5 Tips from the Beats on how to Write Better

Guest post by Ardin Lalui, a writer inspired by Tom Waits and Cormac McCarthy.

While the beats have gained a reputation for spontaneous, free-flowing, unedited writing, the truth is that usually, good writing takes time and practice. The best beat writers were well aware of this. Here are 5 of their tips on how good writing happens:

1. Only write what you feel a passion for.

If your story or chapter isn’t grabbing you, it sure isn’t grabbing me.

As Bukowski says in So you want to be a writer?:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you

in spite of everything,

don’t do it.”

Photo: Wikipedia

2. Being passionate will make your writing better.

Related to the previous point but here for emphasis, if you feel deeply and powerfully about something, it will show through in your writing. Passion should make your writing better, and should make the writing process easier.

Kerouac, in Belief & Technique for Modern Prose:

“Something that

you feel will

find its own




3. Observe your subjects with honesty and openness.

Writing, like photography and painting and all art, is an exercise in observation. Be as honest as you can in what you see. Don’t piss on your reader and call it rain. Tell it like it is, like how you saw it.

Kerouac, in Belief & Technique for Modern Prose:

“Submissive to everything,



Photo: Tom Palumbo

4. Write what you know.

Classic writing advice, and the beats followed it too.

HS Thompson, in an Associated Press Interview in 2003:

“Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist, you have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it.”

Photo: MDCarchives

5. Everything, everything, is in the detail.

There are no shortcuts. Whether your writing a Haiku or a thousand-page epic, every word of every line counts. It might not be immediately apparent, but looking closer, it’s clear that Bukowski gave thought to every single line he ever published.

Bukowski, quoted in the


The secret is in the line.”

These quotes are good reminders that, as with all other writers, the writers we admire most worked hard at perfecting their craft. Knowing that they did makes me feel better about the time I put into my writing, and drives me to work harder at getting my writing where I want it to be.

David S. Wills

Posts Twitter Facebook

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

24 responses to 5 Tips from the Beats on how to Write Better

  1. Dude.. you left out the one that is most important..

    Hone your fucking craft!.

    HST is the example I know of this..

    Be lazy? fuck off…

    • I think that honing one’s craft is really part of following little rules like these.

      Yeah, HST was a ridiculous fiend for tight, deliberate prose back in the early days. He got sloppy from time to time, but he would never have made it to the top without honing his craft.

  2. i always find that if it doesn’t seem right, you should just add more parmesan cheese.

  3. This kind of goes along with the bit you posted last week…about the Beats producing a slew of bad imitators. All of the artists you quote above were craftsmen…pure and simple. Even “wild” free-flowing verse needs to be carefully crafted. I used to think all I had to do was put my thoughts, as they came to me, down on paper and voila: story. But my #1 criticism was that my shit was hard to read. Not every thought deserves to be in a final draft. Good writing is all about making difficult choices.

    • This is interesting in light of the discussion over at TNB. You mentioned your travel piece (which I would’ve guessed was well polished and the result of many hours of work) in fact just happened. Sometimes that’s the case, sometimes not.

      I think there is something to Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and HST’s Gonzo journalism… but I think they and their fans simplify it. The truth does come from the heart… but that’s not the end of it. It has to have a lot of brain power and effort put into it to become readable.

  4. This a good one, Wills. All very true.

  5. It’s reassuring to me. I think it takes some of the pressure off. It’s not that everything that appears on the page has to be genius. You’re allowed to work hard on it. Take time. Revise. That’s what the others are doing. I find that the writing I’ve spent time on is a truer reflection of what I feel than the more spontaneous stuff.

    • I think they need to merge. Kerouac wrote On the Road in a frantic writing session, but spent several years editing. Thompson wrote his Gonzo journalism and pretended it was all unedited, but evidence suggests that an incredible amount of effort went into editing it.

      The spontaneity, I think, is what gives the work genius. The editing is what makes it readable.

  6. Good post. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

  7. Great post! I love the tips but also the way you wrote it using the images, quotes, etc! I may even reblog it!

  8. Cristin mc intyre September 21, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Cristín – Well done Ardin! Very interesting. I’m at the editing stage and it does take a long time. Then I guess one day you know that you can do no more and you’re happy that it flows well. The part of throwing away long passages that aren’t working or aren’t necessary is hard and takes discipline! I constantly compare it to painting. I went to an art lesson once and I thought that my painting was pretty much finished and my art teacher said “OK, tonight we are going to work on her arm!” Yup, she did have a lovely arm two hours later! There is a way of making each sentence ‘sit down’ and be. That may mean just moving a word from the beginning of the sentence to the end.

  9. i usually write everything on paper and then edit when typing it out.
    i like the way the pen feels and sometimes it is just fun.
    adding bits while editing helps with detail because there is always something you forgot but can add then. sometimes it is the same day, some time it is much later.
    it seems like the most important thing is just to force yourself to write consistently. if it is not coming out right, then at least it is practice and that makes perfect.
    the main thing i like to edit is my verbs. it is too easy to get lazy with verbs and when i find a good one that fits, it feels so much better than i was, i would, i could, i should, etc….dig those verbs….not that i pay a lot of attention to verbs in blogs, though…

    • That’s a great way to do it. I’ve written my best stuff that way, but I’m usually too lazy/enthusiastic and just hammer it out on the laptop.
      Also, my handwriting is dire. It takes me a while to figure out what it was I wrote.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>