Zadie Smith’s 10 Good Writing Habits

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 video games.
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 you.
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: , , , ,