let this be a lesson

The Best Writing Advice of the Best Writing Advice

Few things are more addictive to writers than reading tips about writing. Anyone who spends several hours a day wrestling with the blank page approaches the enormous canon of writing advice (Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Dillard’s The Writing Life, Lamott’s Bird by Bird, The Paris Review interviews, etc.) as a kind of never-ending existential thriller. Over the weekend, the Guardian added to the genre, publishing a two-part survey of advice from 29 well-known contemporary writers, each of whom was asked to produce ten rules. The resulting 200-odd tips cover, pretty thoroughly, all the basic clichés of the form: write every day, read all the time, revise mercilessly, and so on. Some of them explore territory beyond that, with advice ranging from the incredibly specific (Helen Dunmore: “Read Keats’s letters”) to the vague (Anne Enright: “Try to be accurate about stuff”), and from the practical (Joyce Carol Oates: “be alert for possibilities of paragraphing”) to the evasive (Philip Pullman: “My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work”).

Here’s my top ten of the Guardian’s top tens:

1. Roddy Doyle: “Do feel anxiety — it’s the job.”

2. P.D. James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”

3. A.L. Kennedy: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care.”

4. Anne Enright: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

5. Neil Gaiman: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.”

6. Geoff Dyer: “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.”

7. Anne Enright: “Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book.”

8. Zadie Smith: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”

9. Will Self: “Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.”

10. A.L. Kennedy: “Older / more experienced / more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else ─ they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.”

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction [Guardian UK]

The Best Writing Advice of the Best Writing Advice