Margaret Atwood’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Margaret Atwood's Ten Rules for Writing FictionOver the past few weeks we’ve been posting top ten lists from some of the world’s best and most famous writers. The lists were first published in The Guardian newspaper in 2010 in a series that was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,

Here are the ten rules for writing from Margaret Atwood, celebrated novelist, poet, essayist and winner of the Man Booker prize in 2000.

  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.


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10 Comments

  1. Malchien
    29 April 2013 / 4:01 pm

    She’s seventy three and she’s never heard of a pencil sharpener? Otherwise good advice.

    • 29 April 2013 / 10:27 pm

      Someone else suggested she needs to try a fisher space pen 🙂
      Glad you otherwise enjoyed the list.

    • Lindi
      2 November 2015 / 12:34 am

      WHAT ABOUT PROPELLING PENCILS????? OR HEAVEN;S SAKE!!!

  2. Debby Hanoka
    30 April 2013 / 10:55 am

    Note the dry humour. Rules 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, & 10 are just plain hilarious! Thank you, Ms. Atwood!

  3. 1 May 2013 / 1:09 am

    I’m thrown by the writing on your arm with a pencil (ouch) but yes…very funny stuff. I like the bit about shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark…apt.

    • bodicea77
      1 May 2013 / 7:45 pm

      Sense of humour rare where you’re from?

      • 4 May 2013 / 5:24 pm

        From a place that boasts of much better humour .. 🙂

  4. 10 May 2015 / 5:41 am

    ‘At a pinch’, not ‘in a pinch’. You cannot write on your arm with a pencil.

  5. 29 July 2017 / 9:38 am

    Oh Ms. Atwood…I’m sorry to be so tardy to the party here. Love your advice. Love how literal your commenters are (Hint: it was a piece about writing FICTION!) I hope you’re enjoying the new found popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale! Thanks for the inspiration.

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