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Personal Growth

25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer

We round up 25 nuggets of writing wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Augusten Burroughs, Geoff Dyer, Steven Pressfield, and more.


When George Plimpton asked Ernest Hemingway what the best training for an aspiring writer would be in a 1954 interview, Hem replied, “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

Today, writing well is more important than ever. Far from being the province of a select few as it was in Hemingway’s day, writing is a daily occupation for all of us — in email, on blogs, and through social media. It is also a primary means for documenting, communicating, and refining our ideas. As essayist, programmer, and investor Paul Graham has written, “Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.” So what can we do to improve our writing short of hanging ourselves? Below, find 25 snippets of insight from some exceptional authors. While they are all focused on the craft of writing, most of these tips pertain to pushing forward creative projects of any kind.

1. PD James: On just sitting down and doing it…

Don’t just plan to write—write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

2. Steven Pressfield: On starting before you’re ready…

[The] Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare. The answer: plunge in.

3. Esther Freud: On finding your routine…

Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.

4. Zadie Smith: On unplugging…

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.

5. Kurt Vonnegut: On finding a subject…

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

6. Maryn McKenna: On keeping your thoughts organized…

Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has.  At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck.

7. Bill Wasik: On the importance of having an outline…

Hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagine ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.

8. Joshua Wolf Shenk: On getting through that first draft…

Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of “Lincoln’s Melancholy” I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.

9. Sarah Waters: On being disciplined…

Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

10. Jennifer Egan: On being willing to write badly…

[Be] willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen… When I was writing “The Keep,” my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”

11. AL Kennedy: On fear…

Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.

12. Will Self: On not looking back…

Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in… The edit.

13. Haruki Murakami: On building up your ability to concentrate…

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

14. Geoff Dyer: On the power of multiple projects…

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

15. Augusten Burroughs: On who to hang out with…

Don’t hang around with people who are negative and who are not supportive of your writing. Make friends with writers so that you have a community. Hopefully, your community of writer friends will be good and they’ll give you good feedback and good criticism on your writing but really the best way to be a writer is to be a writer.

16. Neil Gaiman: On feedback…

When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

17. Margaret Atwood: On second readers…

You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

18. Richard Ford: On others’ fame and success…

Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.

19. Helen Dunmore: On when to stop…

Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

20. Hilary Mantel: On getting stuck…

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

21. Annie Dillard: On things getting out of control…

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight… it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’

22. Cory Doctorow: On writing when the going gets tough…

Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

23. Chinua Achebe: On doing all that you can…

I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it. Just think of the work you’ve set yourself to do, and do it as well as you can. Once you have really done all you can, then you can show it to people. But I find this is increasingly not the case with the younger people. They do a first draft and want somebody to finish it off for them with good advice. So I just maneuver myself out of this. I say, Keep at it. I grew up recognizing that there was nobody to give me any advice and that you do your best and if it’s not good enough, someday you will come to terms with that.

24. Joyce Carol Oates: On persevering…

I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes… and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.

25. Anne Enright: On why none of this advice really matters…

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.

How About You? What great writing tips have helped you change your ways?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (247)
  • Joseph Fusco

    The only thing that has ever helped me is anything Steven Pressfield says.

  • John Carroll

    The best season of shooting in the NBA was by Wilt Chamberlain in the 1972-73 season. He shot 72.7% from the field. 

    He was the best that year and that stands as a record for any year ever. Yet he still missed 160 shots that season. 

    Most professional NBA players shoot less than 50% from the field. 

    I view writing as a percentage game. Keep writing words and hopefully, with practice, 50% percent of my attempts will go in!

  • blm

    This is a great list. Sadly, alot of “advice” I have read elsewhere from writers is glib at best. Not this list.This compilation is filled with practical advice. Highly recommended.

  • jkglei

    Thanks, Bernie! I do try to separate the wheat from the chaff. ; )

  • jkglei

    Nice. I always love a sports metaphor. If you’re interested in increasing your percentage, I would highly recommend this book on Knicks star Bill Bradley, which gives an inside look at his incredible work ethic: http://www.amazon.com/Sense-Wh

  • Scott3356

    Write until your hand falls off,then switch hands and keep writing.

  • Karenselliott

    I especially like Freud’s. And I’m much happier after writing a great story – or editing a story – than I would be if I had cleaned the kitchen!

  • Jonas

    i bring everywhere i am an “agenda/booknotes”, i case something comes to my mind. everywhere i am, train, class, on the street. people’s reaction or feeling might inspire me to write some words about, i do it as soon as i can write it. once i’m home, i can devleop the ideas that i got during the day ( sometimes no ideas during the week). if the are relationated to the novel that i’m writting. i look for a place for that thought, if not a put all of them in a special notes files in my computer to use them as a speaker or other writting project. i love writting ( jonas / mexico city)

  • Angela

    Great tips, I’ve been writing for years and I know they are all important, I should just start to stick to them more often..

  • Rosie Rogers

    Brilliant post. Lots of writing nuggets from all over the web brought into one helpful place. 1000 words a day sounds quite manageable doesn’t it…

  • Thom Strimbu

    I consider the advice of #15 at length…here: http://creativeleap.tumblr.com

  • Annie Walls

    Great tips! They make perfect sense. When I first started writing it took my first few novels to get a feel for my faults. I’m now able to correct them as I write. It helps to have a writer community.

  • sel.paradise

    yes, this is all to say about writing – but if you actually have nothing to say, so you have nothing to write

  • Eden Baylee

    Inspirational tips, thanks for posting. 
    eden

  • Sumit Gupta

    Suggestion #26, keep wordpress installed on your phone so that you can always draft/publish ideas on the move.

  • Imagination

    I just proved comment #7! With an important web article to write I foolishly ignored the outline I had written to get my editor on line to OK the content. I floundered in the 1st and 2nd drafts, wasting a good day. Went back to the outline, and the article practically wrote itself!

  • ana

    from Venezuela, I find this very useful, specially about believing in what you do and trust in it. Every day I realize that sometimes the doubts make some mistakes. Mistakes are good, but not when you knew that you were right. Thanks for this 0,1%

  • Pahome

    Read for the joy and inspiration….Read for research to study styles….Collect your own research materials that you need, as in, quotations, word meanings that have more depth than a Thesaurus and emotional meaning.  Keep the materials in binders & you’ll be surprised how you’ll start to see patterns that will show the differences & make you create new binders with separate titles.

  • essay writing help

    Good this is really nice!

  • research papers

    Thank you for this amazing post!! 🙂

  • Norman Costa

    To: Jocelyn K. Glei

    Bless you, and your children, and your children’s child unto the seventh generation!

  • Jennifer Bailey

    You’ll never be a writer if you don’t write.  Write is a verb;  it requires action, not just planning and thinking.  I run a workshop called Writers Write and it’s amazing the number of reasons (aka excuses) would-be writers come up with to do anything BUT actually put words on paper.

  • college_dove

    Thank you so much. These will be my twenty-five commandments.

  • Jasonhowmans

    Really inspiring words that can be applied to all creative fields… I wouldn’t usually comment, but I just had to go ahead and write something.

  • Glenn Le Santo

    Read Orwell’s six rules of writing:

    http://www.lesanto.com/pt/?p=4

    They made a big difference to my writing and they’ll do just the same for yours.

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