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 (34)
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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.

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