Writing Secrets from John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell,William Strunk, E.B. White and Philip Roth

John Updike's Secrets of Success Revealed After His Death

Until he died at 76 in 2009 John Updike led a very private life except for what he revealed about himself in his fifty-odd years of prolific writing--novels, poetry, essays, criticism. After his death, a meticulous archive of his life's work was left to Harvard's Houghton Library. The archive reveals much about Updike's life and his approach to writing. Included in the collection is his voluminous correspondence with his family, friends and editors. Updike's plan to be a writer began when he was in high school and continued as he worked on his first novel as a student at Harvard where rejections and criticism of his work by others didn't dampen his determination to write.

A small town public high school graduate competing with New England preppies, Updike was fearful of losing his scholarship and wrote home that he was "somewhat of a grind." He finished ninth in his class and graduated summa cum laude. The archive revealed that he continued to be a "grind" until his death in 2009. His work combined artistic intelligence and human understanding with meticulous research which provided authenticity to his work. For example, the archive contains pages from medical texts describing heart disease and surgery on which his clinically precise description of Rabbit Angstrom's angioplasty was based. He did similar research on car dealers for his passages about the family Toyota dealership in Rabbit Run and on basketball moves which enabled him to write convincingly about Rabbit's high school exploits on the basketball court.

The archive reveals disputes over Updike's publisher, Alfred Knopf's, urgings that he remove the explicit sex scenes from his first successful novel, "Rabbit Run." Updike correspondence showed how unhappy he was to be forced to tone down the sex scenes when Knopf refused to publish the book out of fear of legal censorship challenges. Not long after, obscenity standards were relaxed and the expurgated passages restored. Updike carefully pasted the restored portions into an early edition of the book which is now part of the Houghton Library collection.

Updike believed that a successful writer should pay close attention to his own time and place and not become infatuated with European modernist writers like Proust and Joyce, writing to his parents when he was only 19--

"This age needs rather men like Shakespeare or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic...Whatever the failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born."

Updike followed this early observation in his most successful novels which dealt with the life and times of Rabbit Angstrom whose life peaked as a star high school basketball player and was mostly downhill thereafter.

Materials in the archive belie Updike's reputation as a naturally fluent writer whose success came early and easily. They show that his work was scorned by Archibald MacLeish and other Harvard professors and the early rejections he received from The Atlantic and Harper's as well as his early successes at The Harvard Lampoon and The New Yorker. Updike meticulously retained and documented his many drafts and revisions which preceded the publication of his wititng and which produced the finished work which was so popular and critically acclaimed.

Updike's advice to aspiring writers may be summed up as follows: don't be discouraged by early rejections; write honestly about your time and place; include carefully detailed and researched descriptions; revise, rewrite and revise again until you have perfectly achieved your objective.

[I am indebted to the article linked below by Sam Tannenhaus in the NY Times, June 20, 2010. The article is interesting and worth reading in its entirety.]

Some Hemingway Secrets

The second volume of Hemingway's letters contains some thoughts in which he predicted his success. In a letter to his publisher, Horace Liveright he said he thought his work "had a good chance for success...because it would be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows. There is no writing in it that anybody with a high school education cannot read," His vocabulary remained simple, and though his sentences were often long they were usually compound rather than complex. One declarative clause followed another and another, strung together by the word that was both the Bible's favorite and his own. And it was a style as clear as water, but down near the bottom of the pool there was something unnamed at work, elusive and darting and deepening his every page..." [Michael Gorra in the NYTimes Book Review, Nov. 24, 2013.]

College writing instructors use Hemingway short stories as examples of excellent writing. One that I recall is "A Clean Well-Lighted Place."

"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White may be the best ever little book on writing. Here's a sample:

"On the impossibility of separating style from sense:

"Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity. It is non-detachable, unfilterable...The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

And "Use definite, concrete language...For example "it rained every day for a week" is better than "A period of unfavorable weather set in." Or, "He grinned as he pocketed the coin" is preferable to "He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward."

"If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.The greatest writers--Homer Dante Shakespeare--are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures..."

Hemingway during the 1930s
Hemingway during the 1930s | Source
E.B. White
E.B. White
William Strunk, Jr.
William Strunk, Jr. | Source
George Orwell
George Orwell

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Comments 39 comments

Ginn Navarre profile image

Ginn Navarre 6 years ago

Enjoyed this, for those that can not learn from criticism an or rejection will not succeed as a writer. This man learned this and therefore became as we all know a great writer.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment. Updike is one of my favorites.

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 6 years ago

Very interesting article ralph. I agree with Updike's view of rejection. Gone With the Wind was rejected a million times. Pity the people that turned it down.

Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

I enjoyed your article. I learned a few things I didn't know about him before.

msorensson profile image

msorensson 6 years ago

I loved the Rabbit series :-)

Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 6 years ago from Los Angeles

This is a great article Ralph and perfect for a community of writers interested to learn the road to success from the very best. Thank you, Sir

cajunrooster profile image

cajunrooster 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas

Hey Mr. Ralph, this was a great hub as usual. I am coming to the writing life kind of late, but I read as much as I can by great writers and about great writers. I am fine with the rejection part of the deal. From every rejection I get I learn and it usually teaches me a good lesson. Also, I am friendly with editors and such and they usually help me out with great advice and such. Thanks for the great hub.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago Author

Thanks, all for your kind comments.

FCEtier profile image

FCEtier 6 years ago from Cold Mountain

I need to read more of his work. Nice article Ralph!

HubCrafter profile image

HubCrafter 6 years ago from Arizona

"revise, rewrite and revise again"...great advice from a wonderfully creative author.

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chasingcars 6 years ago

The only losers are those who don't get back up when they are knocked down. It's wonderful to read the thoughts of good writers and researchers like yourself. Thanks, Ralph.

George Nagle 6 years ago

Thank you, Ralph, for this.

I know of no writer who is more perceptive and accurate in describing our times than Updike. He is often disquieting. He brings to my attention parts of our world that through ignorance or denial I pretend aren't there. This, of course, can enlarge my vision.

KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

John Updike has always been one of my favorite authors. Nice work.

Lamme profile image

Lamme 6 years ago

A writer puts himself in the line of fire. He/she needs to learn and grow from criticism ... or ignore it, but never hide from it.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago Author

Very true. I remember writing for my high school newspaper which was overseen by an excellent teacher who took it upon herself to very carefully edit everything we wrote. Her re-writes of my early articles were painful, but I came to recognize that they were not arbitrary but rather were significant improvements. I learned a lot in two years of being edited by an outstanding teacher and writer who insisted that our articles be near-perfect before the paper went to press.

websclubs profile image

websclubs 6 years ago

Successful Freelance writer should pay close attention to his own time- I agree with advice given... Nice article useful information. Thanks

wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

Good Day Ralp Deeds

I voted this hub up for useful. This was a well structured, intelligent, passionate tribute to a great writer who died too early. I was most impressed by his view of what makes a great writer, which at first seems somewhat counterintuitive: be thoroughly imbued of your own time and place. Do not try to be 'transcendent' (in a way that signals bad writing). You may find that you can achieve transcendence by being firmly where you are!

Well done!

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago Author

Thanks for you kind comment. I've been an Updike fan since "Rabbit Run."

Fareehaarif profile image

Fareehaarif 6 years ago

Thanks a lot Sir for this great article and these useful information for writers also for me.

Thanks again Sir.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment. Good luck with your writing!

N.E. Wright profile image

N.E. Wright 5 years ago from Bronx, NY

Hello Ralph,

This was a great, and extremely informative read.

I truly enjoyed it.

I thank you so much for sharing this.

I will share this on my Face-Book page, and with my other followers.

Take Care,


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago Author

Thank the late John Updike.

N.E. Wright profile image

N.E. Wright 5 years ago from Bronx, NY

You are correct sir.

Still, I thank you for sharing this information I did not know before reading this article of yours.

Take Care,


Forrest Greenwood 5 years ago

Don't give up and revise revise seem at oposite ends of the candle. Updike - one of the very best prose stylists - ultimately didn't have much meat on the bone. I doubt, for instance, he would ever piss off his porch at the headlights of unwanted cars as Faulkner reportedly did. But . . . he was special.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago Author

Forrest, thanks for your perceptive comment.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago Author

How Updike Judged--"Higher Gossip"

"Higher Gossip" John Updike

It is the fate of some writers to be accused of writing too well. In one form or another, the charge has been lodged against authors as different as Vladimir Nabokov (too clever), Richard Wilbur (too elegant) and Garry Wills (too authoritative). But among major American literary figures of recent times, John Updike is the one about whom the complaint (too fluent, too lavish, too prolific) is most common.


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

Thanks for insights into John Updike, and latest offerings to come out of his archives. Seems the work of a writer is never done. Regards, snakeslane

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment. I read Updike's first novel when it was publicshed, and I've been a fan ever since.

Wizard Of Whimsy profile image

Wizard Of Whimsy 5 years ago from The Sapphire City

You have a generous nature, Ralph Deeds—thanks!

Wizard Of Whimsy profile image

Wizard Of Whimsy 5 years ago from The Sapphire City

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” - Dorothy Parker

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago Author

That's good advice. I have a copy and I've given each of my kids copies. It's the writer's Bible. The original style book of the Kansas City Star where Hemingway worked as a reporter is also a good source.

marwan asmar profile image

marwan asmar 4 years ago from Amman, Jordan

Very nice piece Ralph. I've always heard of Updike, now is the time to read him!

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 3 years ago Author

4-28-13 William Zinsser Blind Writing Coach

William Zinsser, Author of ‘On Writing Well,’ at His Work - NYTimes.com

William Zinsser, the 90-year-old author of “On Writing Well,” can no longer see. So now he coaches writers by listening to their prose.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 3 years ago Author

11-24-13NYTimes Book Review "Before the Sun Rose" Hemingway Letters, Vol. 2

‘Letters of Ernest Hemingway - Volume 2 - 1923-1925’ - NYTimes.com

"...his work, he thought, would “be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows. There is no writing in it that anybody with a high school education cannot read....”

barranca profile image

barranca 3 years ago

I heard him speak about a year or two before he died. He was a guest lecturer at the Kingswood/Oxford school in West Hartford, CT. He read from one of his stories and answered questions about writing. I remember him as eminently urbane and bemused by life.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 3 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment. I read Updike's first book and several after that. Another great writer recommended by my writing teachers was George Orwell. One essay that I recall was his "Shooting an Elephant." "Animal Farm" was his most famous book.

barranca profile image

barranca 3 years ago

I teach "Shooting an Elephant" every year. Another good one to read by Orwell is "Marrakech".

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 2 years ago Author

3-15-13NYTimesBookReview "My Life as a Writer" Interview with Philip Roth

Log In - The New York Times

The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.

acmalkutakh profile image

acmalkutakh 2 years ago from US

Do you wonder what these writers may have been like, if the Internet had been in existence? I do! I suppose Updike would still be at the grind only it would be online, with lots of published works deleted, edited, rewritten... for our edification.

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