Useful Rules for “Writing”

Elmore Leonard produced 10 rules for writing (fiction), and the Guardian then asked many other writers for their personal guidelines. You could look it up. It’s a long article, and all of it is worth reading. Here are a few choice excerpts; substitute “photograph” for “write” wherever bracketed (and “study pictures” for “read”), and the entire enterprise translates fairly well.

Geoff Dyer: “Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary. Beware of clichés. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception.”

Anne Enright: “Only bad [writers] think that their work is really good.”

Richard Ford: “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a [writer] is a good idea. Don’t have children. Don’t have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night. Don’t drink and [write] at the same time. Don’t wish ill on your colleagues. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. Don’t take any shit if you can ­possibly help it.”

Jonathan Franzen: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”

David Hare: “Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.”

P.D. James: “[Read] widely and with discrimination. Bad [writing] is contagious.”

Michael Morpurgo: “The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.”

Andrew Motion: “Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary. Think big and stay particular.”

Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.'”

Zadie Smith: “Protect the time and space in which you [write]. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

Colm Tóibín: “Get on with it. Stay in your mental pyjamas all day. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.”

Jeanette Winterson: “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom. Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.”


  1. Good, if occasionally contradictory or impossible, advice. Entertaining anyway.

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