Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writers

Zadie Smith's Rules for Writers

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise 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.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

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.

9. Don’t confuse honours 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.


Zadie Smith was one of a number of high-profile writers asked by The Guardian in 2010 for their best tips for writing fiction. The series was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. Read more writing tips from Jonathan Franzen, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood.




  1. Frank Green
    10 June 2013 / 10:35 pm

    She is right on!

  2. Dingofist
    11 June 2013 / 4:43 am

    These are exactly the kinds of things I needed to hear. Best tips!

  3. 20 June 2013 / 8:58 pm

    Thanks. A valuable tip indeed.

  4. MiddleM
    22 June 2013 / 4:57 am

    7. “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.” — Wiser words were never spoken!

  5. 28 June 2013 / 2:13 am

    This is great. I’m torn though. It makes so much sense to disconnect your computer from the internet when you’re writing. Yet it (the net) is so useful for checking the spellings of names, places, and so on (a million things really). I guess a dictionaries, and a couple of reference books would do the same trick. Back to traditional virtues, and to work.

  6. 16 August 2013 / 4:08 am

    #2 sounds very “Art of War” and I love that. Read like an enemy would. Makes you think of revision in a whole different light.

  7. Jan Benschop
    3 January 2014 / 1:37 pm

    When reading your own work as an enemy would, I should think perhaps that could create a fine line between opposition and compassion: between fear and fierceness; between hate and love. I suppose that could help heighten tension in my writing…

  8. 19 April 2015 / 6:06 am

    One needs the internet to look things up, such as ingredients for meals or chemical components, or glaciers; there are all these objects I am never sure of and have to hustle around for or the metaphor is wrong. Or, if one is writing about a movie, one needs to see that, plus my Word thing won’t look up words for me without the internet, and if I try the Thesaurus I just read that all day long. And then there’s the art, almost vital to look at high art every so often, or a house or a beetle, maybe a sad girl or a cave, a well-drawn piece of rock. Does Zadie Smith mean just get stuck into language and nothing else, or does she mean there’s a temptation to read emails or get into Skype so no internet for distraction reasons rather than illustrative ones? Also, she does write novels, I remember now. If one writes, say, ‘facets’, they are smaller. Oh yes, she wrote something about experimental fiction and said our society was too unhealthy to have a flourishing experimental fiction faction working alongside the normal and I write experimental fiction (or so I m told) so her rules probably don’t apply. And she seems to be writing from the notion that there are other people around, or other things around that have to kept out, like family I suppose, or these cliques and gangs she mentions – what are these? I read a bit of ‘White Teeth’ and there were an awful lot of people in it. This will be the regulations on time and space coming in, to protect one from society, that is if one belongs to society rather than gouging around in utter isolation. In short, these are rules that don’t apply to writers per se, just a particular type of writer. And she doesn’t mention sewing anywhere. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to her to hand-sew a book. Surely that should be on the list? Or handwrite one, with pictures, as I do every week. She just means published authors who write a straightforward tale with plot and character and who lead normal lives. So maybe there’s a Weird List for people like me somewhere. No, no, NOT ‘drink seven bottles of wine and sleep around and do coke,’ like what that American used to say, but y’know. Or do you? Does anyone know? IS there one?

  9. 10 June 2017 / 2:00 am

    You all focus on novels. I have published 52 books… Essays, Poems, Short stories, Travelogues, Health books, Political potpourri, human rights, encyclopedia of Letters to editors (Got Limca Book of World Record) and now I want someone to publish my 10,000 Tweets Anthology… Fascinating subjects, concerns, solutions dealt in 140 characters.

Leave a Reply