled with that one when someone suggested that too me a while ago as I had been thing of my work as going to a generalised audience. But now I do have a specific person in mind, and that helps me focus. I too write for my own enjoyment, but beyond that if you are putting your work out there you presumably also have in mind who your readers might be. I like that you keep your work true to yourself. It def. shows. Thanks for the comment.
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?My Profile

  29. It’s so easy to fall in love with our own words. I’ve known that since I was in elementary school and wrote about snow falling “like a queen descending from her castle in the sky!” Now I find a trusted person to point out my silliness! Nice post.
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  30. Fabulous article and insight. I would love to reblog this. 🙂

  31. Hi A.K. I just wanted to let you know I reblogged this wonderful article. You can see it here 🙂

  32. The tip to write just one page a day makes it seem less overwhelming and is one that will help me for future books. Thanks for sharing the wisdom of Steinbeck with your own interpretations too, A.K!