Writers on writing: Joan Didion


Joan Didion’s style of journalism redefined how journalistic works should be written. She gave what was traditionally a dry style a literary quality that would pioneer a new genre – Literary Nonfiction. We’ve compiled a list of our favourite quotes about writing by Didion and what we can learn from them. 

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”

Joan Didion: Essays & Conversations

First and foremost is the importance of good grammar. Knowing the rules and conventions of grammar allows one to use it creatively. Once you know how to expertly use language grammatically, so much so that you don’t even need to think about the structures behind it, you can use it rhetorically.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The White Album

Secondly comes the ‘why’ of writing. Didion writes for herself – she cannot write thinking of an audience. There are advantages and disadvantages to writing for an audience – sometimes it is the most appropriate approach, and then you can adjust your tone and sentiment accordingly. If you’re writing a personal essay, however, you need to write firstly for yourself before anybody else. How do you subjectively make sense of the world? This will inform how you build a sense of your inner world for other people to enjoy your perspective. 

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

This quote is a testament to how many things can be worked out by putting words on a page. A lot of Didion’s style depends on her personal experiences. If we’re to take inspiration from Didion, one of the most impactful things we can do for our own writing is to build a good journaling habit. Needless to say, this is also enormously beneficial for your mental health. Didion mentions desires and fears. Try to write about these when you encounter problems so you can discover your own underlying anxieties and motivations. This is good practice for character development. 

“Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.”

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion is a prime example of someone who is a great writer because of being a voracious reader. Many successful writers share the same trait. If you’re stuck on how to improve your writing, look to your greatest inspirations – read more of their work. If you already know their bibliography inside out, find out who inspired them and read their work. Always be feeding your curiosity and informing your style and outlook. 

“What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

This is an interesting perspective on writing and food for thought for us to leave you with. Of course, everybody has different ways of writing. Some people start in media res and some people even begin by writing the end of the story and writing the events leading up to it. But, if you write chronologically, it’s important to be mindful of that first sentence you set down. Most successful stories have what is called a ‘hammer drop’. Is your beginning impactful enough? Your hammer drop lays down the lines for the rest of your story to rest on. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask yourself what would make them read on and give them that feeling of “this is going to be good”.