“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like,” writing legend Neil Gaiman said. But of course, the main rule of articles and lists of tips and rules about writing and for writers is that there will never be just one hard and fast rule: quite the opposite, in fact. So while Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing is that one should never “use semicolons”; Zadie Smith takes a different view, arguing that you should “make sure you read a lot of books.”
When there are so many rules and pieces of advice out there, which ones do you follow? This is a question perhaps best suited to another article; yet a good place to start is – as it so often is when it comes to writing and literature – with one of the true literary greats: Margaret Atwood.
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 whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. So without further introduction, we bring you Margaret Atwood with her personal writing commandments:
- Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
- If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
- Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
- If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
- Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
- Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
- You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
- 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.
- Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
- Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.
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