P.D. James: 5 Pieces of Advice for the Writer



Phyllis Dorothy (P. D.) James was the author of twenty books, many of which have been televised or filmed. She began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was published in 1962. Many of James's mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which she worked for decades starting in the 1940s. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature, and in 1991 was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014. Here is the advice she gives to would-be authors.
1)    Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
By increasing your word power she does not, of course, mean simply poring over a dictionary and logging up scores of obscure words that you use indiscriminately in the course of your writing. It means when you write you have several alternative synonyms you can draw on in order to give your writing color and nuance. Whenever I discover a new word, I usually find it helpful to use it at the first possible opportunity, either in conversation or in writing so that it gets embedded in my memory. That way, I retain knowledge of new words and can use them whenever seems appropriate.
2)    Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
Here the focus is on reading good authors. But I also think it depends how you read. If you read for pleasure only and without any attempt to analyze the text then there is only a limited amount of benefit you can derive in terms of your own writing. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy what you’re reading. It just means that when you read you should also pay attention to how an author writes, how he or she achieves certain effects, how the book is structured and what kind of vocabulary is used. That way you can enjoy reading but also grow as a writer yourself, by trying to imitate the good aspects of another author’s writing.
3)    Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
Like any other skill, the more you practice the better you get at it. What definitely helps is if you build writing time into your daily/weekly schedule, instead of blitzing it twice a year. Steady progress helps you to develop as a writer, better than staggered and erratic effort.
4)    Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
That’s easy for her to say, you might think, since she has a steady stable of bestsellers to show for her efforts. On the other hand, if you are only writing what you think the public will buy in the hope of accumulating wealth, readers, more often than not, will notice your insincerity and steer clear. If you can combine writing what you really want to write with a popular genre, all to the good. Just don’t sell out to commercialism just because people seem to be buying a certain kind of book.
5)    Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
This also makes a case for not isolating yourself as a writer. Writing is a solitary occupation, and unless you can plug yourself into human experience in a meaningful way, by putting yourself into situations where you can interact with other people, gradually you will run out of convincing things to write about or become one-dimensional in your representation of human relationships. Again, it also makes a case for trying to see life through the eyes of the other people we know and using that in our writing to portray authentic human beings.


Some of these points apply more fully to writing fiction, but most of them have a bearing on any kind of writing – poetry, non-fiction, even business reports at a stretch!

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