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Classic writing advice from Anton Chekhov

As much as writing is a solitary pursuit, most writers improve their craft by brainstorming ideas and learning the perspectives of other authors, editors, and mentors.

One of my favorite writers, Anton Chekhov, frequently corresponded with other writers to offer guidance and inspiration.

Here are a few pieces of encouragement and advice Chekhov wrote in letters to Russian writer Maxim Gorky in the late 1800s.

“You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story “In the Steppe,” it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic—that is, when you describe a thing, you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art.

There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.

Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?

I will begin by saying that to my mind you have not enough restraint. You are like a spectator at the theatre who expresses his transports with so little restraint that he prevents himself and other people from listening. This lack of restraint is particularly felt in the descriptions of nature with which you interrupt your dialogues; when one reads those descriptions one wishes they were more compact, shorter, put into two or three lines.”

Author Eudora Welty once said, “Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.”

When I’m looking for inspiration, I often to turn to Chekhov, often called, “the father of the modern short story,” not only for the literature he wrote but for the advice he gave.

To learn more about critiques and tips for offering valuable advice, read this post by Carol Despeaux.

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