Everybody has writing tips for authors, especially people who aren’t writers. “Write about vampires,” your cousin says. “Write something like Harry Potter,” your niece says.
These writing tips are generally unhelpful, to say the least.
Which is why all this writing advice from 50 famous authors is simply stupendous. You get access into the brains of 50 very famous authors, to get the best tips for writing, and it’s not abstract hypotheticals but based on what they practice.
(If you don’t need writing advice but only some inspiration, check out my recent article on how famous writers get inspired).
Some of this writing advice is quite counter-intuitive. You’re going to be surprised by it — I sure was. I was surprised to learn that some professional writers:
- Don’t write every day
- Write nocturnally
- Write 100 pages to find page number 1.
Of course, there are no right or wrong ways to write. Every writer is going to have a different process that works for them, and you’re going to have to try out a bunch of different ones before you find one that fits. But if you follow at least a few of these writing tips, they will teach you how to become a good writer.
Here are tried-and-true writing tips and writing advice from 50 different writers. If you’re not yet sure what makes you most productive, steal some of their ideas and test drive them. Maybe you’ll find that these writing tips work for you, too.
50 Writing Tips from Famous Writers
1. James Salter
Writing Tip: Draft, redraft, draft again, redraft again, ad infinitum.
Alternative: Let paragraphs sit after you write them.
James Salter first writes longhand, then he types, then he corrects, retypes, corrects, etc, until he finally has a draft of the work that he likes. He regularly writes long sections and then lets them sit (“It’s dangerous not to let things age”), and he always writes in complete solitude.
2. John Irving
Writing Tip: Work backwards.
John Irving has no actual routine, so he doesn’t give himself time off or make himself work. He does, however, want to know everything about what he’s writing before he actually starts writing it. He plots out every piece of his novel, creates titles before he has books to fill those titles, and writes his endings first. He works 2 to 3 hours a day in the first stages of a novel and progresses to working 8 to 12 hours during the middle of a book, but he always spends 2 hours at night reading over everything and revising.
3. Haruki Murakami
Writing Tip: Keep a tight schedule everyday while working on a project.
Once inspired, Haruki Murakami’s “writing mode for a novel” means waking up at 4 am, working 5-6 hours, running 10 kilometers or swimming 1500 meters (or both), reading or listening to music for the rest of the day, and going to bed promptly at 9 pm.
4. Julian Barnes
Writing Tip: Stay away from word processors.
Alternative: Work when no one else is.
Julian Barnes hates word processors because “they tend to make things look finished sooner than they are,” so he types everything on an IBM 196c. He wrote Love, etc. longhand. He works best between 10 am and 3 pm but uses other hours of the day to revise or do journalistic writing. His favorite time to work are weekends and holidays, because that’s when “people think you’ve gone away and don’t disturb you.”
5. Ian McEwan
Writing Tip: Embrace word processors.
Unlike Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan believes the act of typing on a word processor to be “more intimate, more like thinking itself,” than writing longhand or using a typewriter. While he once paid someone to type up drafts he had handwritten, now he enjoys using a computer for writing because “sentences or passages can be endlessly reworked,” and the “faithful machine remembers all your little jottings and messages to yourself.” He adds, “Until, of course, it sulks and crashes.”
6. Daniel Handler
Writing Tip: Develop eccentric habits to keep your brain running.
Daniel Handler’s work days are Monday through Friday, 9 am to 3 pm. After that, he takes a walk and goes back to his office to think. While thinking, he tosses unsharpened pencils across the room and eats raw carrots.
7. Richard Siken
Writing Tip: Write on strange things in strange places.
“I just write with whatever’s around, whenever I feel like it,” says poet Richard Siken. He means that he writes on bills, in notebooks, or by typing on his computer or phone. He likes to write in unconventional places, quoting his favorite spot as “the Waffle House off of I-10 in Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana border, Friday night, late September, in the far booth, after the local High School football team’s winning home game.”
8. Zadie Smith
Writing Tip: Before you start writing, read.
To avoid having multiple drafts of the same work, Zadie Smith starts every working day by reading and revising what she has written up to that point. She prefers working in a small room with natural light, and while working on a project, she likes to read a lot of other writers (especially ones with writing styles different than her own) to fill in gaps in her own writing.
9. Anne Carson
Writing Tip: Work on multiple projects of different mediums at the same time.
Anne Carson likes writing original ideas (to return to later when she feels her writing straying from that topic) on coffee-stained envelopes. She writes to “find out what I think about something,” and has a specific system for writing which includes three desks in her office (one academic, one writerly, one artistic) so she can work at each erratically throughout the workday and let them “cross-pollinate one another.” Her regular routine includes getting up, going for a walk, coming home for breakfast and tea, reading for an hour, and then moving to her desks.
10. Chuck Palahniuk
Writing Tip: Do mindless tasks while thinking.
Because Chuck Palahniuk has to be in a “manic” mood to write, usually from conversation or exercise, he holds no standard writing day. Instead, when he can write, he performs some thoughtless activity while thinking (ex. stacking firewood) and jots down any writing that comes to mind during.
11. Cormac McCarthy
Writing Tip: Write everything—even scenes you’re not going to use.
Seven days a week, Cormac McCarthy wakes at 6 am and works through the morning, quitting by early afternoon. Despite his simplistic writing style, during this time, he writes everything he can about his project; he even writes expository moments that get into a character’s psyche, knowing he will most likely omit them in the final draft.
12. Tobias Wolff
Writing Tip: Eliminate any and all distractions.
If he could, Tobias Wolff would probably write in a solitary confinement cell. He has a study in the Stanford University library because it’s the most free from distraction (“All I need is a window to not write”). All he keeps in his office are a dictionary and reference books. A normal writing day for him means going for a walk/swim, going to work, eating, taking a walk, writing in his office, and going home. He believes “writers lead very boring lives if they’re actually working.”
13. Denis Johnson
Writing Tip: Build yourself up to the actual writing process.
Denis Johnson’s projects start as scattered notes before he begins “puttering and tinkering with ideas, voices, descriptions.” Then he progresses “to some serious fooling around” and then, finally, to writing every day. He says, “I try to forget what I’ve already written, and forget what it sounded like, and treat each attempt as if it were my very first.”
14. Marilynne Robinson
Writing Tip: Try to forget yourself completely.
Marilynne Robinson doesn’t plot out novels—“Action is generated out of character,” she says. While working, she wants to be “as forgetful of my own physical being as I can be,” so she dresses like a bum and frequently moves around the house (office, living room sofa, bed) as she writes. She will only write in her own house, keeps no strict schedule, and if she doesn’t feel like writing, she simply doesn’t.
15. Don DeLillo
Writing Tip: Get a change of scenery.
Alternative: Keep a talisman to remember what you’re working towards.
Don DeLillo works at a manual typewriter in the morning for about four hours. Then, he goes for a run to “shake off one world and enter another,” before working again, later in the afternoon, for two or three hours. “Trees, birds, drizzle,” he says. “It’s a nice kind of interlude.” When he finds his concentration straying, he looks at a picture of Jorge Luis Borges to redirect his thoughts to writing, not staring out a window. “I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked—but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else.”
16. Philip Roth
Writing Tip: Write a hundred pages to get to page one.
Philip Roth hates beginning books. He says, “I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it,” but most of the time, it takes a lot of initial writing before he finds this magnet. More often than not, he writes a hundred-plus pages “before there’s a paragraph that’s alive.” Then, finally, he has the beginning.
17. Lisa Dordal
Writing Tip: Set aside a specific day for reading and writing instead of trying to write every day.
“My own sense is that it’s not the amount of time that we spend writing but the quality of that time,” Lisa Dordal says. During the school year, she designates about two days every week strictly to write. She knows that in between teaching and grading, she’ll get overwhelmed if she tries to write every day, and she’ll ultimately end up writing nothing. But if she sets a realistic weekly goal, she’ll more likely be productive. “There’s that famous expression: If you build it, they will come. I think you could say the same for writing: If you schedule the time, the writing will come.”
18. Bret Easton Ellis
Writing Tip: Spend enough time with your characters that you become numb to them.
To deal with his level of violence and gore, Bret Easton Ellis writes all of his scenes twenty or more times, to make himself numb to the horrific things his characters do. After that, he arranges the scenes “in a way that I think makes sense in the movements of the novel,” and he moves on.
19. Neil Gaiman
Writing Tip: Write like you’re nocturnal.
Alternative: Embrace the quiet.
In the 1990s, Neil Gaiman did most of his writing between 8 pm and 5 am. Then he gave up smoking and ended up falling asleep at his keyboard “with nothing to show for my efforts but 500 pages of the letter ‘M.’” Now, he takes advantage of his resources and rents a cabin with no internet or cell service, borrows houses from his friends, or gets a cheap hotel room for a spell, so he can be alone and “move into that peculiar universe where you know you have stuff to finish and you do nothing but write. You go to sleep with the story bubbling in your head and when you wake up you reach for a notebook.”
20. Jonathan Lethem
Writing Tip: Don’t be afraid to be boring.
Jonathan Lethem calls his writing process “dull.” He clocks his own office hours like he would at a 9-5, just to “plod out my page or two,” except his office is just his room, closed off from the rest of the world. He uses a computer and doesn’t give himself days off or rules other than one command: Write. “I see writing as an inevitable and ordinary way to spend one’s hours.”
21. Margaret Atwood
Writing Tip: Stay away from social media.
Alternative: Write without a set timeline.
Margaret Atwood has to “isolate [herself] from all distraction” so she will put the work first; this means limiting herself to 10 minutes of Twitter a day and keeping two desks in her study (one with a computer with internet, one with a disconnected machine for writing). She considers 1-2k words a day productive and writes longhand between 10 am and 4 pm while her kid is at school. She also writes non-linear as “scenes present themselves,” so only after she has written scenes will she place them in chronological order within the story.
22. Gillian Flynn
Writing Tip: Slack off.
Gillian Flynn’s Pac-Man scoreboard reads, “GIL GIL GIL GIL BXN (my husband) GIL GIL RFN (my husband pretending to be my cat).” A regular writing day for her includes writing, dancing to Eminem, writing some more, upping her video game high score, reorganizing her Netflix queue, maybe more writing, eating Sprees, writing. She has an office in the bottom floor of her house and, as a “staunch believer in pottering about,” she uses that office for many things. At the end of the work day, most of those things are still writing.
23. Anthony Doerr
Writing Tip: Work in short chapters.
“The nice thing writing short chapters is that there is always something to work on,” Anthony Doerr says about writing All the Light We Cannot See, in which its chapters can be as pithy as half a page. This allowed him to read over, edit, and revise sections of work at random intervals throughout the day—while flying, for example. Sitting down to write didn’t have to be a huge commitment, because he could write quick little snaps.
24. Karen Russell
Writing Tip: Focus on your headspace, not your word count.
Although she considers herself a “fairly generative” writer, Karen Russel believes it to be a better use of her time if she spends a day “inside a fictional world” rather than working towards a set word count. She aims for productivity concerning plot more than productivity concerning sentences: “For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going.” The gist of a good writing day for her? “Showing up and staying present.”
25. Jonathan Safran Foer
Writing Tip: Write blind.
For first drafts, Jonathan Safran Foer types “blind,” writing whatever he comes up with with no intention of creating characters or making excerpts connect. He says, “I sit down and I end up writing a lot of things and then I look at them and think well maybe this could go with this, or this and this, and maybe this one character is actually three different characters and this boy is a girl.”
26. P.D. James
Writing Tip: Don’t write blind.
Before she starts writing, crime writer P.D. James, whose ideas begin with a setting, makes sure she has the whole plot formed. It can take months, but she believes “plot is necessary, although,” she say, like many modern writers who abandon plot in favor of craft, “it would be easy to write a book without it.” She spends more time plotting than writing, sometimes, and came to writing Devices and Desires with fifteen notebooks full of details.
27. André Aciman
Writing Tip: Branch out, but always return to your desk.
André Aciman starts every day at 5:30 am with a cup of coffee. He sits down at his desk, reads over what he has written so far, and moves on if he likes it or fixes it if he doesn’t. Then, at 7:10, he goes to the gym and works out until 9, then goes back to his desk to write/revise until 7 pm, when he has a whiskey and helps his wife cook dinner. They eat and watch TV and afterward, he goes back to his desk.
28. Audrey Niffenegger
Writing Tip: Don’t get ahead of yourself.
Audrey Niffenegger, though she always writes books out of order and pieces the scenes together later, aims never to start writing a different section before she finishes the one she’s working on. “It’s sort of like making bricks for a wall,” she says. “Each one has to be completed before it can be used.”
34. Haven Kimmel
Writing Tip: Sympathize with all of your characters, even the villains.
In order to writer her memoir She Got Up Off the Couch, Haven Kimmel had to spend a lot of time with some hurtful characters from her past. Throughout the writing process, she had to sympathize with her late father, who was “larger than life, right in front of me every day,” as she built his character. And she found that, like every real person, he wasn’t fully bad or fully good. No one really is.
30. B.J. Novak
Writing Tip: If you get stuck during a project, have yourself a “Blue Sky Period.”
While writing for the hit TV show The Office, B.J. Novak went through what he calls “Blue Sky Periods,” during which he spouted off as many “what if?” questions as he wanted, not even thinking about whether or not those what ifs were even plausible with the plot and characters they currently had. Now, your Blue Sky Period doesn’t have to last a week or more like Novak’s, but for a little bit of time, open yourself up to any possibilities; don’t worry about shooting them down until later.
31. Herman Koch
Writing Tip: Be as curious about your writing as your reader will be.
Herman Koch writes “from day to day, from chapter to chapter, not knowing too much about what comes next.” This means that sometimes, he finds out things about his own plot the same way his readers will: by working through the book cover to cover. He calls his process “contagious to the reader, who doesn’t feel manipulated by the writer.” He’s “just as curious” as the reader about what is going to happen next in the story.
32. David Huddle
Writing Tip: Have a pair of second eyes.
Before he shows his writing to anyone else, David Huddle shows it to his longtime writer friend Ghita Orth. According to Huddle, she “knows my work, has a better sense of what I’m doing than I do, she’s a hardnosed reader, and I trust her to let me know whether I should let a piece of writing out of the house.”
33. Rebecca Makkai
Writing Tip: Outline everything.
For her book The Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai tried writing it section-by-section but found herself obstructed by the novel’s non-chronological timeline. So for a while, she just outlined everything she wanted to happen in the novel, and when. She came out of the process with sixty pages of notes and a new drive to write.
34. Junot Diaz
Writing Tip: Listen to movie scores while working.
Alternative: Scrap the desk.
Unless he has a major project going on which requires him to work more, Junot Diaz wakes at 7 am every day and writes until lunch. He likes music, but can’t write listening to music that has words, so instead he listens to movie soundtracks. “I wrote my first book listening to the soundtrack to the movie Conan the Barbarian on a loop. That’s how I ride.” Another unconventionality about his writing process is that he doesn’t sit at a desk, but chooses to write lying in his bed or, even more strangely, standing up.
35. David Mitchell
Writing Tip: Don’t sacrifice who you are outside of writing to be a writer.
David Mitchell says he can either be “a halfway decent dad” or “a writer who writes all day.” On bad days, he clocks maybe three hours, and on good days, usually six or seven. He still gets overwhelming bouts of inspiration and he still sometimes loses track of time while writing. But when his wife starts making noise to pull him from it to spend time with the family, he obliges.
36. Eoin Colfer
Writing Tip: Keep a running document for future projects.
Eoin Colfer writes one book at a time but keeps a Word document open on his computer with notes and sporadic ideas for what he wants to work on next, with “hope that my subconscious knits [the notes] together. This actually works sometimes.”
37. Sue Monk Kidd
Writing Tip: Let yourself finish the rewriting.
Sue Monk Kidd, who keeps “banker’s hours” while writing and rewrites along the way, says she can get so caught up in the revision process that she’ll rewrite a chapter over and over again, not knowing when to stop. She says she has to “have a certain moment when I realize that yes, now, it’s exactly like I want it to be, and I can go on.”
38. Markus Zusak
Writing Tip: Treat your writing like a school project and procrastinate.
Although he believes writers need to think they have more time than they actually do to write (“My small theory is that to write for three hours, you need to feel like you have three days. To write for three days, you need to feel like you’ve got three weeks, and so on.”), Markus Zusak tends to do his best work under pressure. He says, “Ultimately, though, it’s the feeling in my stomach that’s similar to the night before the school assignment is due … and you haven’t started yet. That’s my preparation.”
39. Ken Follett
Writing Tip: Start writing almost immediately after you wake up.
Ken Follett wakes up with ideas, so he likes to get them out as soon as he can. He likes to be at his desk about five minutes after he wakes up. “I don’t even get dressed,” he says. He puts on a robe, makes English Breakfast tea, and sits down to start working.
40. Cheryl Staryed
Writing Tip: “Quit bitching and write.”
Before Cheryl Strayed does any kind of real writing—sitting-down-at-a-desk writing, that is—she thinks of every reason not to. “The dirty dishes in the sink, the newspaper, all the things to read on the Internet,” she says. “Then I just tell myself to quit my bitching and write.”
41. Michael Chabon
Writing Tip: Give yourself a goal to work towards.
Michael Chabon works for about five or six hours every night in his studio, which his writer wife uses during the day. During that five or six hours, he has a goal in mind: Get out about a thousand words. “A thousand new words,” he clarifies. “I don’t count rewrites.”
42. Paul Rome
Writing Tip: If you’re writing about something real, explore it in real life.
When Paul Rome was writing his first novel, set in New York, he frequently explored the city during the writing process to get a better grasp of the place he was describing. “I visited every place that gets mentioned,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to reenact the novel, but I was making sure I could see it as a director would.”
43. Raymond Carver
Writing Tip: Be patient.
This one sounds like a no-brainer, but Raymond Carver doesn’t just keep his head down and work diligently—he is patient through spurts of non-writing, long periods of time when he’s so caught up in teaching or other aspects of life that he doesn’t have time to sit at his desk and think. “When I’m not writing,” he sys, “it’s as if I’ve never written a word or had any desire to write.” He goes on to say, however, “But it’s okay. I’ve learned to be patient and to bide my time.”
44. Mario Vargas Llosa
Writing Tip: Worry about what you’re writing before you worry about how you’re writing.
After he outlines his plot (“which I never hold to, changing it completely as I go along”), Mario Vargas Llosa starts writing it out, scene by scene, “without the slightest preoccupation with style, writing and rewriting the same scenes, making up completely contradictory situations …” Then, when the story is finally down and concrete, he makes it beautiful: “I think what I love is not the writing itself, but the rewriting, the editing, the correcting … I think it’s the most creative part of writing.”
45. Nicholas Baker
Writing Tip: When you think you’re finished, retype it.
After writing The Mezzanine, Nicholas Baker, who now works with a computer after years and years of typewriters, printed off the finished copy and retyped the entire book. “I was always a believer, even with word processing, that there’s something useful about having to retrace your steps from the beginning.” He believes your eyes see things differently on paper, and you’ll be able to fix those things the second time around.
46. Donald Antrim
Writing Tip: Start with small ideas.
Donald Antrim—who claims to have very few ideas in general—feels best when he’s working on a project or has a general notion of what he’s going to be writing. But these ideas can be very broad, very vague. For example, one of his ideas might simply be “a book that starts out at a pancake supper.” In the back of his mind, he might store another idea for “a book about a lot of brothers.” Then, he works from there.
47. Jennifer Egan
Writing Tip: Give yourself “marching orders” for revision.
Jennifer Egan usually writes on legal pads, but when she does use a computer, as she did while writing A Visit from the Goon Squad, she prints off each draft chapter-by-chapter (one chapter sometimes having upwards of 30 drafts) and makes notes on the physical copy of what she needs to change, elaborate on, or scrap. “Marching orders to myself,” she calls it.
48. Edward P. Jones
Writing Tip: Do the research.
Before he really started The Known World, Edward P. Jones said the book’s characters and setting were always nagging him, begging him to start. “I delayed the research for ten years or so,” he says. “I lived my life, I did my grocery shopping, I was on the subway, I was on busses. But I can think no matter where I am, and this place down there in Virginia was coming into being.” He says it was important for him to do the research about American slavery because he “wasn’t really entitled to do any writing until then.”
49. Elizabeth Strout
Writing Tip: Put your whole self into your writing.
Elizabeth Strout loves “the physical world,” so she really enjoys writing long descriptions of nature. She’s also partial to the ways in which people talk, so dialogue also isn’t a burden to write. However, “if there is a scene of great emotion I have to be sure I am willing to fall into it fully,” she says. “It requires a physical exhaustion that one has to allow for.” This does not mean that she dreads writing emotive scenes, but that it requires a different kind of energy. “One can’t be thinking of dry cleaning or errands—it is a dive into a world that has to be quite complete; if I have not experienced it fully, why would the reader do so?”
50. Italo Calvino
Writing Tip: Take your time.
Alternative: Waste time in the morning so you don’t in the afternoon.
Italo Calvino writes first drafts by hand, “making many, many corrections.” According to him, he crosses out more than he actually writes. “I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing.” Then, he makes “a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand.” When his handwriting for corrections gets so tiny it becomes illegible, he uses a magnifying glass. He works mainly in the afternoon because “in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon.”
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