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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)
  • Herb

    The quintessential ingrediant is to overcome your fears and to believe in yourself.Keep it simple.Tell yourself,”I am a writer,therefore,I am simply writing a book.”make it fun-an experiment of the mind.

  • Adam

    You really do have to be brave enough to write badly. There are days where I feel I’m a shit writer and lose all confidence in myself. When that happens, I have to also remind myself that all I want to do with my life is write. Only write if you really want to write; even if you’re crap, you’ll be motivated to write something better and just keep at it. And remember, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games- I’d bet my life earnings that the authors of these amazing books, at one point, thought that at least some of what they’d written as a draft was shit. Remember that.

    • Sasha

      Exactly! It took JK Rowling two years to find a publisher for Harry Potter.

  • Abi

    Great post 🙂

  • Vikk

    I forget about coffee and food until the story or the writing is done and then I feel good and tired and dying for coffee

  • Vikk

    Agree there are stories that have come to me from overhearing a statement or a conversation that someone has and I can’t wait to get to pen and paper. I see a tree, a person and I have a story forming in my head . I can’t stop I need paper when driving along I think I would die for a recording instrument to speak the ideas out before I lose them

  • Vikk

    I read and I discard I have read since I was so little, I devoured them couldn’t get enough.

  • Adshayah

    Amazing stuff, I guess you really do have to be brave enough to write badly and do things the hard way. I love to write, without writing my soul would burn and my brain would turn to coal.

  • James Altucher

    Beautiful quotes. Thanks.

  • tt_tiara

    I is inspired.

  • Sally Cooper

    Great article. Thanks!

  • Sabrina Pierre

    Being an English major did not give me as much great advice like this article.
    Very inspiring!

  • Geoff Cook

    Great article. Thank you for sharing!

  • Rita

    Yes thanks for the ideas. I need to keep tasting and testing to keep my writing fresh and alive, so nice tips here thanks.

  • racsmo13

    I am busy writing my 7th book and have been stuck for a few days now. But I have learnt that I must just be still and listen – the ideas will come. Calm your mind, and listen. Then sit down to write and you will be amazed at the wonderful flow.
    Thanks for the advice – just write!

    • Lindz22

      Hi Racsmo13…I cannot believe that you are busy with your 7th book already,thats amazing…i cant even get to write my first one. thing is,i keep writing and writing about different things,and get stuck in the process and i think of another thing to write.

      how did u come to the 7th book?what inspired you,how do u know what to write about?

      • racsmo13

        HI, there. My advice is to not move on to the next story. Stick with the one you are busy writing, even if it means waiting for a few days for the ideas to come. As I said in my note above, you need to become quiet, and sit still. Inspiration comes from the silence. Yoga helps a lot, because once you start concentrating on your breathing, your internal conversation becomes still – just sit still and wait for the ideas to come. Don’t push yourself, just sit in a quiet place and wait. Then proceed with your book. I strongly recommend that you outline your story – know your characters intimately – who they are, what they do, where they come from, why they are doing what they are doing, and the relationships between them. You should know where the story plays out – the backdrop.
        I really hope this helps.

      • Jae

        Two months late, but I’ve written one book so far, and the only way I managed to complete it was to force myself. My daily ritual was to groan, complain to the air, roll out of bed, and sit at my desk. Then I wrote. Most of it was bad at first. Some of it was good. A few lines were brilliant. But I pressed on. Set a goal. I usually typed the equivalent of at least six pages per day, double spaced, which came out to around two thousand words. Force yourself to do it. See if those different things can somehow form into a single coherent story from multiple viewpoints. You can do as racsmo13 suggested and make an outline, which I found helped me a lot later on in my process, or you can just plunge into it and let the story form as you write, even if it isn’t what you initially expected. And remember, the writing will probably be crap. It’s in the revisions that you see a glimmer of a gem start to form. Even then, it might be crap. Embrace the crap. Smell the crap. Love the crap. And keep writing the crap. Crap is good. Crap means you are no longer constipated, in the metaphorical sense.

  • lauretta

    Amazing article and full of wonderful ideas and reminders. It took me eight years to write a book and every one of these quotes applies to my experience. Thank you!

  • MéLisa Best

    I absolutely enjoyed every piece of advice. The hardest thing to do for me is to plunge in. Probably because of fear of failing, or fear of not expressing your thoughts “correctly”. BUT your style, is YOUR style. Thanks for the reminder.

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  • Ray McCullough

    This was the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Brims with motivation and encouragement.

  • Louis

    If you are looking to show off your writing skills, work from home, and make your own hours; you should check this website out. It works for me and it could for you!

  • cdfreelaning

    Nice Post!! Well said!

  • Jimmy R.

    Hi Jocelyn,

    Thank you for sharing this post.

    When I get stuck, I usually start ranting about why I’m stuck and how frustrating it is. 🙂

    When I’m ranting (as probably with everyone else), boy do I write fast! 🙂

    It’s in the middle of my rant when ideas start popping in and I then become “unstuck”. My ideas usually come in after my 3 – 5 minutes worth of rant.

    This has helped me dramatically as far as becoming productive with my writing tasks. I hope this helps everyone else who’ll read this comment.

    Jimmy R.
    Freelance Writer

  • Milan Robinson

    I managed to get to Insight #3 before I stopped reading and started writing.

  • Obinna O.


    Great insight for a writer just beginning his journey. It’s time to get writing

  • Joe Robinson

    Thank you, this helps alot

  • Royce Angel

    I just write what’s in my head

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