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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)
  • B

    Wonderful. I need to get into a schedule. I’m gonna bookmark these tips for future reference.

  • Betina Barrios Ayala

    Just Great! Thanks,

    Betina Barrios Ayala.-

  • Joan Stewart

    When I see writing I like, I analyze it. Why do I like it? Because the words and sentences are short? The verbs are punchy? If I like a technique the writer used, I experiment with it when I write my own content.

  • claudio secci

    to me the most difficult part is to get honest feed backs

  • Barbara

    Love this!  Thank you for a damn good giggle and new focus. Appreciate x 10 … at least.

  • Fixonwriting

    At the start of writing, don’t overthink it. Think of it as painting a wall a fresh, unexpected color. Don’t like the color? Repaint it! And so it is with writing. Write down your thoughts, and fine-tune them when inspiration strikes.

  • Cygnetbrown

    When I write, I don’t necessarily start at the beginning.  I start with what I know about the plot, or the characters, or even specific scenes. If I’m going through a part of the story and I don’t know what happens next, I write what I do know will happen. Eventually my mind shows me happens in the part that I left out.

  • Diana Edelman

    I’ve been working on my book for two months now. Each night I set aside time to write at least 3,000 words. These are great tips.

  • Ella Wagemakers

    Keep a notepad in the car (I drive 1000 km. a week in connection with day-job) … don’t just sit out the ride but spend driving time practicing your rhyme scheme (I’m more poetry than novel), looking at the scenery and seeking out metaphor, sorting out the emotion you want to put into the poem, window-shopping with images … memorize that ONE line you definitely need to put on paper the moment you park the car and are ready to face your desk, even at work … because you WILL put down that one line even before you log in to read office mail.

  • LectorElise

    Start by writing what you can. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got an idea for a thousand page doorstopper in your head. It matters what you can get down on paper. If it’s only 600 word scenes, write 600 word scenes. You’ll get better only by writing and shoving at the wall.

  • Phosphorus

    I feel the best advice is to write through it as fast and as efficiently as you can, a little minor mistake here and there, but just keep going until you’ve shaped what you want to write about. It’s like a drawing, you start rough and sketchy, but when your done, you go back and edit it, start doing details, erasing some mistakes, as for writing, erase awkwardly worded parts, incorrect nicks and little bits and pieces until you just finish it as a whole.

    However this is only useful if you’ve actually do have some writing skill or talent, because if you can’t string together a proper sentence or use terms in the correct context in general then you may need a bit more practice so you can correctly piece together the idea in your head onto paper as crystal clear as possible.

    Another piece of advice (Mainly for if you want to write a novel) would be to read a lot, learn adjectives and how to use them. If you can learn adjectives, you can add an emotional edge to your story and allow the reader to envision your work. To practice accurately depicting the scene your attempting to display, write random drabbles or scenes of a novel you read and compare it to the actual novel. Try to word it differently and see if it has the same effect it does as when you read it the first time.

  • Denese

    Having written for a small bi-weekly newspaper for several years, before it went weekly, with my topic the accomplishments of a local citizen, I started, of course, with the live interview, no tape recorder. This would involve at least one hour. They were always interesting people, and enjoyed sharing, so there was never a rush that I can recall.
    Once back in my writing ‘studio’, before or after dinner, I would type my notes, and any attendant thought which rushed to support them. Then, I would sleep on that. After breakfast, I’d be excited to review the material, juxtapose paragraphs, and almost always found that ‘the article wrote itself’. That was first draft. Rarely did I ever have to start again. Just refine, refine, refine the second day. Sleep on that; read several times the next morning. Usually, first read caught any errors. This process kept article neat, fluid, vibrant, and always accompanied a photograph of subject interviewed. In the midst of those years, one article one me a nomination to become a finalist in one of Canada’s major newspaper competitions, The Jack Webster Awards. Out of three finalists, of course, only one winner. Second and third were never informed how they ranked. Being in the running was enough! Good luck, good writing to all aspiring writers. Be true to your muse. The refinements follow. No matter what, if you love writing, it’s your major destiny. Your muse will be your best critic, please remember that. She will also affirm an open mind. Those who have a different point of view can write their own ‘stories’.
    Also, I’ve never had time to keep a journal. Just thoughts on scraps of paper. When I explore them, it’s like finding gold. The only discipline needed is desire and determination to write what is coming through you. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, recording thoughts (which is what I love to do) will build your edifice, whether in poetry, philosophy, or framed by lively interviews.  Denese Izzard-Ferris, Gabriola Island, B. C., Canada. 

  • Grabek

    So… 25 is a lot. That means you are NOT a great writer 😀

    Number one should be: “Keep it short, stupid!”

  • Toni Sciarra Poynter

    Hindsight has taught me this about the activity of writing: Just because you think it’s bad doesn’t mean it is. Just because you think it’s good doesn’t mean it is. So the quality conversation, in the moment of writing, is a wash. In the time of writing, just write. 

  • Matt Peterson

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Phil Trupp

    I have known countless successful writers and have been a publishing writer/journalist/author since 1958. Every writer is a student of the art and of the life that surrounds it. There are a few “rules” that apply to various forms of writing, but in the end, each of us writes out of our own experience. And if we’re really good and truthful we will write in blood.

  • Sara

    I am quite amateur but for me it helps to not begin the story with the first page, begin with what you are inspired to write. If you force yourself to write the first page when you want to write the last chapter then you may discourage yourself or forget the meaning behind your previous inspiration. Write what you know you want to happen and the rest will come to you.

    Good luck

  • Drunkenoodle

    Many thanks for this. Writing inspired me to write someone I love very much a poem in the small hope that they might love me back someday…

  • Priyanka

    Some years back, I had a bit of block which got cured with where basically you are given a word for a day and write on it for a minute. Then one day I got inspired enough by something personal and the writing flowed. Now as a freelance content writer, very new in the field, i can’t afford to wait for ‘moments’. A few days back on a particular assignment I thought I just cannot manage this thing, but since I had a deadline, I had to keep writing whatever even if was shit..finally the words began to fall into place and it shaped up with some edits. So, with no luxury to wait for ‘moments’ the best tip that’s worked for me is to keep at it. 

    The statements above are fantastic, especially the ones on fear, not looking back and on getting stuck.

  • Clown,JokerKicker

    On whom* to hang out with.

  • 321jesus M

    your argument is invalid

  • Denise Turney

    As others have said, just start writing.  However, I agree with Ernest Hemingway, as writers we always find something about our work that we think needs to be improved.  I’ve never met a great writer who was 100% satisfied with her/his work.  But we love what we do and so we keep writing, cranging out interesting stories. 


  • Robyn

    Ideas come to me at the strangest times. I use to convince myself that I would remember the ideas later, but I never did. Now, the majority of the time, I will jot it down. However, the “ideas” seem to end up in “Shipley’s” mouth…the friendly house cat, or at the bottom of my oversized purse. The purse discovery would not be bad if the cap of my Hand Lotion had not randomly popped off. My next effort is to keep a small spiral in mt purse. Yes, it may end up with a collage of many colors and varied aromas…..but it will be UNIQUELY MINE!

  • Robin

    I think they need to teach more writing from grade school forward.  Kids are not even taught cursive writing and papers are graded for completion.   The Teachers Union is crying for more money all the time,  well get back to the fundamentals. 

  • Jessica

    I personally think that writing is all about the right amount of concentration and day dreaming. Like, you’re tuned in, but letting thoughts flow actively. At least this is good for getting an idea flowing…revision and editing is the second part of writing, and should be done as a separate step. Good writing comes from organic thought. 
    Carpe Diem

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