In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s classic 10 Rules of Writing published nearly a decade earlier, The Guardianinvited some of the world’s most celebrated living authors to share their own dicta of the craft. “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied,”Zadie Smith counseled in the last of her ten. Midway through her list, Margaret Atwood grounded the psychological dimensions of the craft in the pragmatic and the physical: “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Neil Gaiman thought eight rather than ten tenets would be sufficient — a meta-testament to his sixth: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
Among the contributors was Jeanette Winterson — a writer of exquisite prose and keen insight into the deepest strata of the human experience: time and language, our elemental need for belonging, the power of art, how storytelling transforms us.
Jeanette Winterson (Photograph: Polly Borland)
- Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
- Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
- Love what you do.
- Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are doing is no good, accept it.
- Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.
- Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
- Take no notice of anyone with a gender agenda. A lot of men still think that women lack imagination of the fiery kind.
- Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.
- Trust your creativity.
- Enjoy this work!
For more hard-earned guidance on the writing process from other titans of literature, see Henry Miller’s eleven commandments of writing, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, and T.S. Eliot’s warm, wry letter of advice to a sixteen-year-old girl aspiring to be a writer.