Margaret Atwood – Rules For Writers (Pencils, A Firm Grip On Reality, and Prayer)

It’s that time again… Ten rules about writing from someone who knows a thing or two about it. Margaret Atwood is an esteemed poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist and environmental activist who the Economist has hailed as a “scintillating wordsmith.” You can check out her Wiki for her full bio, but let’s just say she has won a ton of awards.

Her book, Oryx and Crake (besides having an awesome cover), was shortlisted for the Booker prize. If you enjoy it, you should also read The Year of the Flood, as they share characters and take place at the same time. Both are what Margaret calls “speculative fiction” (rather than science fiction) because they “deal with things that have not been invented yet.” If you enjoyed The Hunger Games (which happens to be the #1 book on Amazon right now, if you haven’t read it yet), you’ll probably like Margaret’s works as well, as they deal with many similar themes.

Margaret Atwood’s Rules For Writers

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.

*She’s Canadian, hence the spelling differences.

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12 Responses to Margaret Atwood – Rules For Writers (Pencils, A Firm Grip On Reality, and Prayer)

  1. Kate A says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this quirky list. Thanks!

  2. Diana says:

    are you doing your back exercises :)?

  3. L-o-v-e, love this. I’m printing it and hanging it where I can see it every day.

  4. Cindy says:

    Did you think we wouldn’t take her seriously if we thought she had spelt airplanes wrong? Good think she didn’t need to refer to rubbers when mentioning pencils!!

    • You’d be amazed. I’ve gotten negative comments when I’ve transcribed something exactly and it is written differently than people would expect. So, to avoid any confusion, I added the disclaimer. It’s more a matter of you taking me seriously, rather than the author of the rules :).

  5. Love it! If she can make writing tips so enjoyable, I definitely need to read her book.

  6. Thank you Patricia! This poem is wonderful!

  7. Pingback: Reading Material | Pretty in Black

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