46 Shirley Jackson Quotes on Writing

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

It could be argued that every word Shirley Jackson wrote is perfection.

Certainly her novels and short stories, along with her fictionalized memoirs, are a master class in the craft of writing. But what writing advice would Shirley Jackson herself have given?

She lived only 48 years and was a fairly private person. What we know of her comes largely from other people—her children, her biographers. But there are a few sources for her own words, and I have mined them for the quotes presented below in which she advises, observes, and is generally Shirley. Even if she is has questionable opinions about garlic.

46 Shirley Jackson Quotes on Writing

Shirley Jackson Quotes On Writing

“Notes for a Young Writer,” published in Come Along With Me

“In the country of the story the writer is king.”

“Remember, the reader is a very tough customer indeed, dragging his feet, easily irritated. He will willingly agree to suspend disbelief for a time: he will go along with you if it is necessary for your story that you both assume temporarily that there really is a Land of Oz, but he will not suspend reason, he will not agree, for any story ever written, that he can see the Land of Oz from his window.”

“Your end of the bargain is to play fair, and keep him interested, his end of the bargain is to keep reading.”

“You have the right to assume that the reader will accept the story on your own terms.”

“Always, always, make the duller parts of your story work for you; the necessary passage of time, the necessary movement must not stop the story dead, but must move it forward.”

“As much as possible free yourself from useless and clumsy statements about action.”

“Try to remember with description that you must never just let it lie there; nothing in your story should ever be static unless you have a very good reason indeed for keeping your reader still; the essence of the story is motion.”

“Conversation is clearly one of the most difficult parts of the story.”

“A bore is a bore, on the page or off it.”

“Listen always to people talking. Listen to patterns of talking. Listen to patterns of thinking displayed in talking.”

“Your characters will make their remarks only once; people hear better in stories than in real life.”

“Use all your seasoning sparingly.”

“Use all the tools at your disposal. The language is infinitely flexible, and your use of it should be completely deliberate.”

“Remember, too, that words on a page have several dimensions: they are seen, they are partially heard, particularly if they seem to suggest a sound, and they have a kind of tangible quality—think of the depressing sight of a whole great paragraph ahead of you, solidly black with huge heavy-sounding words.”

“Exclamation points, italics, capitals, and, most particularly, dialect, should all be used with extreme caution. Consider them like garlic, and use them accordingly.”

“Do not try to puzzle your reader unnecessarily; a puzzled reader is an antagonistic reader.”

“The reader brings with him a great body of knowledge which you may assume, but he must rely on you for all information necessary to the understanding of this story which, after all, you have written.”

“If you want your reader to go faster and faster make your writing go faster and faster. If you want your reader to go slower and slower make your writing go slower and slower.”

“You will actually find that if you keep your story tight, with no swerving from the proper path, it will curl up quite naturally at the end, provided you stop when you have finished what you have to say.”

“All you need to do then is write it, paying attention, please, to grammar and punctuation.”


“Memory and Delusion,” published in Let Me Tell You

“The children around our house have a saying that everything is either true, not true, or one of Mother’s delusions.”

“The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were.”

“All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing.”

“Actually, if you’re a writer, the only good thing about adolescent children is that they’re so easily offended. You can drive one of them out of the room with any sort of simple word or phrase—such as ‘Why don’t you pick up your room?’—and get a little peace to write in.”

“All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories.”

“I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.”


“On Fans and Fan Mail,” published in Let Me Tell You

“I think that the popular notion of the writer as a person hiding away in a garret, unable to face reality, is probably perfectly true.”

“There is a certain type of letter that makes me wonder who is crazy these days—me or them.”

“Someday the English teachers of the world are going to be made to suffer for what they do to writers.”


“How I Write,” published in Let Me Tell You

“I find it very difficult to distinguish between life and fiction.”

“One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever gets wasted.”

“A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday.”

“I began writing stories about my children because, more than any other single being in the world, children possess and kind of magic that makes much of what they do so oddly logical and yet so incredible to grown-ups.”

“What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about.”

“Now, no one can get into writing a novel about a haunted house without hitting the subject of reality head-on; either I have to believe in ghosts, which I do, or I have to write another kind of novel altogether.”

“I am apt to find, in the laundry list, a scribble reading, ‘Shirley, don’t forget—no murder before chapter five.'”


“Garlic in Fiction,” published in Let Me Tell You

“Far and away the greatest menace to the writer—any writer, beginning or otherwise—is the reader.”

“Using any device that might possibly work, the writer has to snare the reader’s attention and keep it.”

“It is easy to be trapped in a story you are writing, and to suppose that the interest you feel yourself in the story is automatically communicated to the reader; this is terribly important to me, the writer tells himself, and therefore a reader will find it important too.”

“I want to call this ‘garlic in fiction’ because I cannot think of a more vivid way of describing the devices of fiction, the particular, frequently almost unnoticed tricks a writer can use to enormous advantage.”

“Adjective are always good, of course; no short story really ought to be without adjectives, particularly odd ones—such as ‘fulsome’—that the reader usually has to go and look up.”

“Just as a tune or a scent can evoke for most of us an entire scene, so the basic image of the character must evoke that entire character and his place in the story.”

“A story is, after all, made up only of words.”

“Many experiences in life are common to all of us, and a word or two is frequently enough to enrich a story with a wealth of recollection; take, for instance, the words ‘income tax.'”

“Garlic is a splendid thing, and one that is irreplaceable; yet there is no question that it is possible to use too much of it.”


“If you don’t like my peaches,” letter to a reader of “The Lottery”