Writer's Toolkit

Writing Secrets from Top Authors

Every writer remembers that one piece of advice that changed everything – maybe it got them out of a writing rut, helped them tackle a bad habit, or encouraged them to boldly rip up the rule book. If you’re feeling a little stuck or uninspired with aspects of your writing, take heart in knowing that even the most accomplished authors have been there too – there’s always a way through!

We asked some top authors, including former Women’s Prize winners, to share a cherished piece of advice. Read on for valuable insights for anyone trying to be creative, but especially if you are entering Discoveries, our writing development programme.

Maggie O’Farrell, author of The Marriage Portrait

What I wish I’d known when I was starting out, is that you don’t have to worry about beginnings. Don’t worry too much about knowing what you’re doing at the beginning. You can start in the middle if you want! Just put the words down.

Tayari Jones, author of American Marriage

You don’t have to know your intentions when you start to write. And if you do know them, feel free to change them as the story unveils itself. Don’t be rigid. Be ready to enjoy the magic that the story will reveal as it unfurls.

Meg Mason, author of Sorrow and Bliss

Any style that comes easily, we tend to mistrust and undervalue. Believing, instead, that a kind [of style] we find agonisingly difficult automatically has more worth. It usually just means it belongs to someone else and it is alright, and better, to go with the one that’s ours.

Maggie Shipstead, author of Great Circle

Follow the interest.” Elizabeth Tallent said this when she was leading a workshop at Stanford. She said to think of the most interesting thing that could happen next in a narrative – not necessarily something arbitrary or shocking, but interesting – and go that way.

Lisa Allen-Agostini, author of The Bread the Devil Knead

My first editor encouraged me to use cinematic descriptions – to show, not tell. I have taken that on board in my writing and it’s become integral to how I approach fiction. I do a lot of intricate descriptions of places, characters, objects. 

Ruth Ozeki, author of The Book of Form and Emptiness

Tell all the truth but tell it slant–” Emily Dickenson’s excellent advice to poets, but which is equally relevant to novelists, and which applies to everything from diction and sentence structure to the broader considerations of character, plot, and theme. 

Miranda Cowley-Heller, author of The Paper Palace

From my grandfather: “Every good novel must have a beginning, middle, and end, with the end foreshadowing in the beginning.”

Jessica Andrews, author of Saltwater

I had a writing teacher who wrote ‘trust yourself’ in the margins of my work and that stuck with me because I think the biggest obstacle for writers is self-doubt or giving up because you feel like your work isn’t good enough. Writing is so solitary and writing a novel is about perseverance as much as anything else – you really have to believe in your own work.

Eliza Clark, author of Boy Parts

When I was about 13, I posted my first piece of fan fiction online and for some reason I thought a marker of quality was how long I had managed to make a single paragraph. Someone commented to say they’d enjoyed my story, but that I should break up my paragraphs more, because bricks of text are hard to read. I’ve never looked back! It’s rare that you get such a universally applicable and objective piece of advice.

Dawnie Walton, author of The Final Revival of Opal and Nev

The best writing often happens in revision. Just because you cut a piece for the sake of the whole doesn’t mean that piece isn’t beautiful – it just doesn’t serve this particular story. (I keep all my misfit extras in a digital folder called “Cut Parts,” and believe they might one day be useful in sparking shiny new ideas.)

We hope the sage advice presented by these top authors will be useful in your future writing.

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