Professor Wu's Rulebook

10 Writing Rules from Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

Writing, and advice for writers on how to write, is the topic of so many internet articles and forums. There can, at times, be a feeling that writers spend more time talking about writing and how to do it than they spend actually, well, writing.

Yet of course there’s a balancing act between ‘going at it’ and writing for the sake of writing, and learning what one can about the craft from those who have devoted their entire lives to the cause. As such, there remains inherent value in listening to the wisdom of great writers and working out which of their tips are the most suited to our own writing skills, habits and routines.

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the full list, and here bring you some timeless counsel from one of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries: Zadie Smith.

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.


If you’ve enjoyed Smith’s mix of practical, philosophical and poetic advice on writing, why not check out some of the other great pieces of advice from literary greats? And, while you’re at it, send us your own writing tips – how do you write? What gets you through each chapter? Let us know in the comments below.

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