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Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

Source: Vanwaffle/Wikimedia Commons

The most popular post in the nearly one-year history of this blog is, by far, Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules of Writing.

Since I’m currently reading through The Blind Assassin, perhaps Margaret Atwood’s most popular novel, I thought we’d take a look at her 10 rules of writing today. Atwood’s rules are a little more tongue-in-cheek than Franzen’s.

This list also comes from The Guardian:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. 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.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Got your pencils handy? Of the 1o, I’ve got to say #8 is my favorite. Getting that second opinion reminds me: To be a good writer, you really do need thick skin. If you can’t take a friend’s constructive criticism, then you’re definitely not going to take it well when your work is out there in the public eye. 

I think this is especially important for new writers who aren’t used to being edited.  You’re going to see red marks–maybe green if your editor is polite–lots of them. Don’t take those edits personally.

So that’s my 2 cents. What rule stands out to you?

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. #3 is great. Whenever I don’t have paper in my purse or car, I always make sure there’s a piece of wood around. It just makes sense.
    Seems like Atwood has a good sense of humor.


    August 11, 2011
    • She does have a dry wit. Enjoying it in The Blind Assassin as well. Pops up in places.


      August 11, 2011
    • Kathryn Frances #

      You also have to be pretty hardcore to write on your arm with a pencil.


      November 21, 2011
  2. #4 seems like the most useful, but other than that, how do you pick a favorite?


    August 11, 2011
  3. Patti #

    This is a great list – basically she’s telling us, “if you’re going to write, just get on with it!”


    August 11, 2011
  4. That third item in #7 really bothered me–grip on reality? Does anybody have one of those? How’s it working out for ya? Is it easy to manage or is the darn thing slippery? If you’ve got one, can you share it, or do I have to get one of my own? 😉

    P.S. Robert: I’m on my way to pick up a copy of Neuromancer. Will let you know what I think of it as soon as I can.


    August 11, 2011
  5. What an awesome list. Made me chuckle.


    August 11, 2011
  6. Kim #

    Rules #1 and 2. This is why Margaret Atwood is fantastic.


    August 11, 2011
  7. #’s 8 and 9 are golden and true. Especially about critiques coming from romantic relationships…


    August 14, 2011
  8. Amy #

    I like #9. I always like suggestions on how to get moving when you’re stuck, since stuck happens to me a lot.


    August 14, 2011

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