Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 by Susan Gabriel

 “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules.

Zadie Smith

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.

———-

Even if you’re not a writer, some of these rules may apply to other things in your life that you feel passionate about.

Number 7 and 8 are crucial, in my view, and number 3 resonates with me, as well. When I set out to become a writer, I had no idea what being a working writer actually meant. It’s not very romantic at all. I work hard, just like everybody else, except I do it alone and sometimes I don’t know until years after I write something, whether readers will resonate with it or not (It took 11 years for my latest book, The Secret Sense of Wildflower, to get out into the world!) Talk about delayed gratification!

Do any of these “rules” ring true for you?

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6 Responses to “Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing”

  1. Barbara Younger Says:

    Oh no! “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” Rats. I thought it might come when I turn sixty next year!

  2. Susan Gabriel Says:

    Hi Barbara,
    I am in denial about that one. Who wants to sign up for “lifelong sadness”? But if you figure out how to be “satisfied” and serene at sixty, please write a book about it so I can read it. That’s what I’d like to go for.

  3. Marylou Burdt Says:

    Hi Susan–Happy Valentine’s Day! I like and appreciate the line—all that matters is what you leave on the page. When I do write my poetry, I need a quiet place with no distractions and that is usually my den. On a warm day, I choose my backyard. All these rules by Zadie Smith are useful. Thanks for sharing them with us.
    Mary

  4. John Grabowski Says:

    Funny you should quote Zadie Smith. I just finished reading her latest short in this month’s New Yorker!

    > When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing
    > this than anything else.

    It’s amazing how many people I encounter who say they want to be writers, but it’s evident they haven’t read much of anything. They’re barely literate, and haven’t read much beyond the stuff sold on endcaps in Walmart. This advice is so true!

    > 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.

    Also true. I think this may be what a lot of them are attracted to.

    > Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

    I’m guilty of almost never doing this, yet realizing it’s really the best way when I do. But do I listen to myself?

    > Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing
    > any better than it is.

    This is so true not just for writing, but for anything. It’s good advice for LIFE. Cliques never get you anywhere, and groupthink is the most dangerous thing in the world.

    > Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

    Yeah, Jonathan Franzen does this too. He literally superglued his connector port so that he couldn’t be tempted. Me, I need Google maps, Wikipedia, etc., to do research and look things up while I’m writing. How can I know what Wooster Street in New York looks like if I’ve never been there?

    > Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even
    > the people who are most important to you.

    I’m safe here. Nobody really cares about my stuff so I don’t have to do any protecting. Can’t even get my wife to read my stuff! :-)

    > Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

    Oh God, someone should etch that one on a plaque.

    > Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself
    > to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

    Thus spake Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Bruckner, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Welles, Coppola, Fassbinder, Hemingway, Yates,Sondheim, Bernstein and just about everyone else. I think she should have also added Tell the truth, and recognize the difference between the truth and an expected outcome, or an ending we’ve been culturally-attuned to believing. It’s one of the things that will separate the enduring works from potboilers we consume today and throw away tomorrow.

    Great wisdom. This list was better than these sorts that I usually see. :-)

  5. Nancy Purcell Says:

    Hi Susan:
    These are 10 great rules…suggestions to everyone that aspires to be a “good” writer. Some days are better than others, that’s true. But every day produces something…even if it’s later deleted. As long as the keys are clicking, the brain is working and words flow, well, I consider that a good day in WRITER WORLD!
    Nancy

  6. Susan Gabriel Says:

    Hi John and Nancy,
    I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. They are often uplifting, as well as educational. Dare I say that “WRITER WORLD” is a much richer place with you two in it? Yes, I think so. Thanks for stopping by!

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