Zadie Smith on Writing

A couple of years back I decided I wanted to become a better writer. So I read books on writing. They annoyed me and didn’t make a discernible difference to the quality of my output. To be sure, I picked up some good tips along the way, particularly in books like Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But I soon found myself frustrated by the fact that each book tended to put forward one approach to writing as if it were the ideal (or only?!) model. A silver bullet. And it didn’t take a genius to realise that much of the advice between the books was contradictory.

A writer must write for a set number of hours a day, every day, Christmas day included. 

A writer should set a word count for the day and stop the moment they hit it.

A writer absolutely must work in complete silence.

A writer must play loud music to drown out natural noise.

A writer should read voraciously to seek inspiration from diverse sources

A writer should limit their reading, so as to not be unduly affected by the work of others.

A writer should write in a public place to be inspired by the world around them.

A writer must lovingly craft their perfect writing room, and never let anyone else enter it.

And so on…

I also got frustrated by myself and the very nature of my quest. I think I expected that there was such a thing as a silver bullet. And so I got annoyed at the books that purported to offer the very thing for which I was hunting.

So I changed tack, and have since found that I have learnt more from reading well-written books than I have from reading books on writing well. Particularly fiction. There is something quite inspiring about simply immersing yourself in the work of a master, provided you also allow yourself time and space to critically reflect on it. It’s one of the reason I’ve tried to increase the number of novels I read each year, and why I’m trying to discipline myself to review them.

And one of the authors I have most enjoyed discovering is Zadie Smith.

Her novels White Teeth and NW are powerful depictions of modern London life – nobody describes London in all its diverse, authentic grittiness better than Zadie Smith. She is most definitely a modern Dickens in that regard, without the boringness. Her ear for dialogue and her character development are outstanding, and she has a fresh and provocative way of approaching a number of hot-button issues of our day: religion, race, beauty… Her essays are likewise eye-opening. I especially enjoyed her piece in the New York Review of Books on Joy.

So I was excited to spot (via the brilliant Brain Pickings website) her 10 Tips on Writing. An opportunity to come full circle and read a writer writing on writing once more.

This was originally part of a project by The Guardian, which asked a number of leading writers of fiction for their top tips. You can check out some of the other offerings here. It’s a rich compendium of advice, ranging from the serious to the humorous; the mundane to the idiosyncratic.

Zadie’s tips are simple, uncomplicated, kind-of-common-sense, but also challenging.

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.

What do you make of these tips? And what about the other offerings? Which bit of advice most challenged you? And what has been the most formative advice you’ve received on the art of writing?

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