Greater Minds: When writers wrote their writing tips

  • Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing are widely quoted.
  • In 2010, 28 other authors offered their own rules for the Guardian.
  • The value of technical rules depends on whether you’re trying to do what the rulemaker does.
  • There are some common themes on motivation, problem solving and receiving critique.


Elmore Leonard in 2005 (mtkr [CC / Flickr])

Elmore Leonard started it. His ten rules of writing have passed into legend or notoriety, depending largely on what one thinks of Elmore Leonard’s writing. For myself, how could I resist a set of rules that refers to ‘perpetrating hooptedoodle’?

A few years ago, someone at the Guardian picked up on Leonard’s article and asked 28 authors what their own list would look like. The resulting article is titles Ten rules for writing fiction, parts one and two, in honour of Leonard even though not all the writers came up with the full ten.

Evaluating writerly lists

Irresistible as I find such lists, I’m never sure how useful they are. Leonard himself added so many qualifiers that it’s obviously a description of his approach, acknowledging that different writers can make different things work. It’s telling that four of his ten rules refer to writing dialogue; if there’s one thing about Leonard’s novels that leaps off the page, it’s the dialogue. Other authors devote far fewer words to their dialogue and more to their description. Because approaches are so subjective, I’m not going to say much about the more technical points. When you look through the authors you like, their advice on description, structure and characterisation will either speak to you or it won’t.


(Thad Zajdowicz [CC / Flickr])

When I read an author’s advice on writing, I read it as a description of how they write rather than a generic approach to the writing process, so I get the most out of it if I’ve read and enjoyed their work. If I’ve been less than enthusiastic about it, their advice is not so helpful as they’re describing how they do something I’m not trying to do. Of the authors contacted by the Guardian, I’d tend to pay attention to the ones I’ve liked more than the ones I’ve been less keen on, and even less to the ones I haven’t got round to reading.

Now and again, I found a point jumping out as sounding incredibly pertinent but when I thought about it, I found myself wondering if it was a new revelation for me or if it simply phrased something I already thought in a particularly pithy way.

Writing on the fly

It’s also evident that some of the authors took the exercise more seriously than others. Michael Moorcock gives a practical guide for how a beginner writer can get started on their first project. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood placed her tongue firmly in her cheek with her guide to writing while flying:


Margaret Atwood in 2009 (peter pelisek [CC / Flickr])

1 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.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

Personally, I find it hard enough to jam myself into the seat in a way that doesn’t disturb my fellow passengers or give me a cramp in mid-flight without trying to write as well, but then I take up more space than she does.

Roddy Doyle’s humour took a characteristically dark direction:

1 Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Lost in the woods

Some of the more useful advice refers to what to do when you get stuck. It’s a feeling I know well: either I’ve taken my characters down a blind alley that I don’t know how to get them out of or worse, I’ve set up a situation that won’t lead anywhere interesting. Helen Dunmore says the solution is not likely to be found by staring at the page or the screen on which it must ultimately be put into words:

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.


Portrait of Hilary Mantel, painted by Nick Lord in 2014 (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

A sentiment echoed in more detail by Hilary Mantel:

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.

Saying it’s best to avoid talking to other people is an interesting insight into Mantel’s creative process. I often find that listening to other peoples’ lives can jog something loose that solves my writing problem, though not at the sort of party where people stand around making small talk.

It’s Margaret Atwood’s advice that comes closest to the solution I’ve usually ended up resorting to: if I can’t see how to get out of a situation I’ve set up, I usually end up changing the situation:

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.

Motivation by skiving

I found it rather surprising how many of the authors talked about motivation and distraction. I’ll put my hand up to problems with both, but I’d tended to think that part of being a professional author was rising above such things. I’m both dismayed and


Geoff Dyer in 2012 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

reassured by how many professional authors regard cutting themselves off from the internet to be necessary to concentrate on writing. Geoff Dyer finds the best way to sit himself down to work is to fool himself into thinking he’s avoiding work:

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.

AL Kennedy takes a more uncompromising approach:

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

She sums up another theme that several of the authors touch on: writing is not performance art. The value of the writing lies in what is written, not in who is writing it or how they get it written. Sarah Waters says it more directly:

Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely


(annie_c_2 [CC / Flickr])

engineered pace.

On the receipt of advice

Join a writers’ group and it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who doesn’t get that. They’re often more interested in the air of gravitas they think goes with calling themselves a writer than in writing anything. Sometimes they’re trying to come to terms with something that has happened to them, and sometimes they’re just pretentious. Wherever they’re coming from, that person is not likely to take criticism well and so they’re not likely to improve their writing. As Margaret Atwood says:

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.

Neil Gaiman offers what I’ve found to be one of the most useful guidelines for evaluating critiques:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost


Neil Gaiman in 2010 (dtd72 [CC / Flickr])

always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

His advice ties in to Margaret Atwood’s advice to backtrack to find a solution. I often find that if a critiquer says that something isn’t working for them, the problem is often lurking several hundreds or even thousands of words before the problem the critiquer has identified. For example, if a critiquer tells me that they didn’t think a certain character would perform a certain action and that they’d be more likely to do something else instead, my first thought is likely to be something like ‘but…but… they have to do that! The plot requires it!’

If I’ve managed to retain any sense, I will neither speak nor act until the second thought, which should be that the solution is likely to lie in how I’ve set up either the character or the situation they’re in. With a bit of editing that may be hundreds or even thousands of words before the problem that the critiquer has identified, I can often have the character do what the plot demands without changing a word of them doing it.

The accountants’ employment scheme

Most of the advice focuses on the writing itself, though Richard Ford throws in some advice about life in general:

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.


Don’t have children.

Two pieces of advice that few of us are likely to follow all of.

Hilary Mantel recommends getting an accountant though there are far more of us who


Ian Rankin on the right, 2014 (byronv2 [CC / Flickr])

dream of getting to the stage where an accountant would be of any use than who would benefit from the services of one.

Perhaps Ian Rankin offers the best advice about how to get to that happy stage:

Get lucky.

Followed by

Stay lucky.

Richard Ford advises seeing other’s good luck as encouragement so if you, like me, are trying to write better and to be read more widely, I’ll say this:

Good luck.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification, Writing
2 comments on “Greater Minds: When writers wrote their writing tips
  1. Terry Kidd says:

    A nice article. Thanks DJ

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