Trashing the Top 10 List of Advice for Writers

by Chris Stewart

I recently ran across an article in The Guardian, where authors were asked for their personal dos and don’ts. There was no indication of how or why certain writers were chosen and most of it is repetitious drivel, but let’s go through the first bunch and have some fun, and in my next post we’ll take on a sort of companion article in Salon, about readers’ advice to writers.

Here we go, starting off positive, with an open mind:

Big Yes! to Elmore Leonard’s rules about ‘said’ and adverbs. Been guilty of both transgressions myself. They just creep up on you and before you know it you are ‘gasping’ and ‘grumbling’ and ‘coaxing’ and, God Help Me, ‘trilling.’ Yes, I once used ‘trilling.’ You can’t hate me more than I hate myself for that one.

I love Diana Athill’s idea of looking at passages you love with ‘a very beady eye.’ She says to check which passages would be better dead.

Perfect lead in for a more updated version of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘murder your darlings’ (it was Arthur Quiller-Couch, not Faulkner who said this, though Faulkner did change it to ‘kill your darlings') – which passages are Better Off Dead?

Think of your unhappy reader chasing after you like that paper boy on a bike, wherever you go, night and day, screaming, “I want my $14.95! I want my $14.95!”

Next! I’m sorry, but Margaret Atwood is just odd. I’m not a fan of her writing (I can hear you gasping with horror – Oh shut up; it’s a free country), I only liked The Handmaid’s Tale, but that’s not really relevant. What’s odd are her first few suggestions about taking pencils on a plane and how to sharpen them and a reminder to bring paper (DUH. For heaven’s sake, are we first graders here? We can handle the writing materials part, Margaret, make yourself useful!).

She wastes 5 of her 10 with nonsense, and the last 5 don’t contribute much either. Rudimentary stuff. The only useful thing: “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.”

So I’ll stop whining about Margaret Atwood and move on to whining about Roddy Doyle, who seems to have a similar brain fog as Margaret, advising us to keep the online browsing to a minimum, use a thesaurus, and give in to temptation to do household chores once in a while. Wow, this is mind blowing stuff, isn’t it? These are almost patronizing suggestions for those of us who are looking for some meat on the bone. His useful bits, “Do feel anxiety – it's the job,” and “Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.”

If you haven’t given up on writing entirely and decided to go to medical school where at least you get to dissect dead people and SEE something, here we are at #5, Helen Dunmore. I’m sorry, who? I actually know who Helen is, but at this point I’m wondering if we’re ever going to hit a really heavy-hitting, popular, mainstream writer that most people know and would therefore listen to. We need some name recognition here. Not everyone reads Orange or Booker Prize winners.

(By the way I did that for a few months and was not impressed. I had to quit after Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which was wretchedly bad and is now being made into a movie! That book had more holes than a moth-eaten sweater.)

Her advice starts off promising, “Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue,” “Listen to what you have written” (for rhythm, because jagged places could be clues to what you don’t know yet), and “Read Keats’ letters” and then fizzles out into things like: read and rewrite, go for a walk, know that you can write and have a family, join a professional organization, and more of the same.


Geoff Dyer is next and his entry is a turn in a new direction – a turning of the top 10 pieces of advice into a flash fiction piece of such edge and wit that we’ll forget we wanted to read a list in the first place and just admire him instead. Every suggestion is couched in a personal story to show how clever he is. It was entertaining, I’ll admit. His best bit, “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”

(Brief intermission: I think these writers should have had a word limit for each answer, and maybe some 'dont's' on how to give a good list so they didn’t get so deeply mired in the obvious suggestions that everyone and their grandmother can give you.)

Anne Enright does a little better, and I like her tone. She seems very sensible and down to earth and wry. The kind of person you’d like to have in your critique group. She would bring booze and brownies. How can you not like someone who says right off the bat, “The first 12 years are the worst”? I wouldn’t say her advice is earth-shattering, but there is a recognizable kernel of truth and feeling behind each one.

I will forgive her #9 (“have fun”) for #10, which is rather inspiring, “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.”

Do you hear that? Weekends off everybody!

Richard Ford’s list is more the kind of quote a reporter would get from someone if they caught him coming unawares out of the men’s room. It’s full of don’ts. It’s usually better to tell writers what to do than NOT do. Don’ts are easier to think of, and if you’re on the receiving end, checking them off in your head because you’re guilty of them, you pretty much lose the will to live, let alone write a book. Dos are harder to come up with and make people feel more empowered. His best, “Try to think of others' good luck as encouragement to yourself.” That’s a toughie, but it’s true.

Jonathan Franzen. Now we’re talking! Great writer. Great advice. Direct, meaty, witty (effortlessly witty, Geoff). Interesting, thoughtful stuff you can put into practice. My two faves, “Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money,” and “You have to love before you can be relentless.” That last one takes your breath away – socks you right in the stomach.

Esther Freud. Now this is just getting silly. There’s so much repetition of the same dull advice, that I’m wishing the writer of this article had taken most it! The only useful one, “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn't use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.” Still, she had the good sense to know she wasn’t doing us much good and stopped at 7 suggestions.

Neil Gaiman stopped at 8 but should have stopped at one. His first one was, “Write.” Is that supposed to be funny? Or is Neil giving us The Zen of Writing Lists of Advice to Writers?

David Hare. PD James. Al Kennedy. No comment. In the immortal words of a Monty Python sketch, I’d be deliberately wasting your time. Hey, they should have asked John Cleese or Terry Gilliam!

Al Kennedy does give us something that I would suggest applying to these lists, “Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don't automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.”

I’m finished torturing you. Your reward for reading this is that there’s better advice in part two of the article, though there is, again, more repetition. I do love Colm Toibin’s suggestion to stay in your ‘mental pajamas’ all day. Ah, yes. That resonates.

I doubt that these are truly the rules by which these writers live. Maybe some of the ideas, but there’s a certain self-consciousness to writing a list like this. In compiling it, you’re not thinking of yourself only, you’re thinking of all the hungry writers who are going to print out your list and carry it around in their wallets, pulling it out on the dark nights of the writer’s soul (of which there are many) in order to cheer them, like The Little Match Girl with her matches.

And we know what happened to her, now don’t we? Who wants to be responsible for that?

So, no, I won’t be giving you my list.

Read the article here: Advice to Writers

Chris Stewart is program director for literary arts for the state Arts Council in Maryland. Her current project is Sense and Sensibility-inspired - following the imagined course of study Marianne Dashwood vows to enter into at the end of the novel: http://www.embarkingonacourseofstudy.com/. Register for her new online class: Revisioning Your Fiction or Playing in the Deep at http://www.algonkianconferences.com/.


  1. I think Margaret Atwood's point is not to take yourself or these tips too seriously. DUH!

  2. Hilarious post! And a relief because I've seen that article everywhere and for some reason I keep reading it, hoping I missed something and after each read I'm more pissed off. (And you ain't alone in the Margaret Atwood sentiments, sister, especially after the sharpened pencil bit.) The article should have stopped at Elmore Leonard. Or maybe I should just stop reading it! Thanks for the funny post.