Zadie Smith is
a novelist who was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a
Jamaican mother. She read English at Cambridge, graduating in 1997. Her first
novel, White Teeth, received great attention from the media because she
accepted a six-figure advance (for both her first novel and a second as-yet-unwritten
book) from a publisher before she had even finished writing the book. The book
went on to win a number of literary prizes, including the Whitbread First Novel
Award. Here is her top-ten pieces of advice for writers.
1. When still a child, make sure you read a
lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
This piece of advice seems to be more aimed at parents rather than children.
It would be unlikely that a child would think to look over Zadie’s advice and
then systematically apply it to their own life. Nevertheless, it is a great
piece of advice and one that is pretty hard to implement given the amount of
“screen time” children usually have, whether it be the Internet, the TV or
2. When an adult, try to read your own work as
a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
I think this is only achievable if you allow a decent lapse of time between
the writing and the reading, say, six months (see point 5 below). If you try to
read your own writing objectively while it is still fresh in your mind you will
have limited success – at least, that’s been my experience. An even better and
more efficient piece of advice is “find someone who can read your work
objectively.” That way you don’t have to sit around for six months twiddling
your thumbs, waiting for the memory of your novel to fade into oblivion before
tackling the editing part of the process.
3. Don't romanticize 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.
This is true. It used to be that there was a “writer’s lifestyle.” A
hundred years ago and even fifty years ago there were far more writers who were
able to survive on the income from royalties on their books. Nowadays, with so
much free material available and the amount of time people spend on reading
having fallen to record levels, writers struggle to make ends meet and can’t
afford a “lifestyle.” But whether or not you get rich from writing, writers, I
believe, do have a responsibility to produce good work.
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.
This requires a degree of self-knowledge and honesty that most people, I
guess, do not possess. To admit, for example, that you are no good at writing
dialogue, or that descriptive passages are beyond your skill takes a certain
amount of courage. On the other hand, if these are areas of weakness for you,
then surely you can learn how to tackle them effectively rather than simply
avoiding them. If you can’t, then should you be writing at all?
5. Leave a decent space of time between
writing something and editing it.
This can be frustrating. When you’ve written something, you want to see it
in print as quickly as possible. Leaving well alone for months on end is
difficult. I mean, what are you supposed to do while you’re waiting? Start another
writing project, of course. I’ve usually found that when I return to a piece of
writing after time away from it, I certainly notice gaffs that I hadn’t noticed
before, including, strangely enough, typos.
6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence
of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is.
Avoiding cliques, gangs and groups seems like good advice for anybody, not
just writers. On the other hand, writing being a solitary occupation, isn’t it
healthy to interact with other humans from time to time? I suppose it comes
down to “don’t just talk about writing with other people, write instead.”
7. Work on a computer that is disconnected
from the Internet.
I would agree with this, except in the circumstance where you have to
quickly research something in order to continue a plot point or fill out a
character. Then the Internet can be of immense value. On the other hand, it is
dreadfully easy to get absorbed in research and forget to actually write about what
you have researched.
8. Protect the time and space in which you
write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to
This is tantamount to saying: treat writing like you treat your job. After
all, you wouldn’t expect family members and friends just to drop by your
office, unannounced, and expect you to make time for them whenever they feel
the need. A more tactful way of carving out time for writing would be to get
the consent of your family and friends to keep your writing time uninterrupted.
That makes it easier to reserve the time.
9. Don't confuse honors with achievement.
Would that we had some honors to confuse!
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.
I’d say, this also includes “don’t just write what you think would be
commercially successful”; and “write well, no matter what you are writing.” I
am not quite sure what she means about resigning yourself to sadness – unless
she is referring to the fact that, if we are honest, we know that our writing
can always improve and therefore we can never rest on our laurels.
Labels: North London, Whitbread First Novel Award, White Teeth, writer's lifestyle, Zadie Smith