Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, and Anne Enright Give Ten Candid Pieces of Writing Advice Each

richard ford writing tips

The way peo­ple read on the inter­net has encour­aged the pro­vi­sion of “tips,” espe­cial­ly pre­sent­ed as short sen­tences col­lect­ed in lists. While we here at Open Cul­ture sel­dom ride that cur­rent, we make excep­tions for lists of tips by authors best known for their long-form tex­tu­al achieve­ments. Richard Ford (The Sports­writer books), Jonathan Franzen (The Cor­rec­tions and Free­dom), and Anne Enright (The Portable Vir­gin, The Gath­er­ing) here offer ten sug­ges­tions each to guide your own writ­ing habits. Though pre­sum­ably learned in the process of writ­ing nov­els, many of these lessons apply just as well to oth­er forms. I, for exam­ple, write most­ly essays, but still find great val­ue in Franzen’s instruc­tion to treat the read­er as a friend, Enright’s point that descrip­tion con­veys opin­ion, and Ford’s injunc­tion not to write reviews (or at least, as I read it, not reviews as so nar­row­ly defined).

Some of these tips have to do with tech­nique: Ford advis­es against drink­ing while writ­ing, Franzen advis­es against using “then” as a con­junc­tion, and Enright advis­es you sim­ply to keep putting words on the page. Oth­ers have more to do with main­tain­ing a cer­tain tem­pera­ment: “Don’t have argu­ments with your wife in the morn­ing, or late at night,” says Ford; “You have to love before you can be relent­less,” says Franzen; “Have fun,” says Enright. And as any suc­cess­ful writer knows, you can’t pull it off at all with­out a strong dose of prac­ti­cal­i­ty, as exem­pli­fied by Enright’s “Try to be accu­rate about stuff,” Franzen’s doubt that “any­one with an inter­net con­nec­tion at his work­place is writ­ing good fic­tion,” and Ford’s “Don’t have chil­dren.” Can we draw out an over­ar­ch­ing guide­line? Avoid dis­trac­tion, per­haps. But you real­ly have to read these authors’ lists in full, like you would their nov­els, to grasp them. The lists below orig­i­nal­ly appeared in The Guardian, along with tips from var­i­ous oth­er esteemed writ­ers.

Richard Ford

1 Mar­ry some­body you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.

2 Don’t have chil­dren.

Don’t read your reviews.

4 Don’t write reviews. (Your judg­men­t’s always taint­ed.)

5 Don’t have argu­ments with your wife in the morn­ing, or late at night.

6 Don’t drink and write at the same time.

7 Don’t write let­ters to the edi­tor. (No one cares.)

8 Don’t wish ill on your col­leagues.

9 Try to think of oth­ers’ good luck as encour­age­ment to your­self.

10 Don’t take any shit if you can ­pos­si­bly help it.


Jonathan Franzen

1 The read­er is a friend, not an adver­sary, not a spec­ta­tor.

2 Fic­tion that isn’t an author’s per­son­al adven­ture into the fright­en­ing or the unknown isn’t worth writ­ing for any­thing but mon­ey.

3 Nev­er use the word “then” as a ­con­junc­tion – we have “and” for this pur­pose. Sub­sti­tut­ing “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solu­tion to the prob­lem of too many “ands” on the page.

4 Write in the third per­son unless a ­real­ly dis­tinc­tive first-per­son voice ­offers itself irre­sistibly.

5 When infor­ma­tion becomes free and uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble, volu­mi­nous research for a nov­el is deval­ued along with it.

6 The most pure­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal ­fic­tion requires pure inven­tion. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical sto­ry than “The Meta­morphosis”.

7 You see more sit­ting still than chas­ing after.

8 It’s doubt­ful that any­one with an inter­net con­nec­tion at his work­place is writ­ing good fic­tion.

Inter­est­ing verbs are sel­dom very inter­est­ing.

10 You have to love before you can be relent­less.


Anne Enright

1 The first 12 years are the worst.

2 The way to write a book is to actu­al­ly write a book. A pen is use­ful, typ­ing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.

3 Only bad writ­ers think that their work is real­ly good.

4 Descrip­tion is hard. Remem­ber that all descrip­tion is an opin­ion about the world. Find a place to stand.

5 Write what­ev­er way you like. Fic­tion is made of words on a page; real­i­ty is made of some­thing else. It does­n’t mat­ter how “real” your sto­ry is, or how “made up”: what mat­ters is its neces­si­ty.

6 Try to be accu­rate about stuff.

7 Imag­ine that you are dying. If you had a ter­mi­nal dis­ease would you ­fin­ish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop argu­ing with your­self. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

8 You can also do all that with whiskey.

9 Have fun.

10 Remem­ber, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­count­ing week­ends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your tem­per, but it fix­es some­thing else. It makes you more free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Sev­en Tips From F. Scott Fizger­ald on How to Write Fic­tion

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

Ray Brad­bury Offers 12 Essen­tial Writ­ing Tips and Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture Saves Civ­i­liza­tion

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

The Shape of A Sto­ry: Writ­ing Tips from Kurt Von­negut

Elmore Leonard’s Ulti­mate Guide for Would-Be Writ­ers

The Shape of A Sto­ry: Sev­en Tips From William Faulkn­er on How to Write Fic­tion

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Lj Swiech says:

    I am tak­ing Mr. Fords advice and sub­sti­tute artist for writer, and make sim­i­lar adjust­ments to the rest of his advice, print them up on 13 x 19 mat­te paper, 8 copies, and hang them on every door of my studio/house. If I would have fol­lowed the first part of step one, I would not have detoured 30 years. Bet­ter late than nev­er.

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