Writing Tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Image by Austin Kleon

Here’s one way to become a bet­ter writer. Lis­ten to the advice of writ­ers who earn their dai­ly bread with their pens. Dur­ing the past week, lists of writ­ing com­mand­ments by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard (above) and William Safire have buzzed around Twit­ter. (Find our Twit­ter stream here.) So we decid­ed to col­lect them and add tips from a few oth­er vet­er­ans — name­ly, George Orwell, Mar­garet Atwood, and Neil Gaiman. Here we go:

Hen­ry Miller (from Hen­ry Miller on Writ­ing)

1. Work on one thing at a time until fin­ished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new mate­r­i­al to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be ner­vous. Work calm­ly, joy­ous­ly, reck­less­ly on what­ev­er is in hand.
4. Work accord­ing to the pro­gram and not accord­ing to mood. Stop at the appoint­ed time!
5. When you can’t cre­ate you can work.
6. Cement a lit­tle every day, rather than add new fer­til­iz­ers.
7. Keep human! See peo­ple; go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with plea­sure only.
9. Dis­card the Pro­gram when you feel like it–but go back to it the next day. Con­cen­trate. Nar­row down. Exclude.
10. For­get the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writ­ing.
11. Write first and always. Paint­ing, music, friends, cin­e­ma, all these come after­wards.

George Orwell (From Why I Write)

1. Nev­er use a metaphor, sim­i­le, or oth­er fig­ure of speech which you are used to see­ing in print.
2. Nev­er use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is pos­si­ble to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Nev­er use the pas­sive where you can use the active.
5. Nev­er use a for­eign phrase, a sci­en­tif­ic word, or a jar­gon word if you can think of an every­day Eng­lish equiv­a­lent.
6. Break any of these rules soon­er than say any­thing out­right bar­barous.

Mar­garet Atwood (orig­i­nal­ly appeared in The Guardian)

1. Take a pen­cil to write with on aero­planes. Pens leak. But if the pen­cil breaks, you can’t sharp­en it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. There­fore: take two pen­cils.
2. If both pen­cils break, you can do a rough sharp­en­ing job with a nail file of the met­al or glass type.
3. Take some­thing to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
4. If you’re using a com­put­er, always safe­guard new text with a ­mem­o­ry stick.
5. Do back exer­cis­es. Pain is dis­tract­ing.
6. Hold the read­er’s atten­tion. (This is like­ly to work bet­ter if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the read­er is, so it’s like shoot­ing fish with a sling­shot in the dark. What ­fas­ci­nates A will bore the pants off B.
7. You most like­ly need a the­saurus, a rudi­men­ta­ry gram­mar book, and a grip on real­i­ty. This lat­ter means: there’s no free lunch. Writ­ing is work. It’s also gam­bling. You don’t get a pen­sion plan. Oth­er peo­ple can help you a bit, but ­essen­tial­ly you’re on your own. ­Nobody is mak­ing you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
8. You can nev­er read your own book with the inno­cent antic­i­pa­tion that comes with that first deli­cious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been back­stage. You’ve seen how the rab­bits were smug­gled into the hat. There­fore ask a read­ing friend or two to look at it before you give it to any­one in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness. This friend should not be some­one with whom you have a ­roman­tic rela­tion­ship, unless you want to break up.
9. Don’t sit down in the mid­dle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the oth­er road. And/or change the per­son. Change the tense. Change the open­ing page.
10. Prayer might work. Or read­ing ­some­thing else. Or a con­stant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the fin­ished, pub­lished ver­sion of your resplen­dent book.

Neil Gaiman (read his free short sto­ries here)

1. Write.
2. Put one word after anoth­er. Find the right word, put it down.
3. Fin­ish what you’re writ­ing. What­ev­er you have to do to fin­ish it, fin­ish it.
4. Put it aside. Read it pre­tend­ing you’ve nev­er read it before. Show it to friends whose opin­ion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5. Remem­ber: when peo­ple tell you some­thing’s wrong or does­n’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exact­ly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6. Fix it. Remem­ber that, soon­er or lat­er, before it ever reach­es per­fec­tion, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Per­fec­tion is like chas­ing the hori­zon. Keep mov­ing.
7. Laugh at your own jokes.
8. The main rule of writ­ing is that if you do it with enough assur­ance and con­fi­dence, you’re allowed to do what­ev­er you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writ­ing. But it’s def­i­nite­ly true for writ­ing.) So write your sto­ry as it needs to be writ­ten. Write it ­hon­est­ly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any oth­er rules. Not ones that mat­ter.

William Safire (the author of the New York Times Mag­a­zine col­umn “On Lan­guage”)

1. Remem­ber to nev­er split an infini­tive.
2. The pas­sive voice should nev­er be used.
3. Do not put state­ments in the neg­a­tive form.
4. Verbs have to agree with their sub­jects.
5. Proof­read care­ful­ly to see if you words out.
6. If you reread your work, you can find on reread­ing a great deal of rep­e­ti­tion can be by reread­ing and edit­ing.
7. A writer must not shift your point of view.
8. And don’t start a sen­tence with a con­junc­tion. (Remem­ber, too, a prepo­si­tion is a ter­ri­ble word to end a sen­tence with.)
9. Don’t overuse excla­ma­tion marks!!
10. Place pro­nouns as close as pos­si­ble, espe­cial­ly in long sen­tences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
11. Writ­ing care­ful­ly, dan­gling par­tici­ples must be avoid­ed.
12. If any word is improp­er at the end of a sen­tence, a link­ing verb is.
13. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mix­ing metaphors.
14. Avoid trendy locu­tions that sound flaky.
15. Every­one should be care­ful to use a sin­gu­lar pro­noun with sin­gu­lar nouns in their writ­ing.
16. Always pick on the cor­rect idiom.
17. The adverb always fol­lows the verb.
18. Last but not least, avoid clich­es like the plague; seek viable alter­na­tives.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

John Steinbeck’s Six Tips for the Aspir­ing Writer and His Nobel Prize Speech

Elmore Leonard’s Ulti­mate Guide for Would-Be Writ­ers

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Comments (35)
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  • Shelley says:

    Orwell’s Num­ber 6 is what sep­a­rates the writ­ers from the non-writ­ers.

  • Love these! Such great advice from the greats. Thanks for post­ing. :)

  • Alan Miesch says:

    I like how, in his rule #4, Hen­ry Miller says to work joy­less­ly, then in rule #8 he says, “Work with plea­sure only”. And in rule #7 he advis­es, “Keep human! See peo­ple; go places”, while in num­ber 11 he admon­ish­es, “Write first and always. Paint­ing, music, friends, cin­e­ma, all these come after­wards.”
    I sup­pose he was tak­ing Emer­son­’s advice: “A fool­ish con­sis­ten­cy is the hob­gob­lin of lit­tle minds.”

  • Lynne says:

    @Alan Miller says to work “joy­ful­ly, reck­less­ly”, not “joy­less­ly”.

  • Bruce says:

    Cred­it for the image used on this arti­cle should be afford­ed to Austin Kleon (@austinkleon). He’s a fine fel­low. http://www.austinkleon.com.

  • Colin says:

    Orwell’s list comes from “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage,” not “Why I Write.”

  • Pat Rashid says:

    Elmore Leonard’s list seems most valu­able because you have to work at read­ing it. So I guess all those sto­ries that start with “It was a dark and stormy night” need new open­ers. Neil Safire’s list was the most fun and prob­a­bly the hard­est to con­struct.

  • A won­der­ful col­lec­tion. Thank you. Miller’s advice to work on one project at a time and to write first before oth­er things are the lit­tle tips col­lect­ed from a life­time of tri­al.

  • Jennifer says:

    Are these “rules” avail­able as a poster? I have a class­room teacher inter­est­ed.


  • James Smith says:

    I am bound and deter­mined to avoid all clich­es.

  • Dahlia Balir says:

    What is the hastag for the writ­ing tips on the twit­ter­verse?

  • rodii says:

    Orwell’s list is so full of shit–I wish peo­ple would stop quot­ing “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage.” How to be a writer with­out sub­tle­ty or panache. Luck­i­ly, he did­n’t fol­low his own advice.

  • Val Dumond says:

    These are most­ly GUIDELINES, which the Gram­mar Anar­chist approves, not “rules”. Make a note to pick up your copy of THE ANARCHIST’S GUIDE TO GRAMMAR after its release in a few weeks. The premise? Ban­ish “rules” and fol­low guide­lines. Now get back to your writ­ing!!!! (Sor­ry, Elmore)

  • contentaxis says:

    There are a nice guide­lines shared by you that i like a lot because this is very use­ful and insight­ful arti­cle.

  • Thanks for this. I am a suck­er for lists and read­ing writ­ing tips from the great and the good. I love Mar­garet Atwood’s no. 6: “Hold the reader’s atten­tion. (This is like­ly to work bet­ter if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the read­er is, so it’s like shoot­ing fish with a sling­shot in the dark. What ­fas­ci­nates A will bore the pants off B.” Oh, the life of a writer! Why do we do we do it,again? :O)

  • angelina says:

    I need advice. I wish not to be pub­lished. I have no con­sid­er­able tal­ent. Poet­ry seems to be the best relief but I’m very unpol­ished .

  • John Millrany says:

    Love this stuff…My orig­i­nal metaphor: What­ev­er’s fair, plus 10 per­cent. The one I wish I invent­ed (and don’t know the source): Enough is as much as a feast.

  • Dan says:

    I just have to dis­agree with only use “said” to car­ry a dia­logue. I lis­ten to books on CD when­ev­er I dri­ve. Hear­ing said repeat­ed every oth­er sen­tence dri­ves me to dis­trac­tion, as well as near­ly off the road. He asked, she repeat­ed, he inquired, just so many good words, and even more accu­rate. I don’t say ques­tions, I ask them. I don’t say instruc­tions, I give them.

  • Sandipan says:

    I believe one of the most impor­tant chal­lenges before an author is fig­ur­ing out how to enrich and add val­ue to the audi­ence and in so doing to stand out from the pack in a mean­ing­ful way.

  • Prob­a­bly my big prob­lem is the first piece of advice — “work on one thing at a time until fin­ished.” I think if you’re good at mul­ti­task­ing, you can get away with it, but I don’t think most peo­ple are.

  • Shonna White says:

    Geez, those a a lot of guide­lines. While I agree with a good por­tion of them, there are defi­nate­ly ones I don’t believe can be avoid­ed all the time, using sud­den­ly, for exam­ple. You don’t want to overuse this or sim­i­lar phras­es, but there is only so many ways you can describe the quick pas­sage of time, or a move­ment that was so fast/unexpected that it shocked the point-of-view char­ac­ter.
    The ‘Said’ one is bull, but again, peo­ple have a ten­dan­cy to for­get to go for the sim­ple and try to take it out entire­ly.
    I have to won­der how many of these guide­lines would have been made bet­ter by not say­ing “Don’t”, but say­ing “Min­i­mize the usage of”.
    Real­is­ti­cal­ly, a lot of those guide­lines that seem absolute, you can’t avoid entire­ly.

  • Eva-Maria says:

    Can you imag­ine how bor­ing will be book that fol­lows all these rules? There will be no per­son­al­i­ty in it. I think that every writer has his/her own rules.
    But i’m not say­ing that these rules are bad and should­n’t be fol­lowed. Maybe for some­one these are very help­ful tips.

    Sor­ry about my Eng­lish.

  • Rón says:

    I want to punch William Safire direct­ly in the face. To become a decent writer I had to unlearn a suite of rules that might have been suit­able for gram­mar work­sheets or Latin con­ju­ga­tion, but would ruin good Eng­lish prose.

  • Nicole says:

    At first I was annoyed with Safire’s advice then I real­ized the joke. lol

    I enjoy read­ing advice from oth­er writ­ers but when I write I will even­tu­al­ly use tech­niques that work for me.

    I was try­ing to avoid clich­es like, “at the end of the day” or “when it’s all said and done.”

  • Veronica says:

    Avoid detail descrip­tion of char­ac­ters and places? Real­ly? But I like that. I can only imag­ine so much. I like to read about what or how a per­son or place looks, then draw my own con­clu­sion.

  • Veronica says:

    Avoid detailed descrip­tion of char­ac­ters and places, real­ly? But I can only imag­ine so much. I actu­al­ly like to get the per­cep­tion of the author as to how the char­ac­ters and places look like, then, add my two cents to it.
    Nev­er use oth­er than said? I’ve seen so many words used, and liked them. I guess I’m wrong for doing so.

  • Samkin says:

    Neil Gaiman is a Sci­en­tol­ogy stooge who would not have a career at all if they did not arrange it. Gaiman is a fraud.

  • Nikta says:

    Samkin, you have clear­ly nev­er read any of Gaiman’s books. He did have roots in Sci­en­tol­ogy, but has reject­ed it since. Read _American Gods_ — let me know what you think.

  • Rick Gibbons says:

    Safire’s was the best, his rules were that there are no rules. Some rules work bet­ter for oth­ers than oth­ers, not all art works by the same rules, all art should not work by the same rules. youtube.com/rickgibbonsofficial

  • Frank Edder says:

    “Nev­er be afraid to delete your dar­ling para­graphs.” I don’t recall who said it, but I found this piece of advice use­ful. I re-read every­thing I write, includ­ing what I’m just now writ­ing. I have delet­ed entire chap­ters from my work. How­somev­er, every now and then I even amaze me.

    “Per­fec­tion is like chas­ing the hori­zon. Keep mov­ing.”
    Neil Gaiman.

    “Per­fec­tion is not a place you arrive, but a road you trav­el.”
    Frank Edder

  • Mike Gutowski says:

    Safire’s list is price­less­ly price­less, at least, i think it is…

  • Mike Gutowski says:

    ha ha. same effect on me.

  • Rye Dano says:

    Of course Safire’s is the best, since each rule is break­ing that very same rule! Bril­liant. He is great­ly missed and would prob­a­bly be banned, cen­sored or worse if he was still alive. So just as well he’s no longer here to see what we’ve become.

  • Ron says:

    The first rule of cre­ativ­i­ty is, learn the rules, then for­get them.

    The next first rule of cre­ativ­i­ty is, there are no rules, but don’t break em.
    In my ever so umble expe­ri­ence.

  • Roberto Castillo Sandoval says:

    boo hoo

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