The writing life

Julia Bell, UK novelist and lecturer, shares her essential writing tips:

1. Get rid of all distractions – if you have to, disconnect your wi-fi. There’s a great app called Freedom which disables your wi-fi: http://macfreedom.com/. This has saved me many hours of working time from the rabbit hole that is the internet.


2. Focus on what’s in front of you. A good writer can make a short walk across an empty room seem interesting. Try with what you can see now, beyond the computer screen on which you are reading these words. What’s the view out of the window? What does the floor look like? The walls? What sounds can you hear? What smells? This kind of close focus in the stuff of good fiction. Get in the habit of noticing your surroundings.


3. Write every day. Even if it’s only a shopping list. Writing is a habit as well as an art.


4. Read every day. Even if it’s only a bus timetable. Reading gives you language, ideas, jumping off points. Take vocabulary from your reading and record it in your notes books – any unusual words, odd sounding phrases, quotes you want to remember. Your notebooks then become a record of the journeys that you have taken in your reading.


5. Your characters need to be written before they’ll become fully-rounded people. You don’t know who they are when you first start writing them as you haven’t really spent enough time with them yet. Don’t expect to know them completely right away. Getting to know them over time is part of the point – uncovering them as you go along.


6. Don’t overdo it. See point 3. Writing everyday and doing nothing else will quickly burn out your inspiration. Take time out to go for walks or to museums and galleries or to the cinema, theatre, etc. to places which inspire your creativity. Again, use point 2 here, take note of where you are, what things look like, who else is around. You are a body and a consciousness in the world – use your senses and your intellect to explore it. Check out the blog of creativity guru Keri Smith http://www.kerismith.com/. Her books are great too as a way into this kind of creative exploration in practice.

Don’t listen to what anyone else says. Be a rebel when you write. Don’t bother with people when they ask you, “Your writing can eat or not?” If you have to write in order to gain approval from others—don’t do it for them, because then your writing will be worth nothing. Your writing must always mean something—especially to yourself. Get yourself a nice quiet part of the room, one in which your parents will not nag you for wasting your life not making money. I think it is fairly obvious that writing should not be about money. It is also not about fame. It is about doing what is necessary, such that if you do not write, your life would have little meaning.


Whether you write with a computer or a pen and notebook, make sure you ask yourself this question before you start: “Who am I writing for and is what I am about to say elegant, honest and straightforward?” The first line is everything. The second line too. You have to pack a punch, but always wrap your fist in a velvet glove. Then in the middle of your poem or story, take out the glove and set the context, caress the clueless reader with facts and set the context; then put the glove back on and strike hard with a revelation; the sensitive reader is always looking for a beating. Make the reader beg for more. Suggest; don’t impress. Evoke through your writing; don’t rant or complain. Leave the complaining for your blog.


The most important aspect of writing is to read the writings of others—especially those who write about the same things as you. See where you think these other writers have succeeded or failed; then commit to the same standards in your own work. Writing is meaningless if you don’t read. Read well. Be the kind of reader you would want others to be when they eventually read your work. This will make you into the kind of writer that you have always hoped to become.

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