Tips to do Your Best Writing and Editing

Tips from a Leading Author

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet.” This is number seven on much-honored English author Zadie Smith’s 10 rules for writers. (Time magazine included her wonderful novel, White Teeth, in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.) I don’t think she wants us harking back to the days of typewriters to capture that magic of yesteryear. I think she is referring more to keeping distractions to a minimum, something we discussed here last month. So if you have writing to do, you may want to do it on something other than your primary, linked-to-the-world machine.

Here are the other nine rules that Smith offered to The Guardian—with my comments after in italics:

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else. It’s too late for most of us to benefit by this, but certainly not for your kids. Though in today’s climate, good luck.
2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would. (This goes with number 5.)
3. Don’t romanticize 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. Funny, a sports team will try to do this—you won’t see Tim Tebow throwing too many passes in the playoff game on Sunday—but not always writers.
5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it. Writing and editing your own stuff is becoming more of a necessity in this age. So leaving time between those two steps—whenever possible—is great advice; it gives you more distance to read in an unbiased manner.
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. This probably refers more to fiction than non-fiction, but the time and space elements are certainly important.
9. Don’t confuse honors 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. Wow, nobody gave me that speech back in college, but in a way it does ring true. Even when a piece reads well, I’ll always see something I could have done better—though lifelong sadness seems a tad harsh. How about a temporary downer?

Although even the great writer Samuel Beckett of Waiting for Godot fame, after having to translate his French novels into English, did apparently remark, “My God how I hate my own work.” So maybe Smith has a point.

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Comments
    Ricardo B.

    I like #7 “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” Otherwise, it’s really easy to get distracted. In addition though, I also use a timer to help me stay focused. 20 minutes of straight writing, then only 1-2 minutes break to stand, and read my work aloud.

    Reply
    Chris S.

    Hi Ricardo,

    Thanks for the comment. I like your suggestion of using a timer. I typically like to step away from my writing for a period of time, if possible, so I can return to it fresh. It helps me take a more critical look at the content.

    Reply

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