Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing
“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.
- When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
- When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
- 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.
- 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.
- Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
- Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
- Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
- Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
- Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
- 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?