'Make Sure You Read a Lot of Books': Writing Rules From Zadie Smith

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Be sure to write on a computer with no Internet connection, and other tips from the NW author

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In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing published in the New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today's most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her 10 rules. My favorite is Zadie Smith's list—an exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don't romanticise 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.
  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.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don't confuse honours with achievement.
  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.

What a fine addition to other timeless wisdom on writing, including Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag's synthesized learnings.

Smith's latest novel, NW, seven years in the waiting, came out earlier this month.

This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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