10 Lessons on Writing from Jo March and Louisa May Alcott

If I could Write a letter to Jo March I would thank her for the lessons in writing she taught me.

If I could Write a letter to Jo March I would thank her for the lessons in writing she taught me.

I learned many useful lessons on the writing life from my dear friend and real Victorian girl Jo March and her creator Louisa May Alcott.  Here are a few of the lessons learned.

1–Writing is important, and should be done regularly, daily if possible. I met Jo in 5th grade. Her example, fictional though it was, made me realize that born writers need a writing routine. Jo had a time and a place that she wrote everyday.

“Jo was very busy up in the garret, for the October  days began to grow chilly, and the afternoons were short. For two or three hours the sun lay warmly in at the hight window, showing Jo seated on the old sofa writing busily, with her papers spread out upon a trunk before her.”

2–What sells isn’t always what you want to write or what you should write. Well I think Jo did enjoy writing her shocking thrillers and they did pay for Beth’s coat and her little luxuries but they were never going to make her famous. Louisa too made a steady income with “cheap” serialized thrillers but in the end as Professor Bhaer helps her see they left her empty. It wasn’t until she wrote  something completely different that she made a place for herself in history. Some moderns think Louisa’s famous novels are preachy and insincere. I never found them to be so. I prefer to think that she meant what she said and really believed each of us has the power to influence the world for good. 

3–Writing pays but not much, having a day job really helps. Jo worked both as Aunt March’s companion and later as a governess and ran a boarding school while continuing to write. Louisa taught, worked as a nurse and did a variety of odd jobs in addition to her writing until eventually she made enough to be the main support of her family. No one gets famous straight away and if you do get famous it doesn’t mean you are rich.

4–When you have the urge to write nothing else will substitute for it; not nursing, not child care or teaching, or acting or home duties will take away that desire so quit beating around the bush, sit down and write.

5–Writing needs to be edited. Jo went over and over her writing making changes, she labored over it. It did not come out fully formed ready to be published. A fact that still surprises non-writers.

6–Fans are likely to be disappointed when they meet you. I love it in Jo’s Boys when some eager fans come to call and she tries to get away with playing the housemaid. Alcott writes:

“The youngest aged twelve, could not conceal her disappointment and turned away feeling as so many of us have felt when we discover that our idols are very ordinary men and women.

“I thought she’d be about sixteen and have her hair braided in two tails down her back. I don’t care to see her now,” said the honest child walking off to the hall door.”

 Of course in the age of the internet our readers will be disillusioned early on.

7–Writers outwardly look perfectly ordinary, as the above quote attests to. (well maybe not all writers and not in Alcott’s day, her friend Henry David Thoreau always looked a little wild) That means wearing Oxfam clothes and whimsical scarves is not a prerequisite for looking authorly.

8–To get published you must submit your work. You submit your work by giving it to the editor of a publication. This is basic but vital information that is not covered in your school syllabus.

9–Editors may be harsh and make you want to give up ever writing ever again but that doesn’t mean you should.

10–Rejection and mixed reviews are all part of the writing process. This is a lesson repeated in Little Women (Good Wives) and Jo’s Boys. 

How about you, what did Jo March teach you?

PS. It doesn’t have to be about writing.