Teju Cole’s Rules On Writing

Teju Cole's Rules on Writing
In this guest post Emmanuel Iduma, co-publisher and creative director of Saraba Magazine, shares some inspiring and practical advice from Teju Cole.

Eight Letters to a Young Writer evolved as a fictional exercise addressed by Teju Cole to an imaginary young Nigerian writer. With the encouragement of Molara Wood, the editor of the series, Cole tried to move from discussions of simple writing precepts to more complex things like voice and calling. Those pieces, first published in the now defunct NEXT newspaper, were made available by Cole as a single downloadable PDF file. From that PDF I have gleaned 20+ tips/lessons on writing. I consider the letters one of the most important resource on the art of writing fiction that has come out of Nigeria in the last five years. And I share in Teju Cole’s aspiration that young writers in Nigeria and elsewhere find the tips useful.

Here, then.

  1. There are few things more resistant to tutoring than the creative arts. All artists are after that thing that resists expression.
  2. Keep it simple. There are many who use big words to mask the poverty of their ideas. A straightforward vocabulary, using mostly ordinary words, spiced every now and again with an unusual one, persuades the reader that you’re in control of your language.
  3. Remove all clichés from your writing. Spare not a single one. The cliché is an element of herd thinking, and writers should be solitary animals. We do our work always in the shadow of herd thinking. Be expansive in your descriptions. Dare to bore.
  4. Avoid adverbs. Let the nouns, adjectives and verbs carry the action of the story.
  5. When reporting speech, it is enough to say “she said” or “he said.” You must leave “he chortled,” “she muttered,” “I shouted,” and other such phrases to writers of genre fiction.
  6. Aim for a transparent style so that the story you’re telling is that much more forceful.
  7. Read more than you write. In expressing the ambition to be a writer, you are committing yourself to the community of other writers.
  8. Your originality will mean nothing unless you can understand the originality of others. What we call originality is little more than the fine blending of influences.
  9. Be ruthless in your use of what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced. Add your imagination, so that where invention ends and reality begins is undetectable.
  10. Be courageous. Nothing human should be far from you.
  11. Avoid writing narratives that have only a single meaning
  12. Characters do shocking things, not because the author wishes to shock, but because it is in the character of humans to misbehave.
  13. If you are withholding information, there should be a reason for it. The trick of it will be to give information, when you give it, in a way that feels organic.
  14. Continue to fail better—failure of a kind that might even be better than certain forms of success.
  15. One of the things that matters most is voice. Great writers know all about it, and ordinary writers ignore it.
  16. What all great works have in common is that the voicing is secure. There is evidence, throughout, that how the tale is being told is precisely how the author wishes it to be told.
  17. Try to better bind the reader to life. Place at the heart of a story a voice that is neither so vague that it applies to everyone, nor so eccentric that none can relate to it.
  18. What I try to do in my work is to find out how the gestures of various arts can be smuggled beyond their native borders, music that exceeds music, painting that exceeds painting.
  19. Look at your environment as though you were a child, or a foreigner, or an alien from another planet. But to see what is happening, you need to reform your eyes. Your writing talent should consist of making the ordinary interesting.
  20. In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent detail. Your sensibilities have to be retrained so that they catch what others miss.
  21. Luxuriate in the formalized chat that is called an interview. At times, you can read something in one of those conversations that feels like it is a secret code passed from the author directly to you, in the guise of a public utterance
  22. Keep an inner fire; keep it on your own behalf and on behalf of so many people who are suffering because of the system.

Teju Cole was born in the United States in 1975 and raised in Nigeria. He is the author of Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Internationaler Literaturpreis, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the New York City Book Award, and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His photography has been exhibited in India and the United States. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Image Credit: Teju Cole




  1. 24 September 2014 / 10:53 pm

    I think these rules for writing are the best I’ve seen yet. Thanks for the reminders.

  2. Joe Follansbee
    24 September 2014 / 11:50 pm

    A great list of principles, but number five, the one about dialog tags, contains a cheap shot at genre fiction writers. That’s beneath you, Mr. Cole.

  3. Kate Berry
    14 January 2015 / 3:10 am

    I agree Joe. As one who reads and writes genre fiction I found it pretty disrespectful. Perhaps he think himself above the likes of Banks, Gaiman or Le Guin, he’d be wrong.

  4. 18 March 2015 / 3:01 am

    Thank you for the lovely tips, they are super helpful, especially in high school.


  5. 15 September 2015 / 1:29 am

    Joe & Kate, I felt a similar tug when I read the bit about the tag and genre fiction. However, of late I’ve wanted to understand the ‘war’ between genre/commercial fiction and literary fiction. I’ve read a piece by Brian Klem (WD colunmist/writer) that does speak to some distinctions between literary and genre writing. I saw them as ways to distinguish one form from another — not as a swat. Another article that gives a broader yet more complete understanding of the difference between the two genres is in the Huffington Post published last February 2014 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-petite/literary-fiction-vs-genre-fiction_b_4859609.html.

    I feel as if the larger picture of literary vs genre is a distraction that polarizes writers and readers. In the end, one has to write what comes to you naturally. I find that I prefer genre fiction but when I write I lean towards the literary because it’s just what feels right to me. As was pointed out, there are great examples of genre writers who have transcended the ‘war’ and have won.

    Here Teju Cole is simply expressing which side of the war he is presently on. However, that too might change in time!

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