10 Rules for Writing: Margaret Atwood

Every author has their favorite rules or ways of writing. Our work can benefit  from learning their process. In the same way it’s accepted painters  learn from the masters , writers too can learn from other writers. ( I wrote in more detail about this in the post An Infinite Authors Resource .) The writer doesn’t  have to be your favorite, but their work must be relevant. When you’re having trouble with a piece of work – your blog, fiction or non-fiction  – don’t reinvent the wheel or plagiarize, but  look at how someone else tackled the problem. For issues on social media, the internet or  websites, I’d go to  Sherryl Perry or Leora Wenger . If you want a slow build up of fear try Helen Dunmore‘s ‘The Betrayal‘. For a more ‘in your face’ scary scene maybe go to Stephen King.

Margaret-Atwood 19.10.2009

Margaret-Atwood 19.10.2009
By Lesekreis (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

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 visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

NB: Margaret Atwood’s rules for writing fiction, originally appeared as part of a feature in  The Guardian . I’d like to give a special thanks to Robert Bruce of  http://101books.net/ ( a fantastic site for book-lovers), who reminded me of her list in a recent post he did on Steinbeck.


I really love her dry sense of humor and sticking with the basics, like using a pencil, or your arm!  The rules could also apply to virtually any kind of writing.

OK, my turn…though I have made it easy on myself by only doing three.

A.K. Andrew’s Top 3 Writing Rules :

1. Write little and often. (Whatever  interpretation works for you)

2.  Always carry a notebook (paper or electronic). Odd words or thoughts come  at any time day or night and trying to rely on your memory to recall them is hopeless. I’ve learned how to write small groups of words in the dark, then decipher them in the morning.

3. Write what you enjoy. If you’re not enjoying the process, your reader will never be engaged.

What are your top 3 writing Rules?  (See I’ve made it easy for you too!) 

I’d love to hear your thoughts – and perhaps between us, we can come up with a really great new list of  10 Writing Rules.

Note: This will be my last post for a month, so enjoy the end of summer and I’ll see you back here near the end of September.


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  1. I like number five, and it’s so true too. I tend to work longer hours these days and after a while I need to just take a break and get away from the keyboard for 30 min or so. While you’re aware that your back hurts, you don’t really equate that with being distracted even though that is exactly what you are!

    Number 8 made me LOL 🙂
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  2. Great post, AK! I love Margaret A’s wry sense of humour!

    I relate well to your tips. The most important things for my writing are:

    1) Write about things I am passionate. For me, that’s travel and chocolate.
    2) Get other small distractions out of the way so that I can concentrate on my writing.
    3) Give myself time to enjoy life even though I have self-imposed deadlines. Forcing myself to write when I don’t feel like it never produces great writing.
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    • Good to see you Doreen, & thanks for the compliment. Being passionate is a must, but your second one is also really important. I think this is where the potential for self sabotage comes in too, so it can be tricky. Murakami said that the most important part of his day started when he came out of his writing study. Living life is a must for both inspiration & sanity.
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  3. My #1 is essentially the same as yours: write as often as you can manage. The more you write the better (I believe) you will be over time. You will find out a lot about you and your style and be able to tweak and perfect it.

    #2 Read more. Read everything you can get your hands on. This is easy if you like to read, and I don’t know many writers who dislike reading, but I’m sure they’re out there. This leads directly into the last…

    #3 Listen to advice from other writers. I’m not implying you must necessarily HEED all the advice or follow it, but listen to it, if it’s offered of shared. You don’t know everything, even if you think you do (Replace the “you” with “I” because I’m talking about myself!
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    • Thanks so much for your comments. I loved all your points. I would have absolutely included 2 & 3 if my list had been longer. Reading is one of the best ways of learning the craft of writing besides writing itself.
      As for sharing work with your peers, I feel it’s essential. No-one can work in a vacuum all the time and being able to accept criticism and know when it’s right for you to make the changes you need is the only way to learn and grow. Good to see you here. Hope you’ll be back!
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..10 Rules for Writing: Margaret AtwoodMy Profile

  4. Remember when we used fountain pens? Talk about dripping. Very humorous rules. Thanks.

    • Glad you enjoyed them. She def. has a good sense of humor.
      Yes I do remember fountain pens. In fact in my junior school we had the old wood & metal framed desks that had inkwells! I’m really not that old, it’s just the British school system took a while to catch up. Thanks for yr comment:-)
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  5. I love Margaret’s Rule #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. How very true that is.

    One of my rules is, always write from personal experience. I have a better shot at having my passion shining thru. :-), Susan
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    • It’s certainly a good turn of phrase – again her dry wit is lovely.
      I think that for some things writing from personal experience is a must – especially for the blogs that you do Susan.
      In fiction ,although initially it’s often said ‘write what you know’, but novels would be very limited if authors then stuck to that. I certainly draw on personal life or people I’ve met, but then shift things around to fit the scene and the context. I def. agree with you that you have to feel passionate about what you write, otherwise it will come across as v. flat.
      Thanks so much for your comment Susan. 🙂
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  6. Hi A.K.,
    I enjoyed Margaret’s 10 rules for writing. It was a nice mix of reality and humor. 🙂
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  7. Cool post!! The idea of carrying a paper to get your thoughts when they first enter your brain is one I try to do, but sometimes an idea comes when no paper is around – and if I don’t write it down, it’s lost forever!
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  8. Good advice from Margaret Atwood. Not least the need to hold your reader’s attention, which is crucial. Far too often writers fail to do so. When it comes to authors it’s fine since the book will not be published, unless the author pays for it. But when it comes to blogs, bloggers should really make an effort in this respect. To only write about what you enjoy is good advice and makes a huge difference.
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    • Thanks for the comment Catarina – I agree, especially with bloggers. Because there is no outside demand, it can be easy too become lazy, but it’s essential to be on the ball all the time & treat each post as an important piece. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. As always, good insight from you!
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  9. Great blog Kathy. It got me thinking as it’s been so long since I’ve been able to write. I’m forced by the nature of summer holidays and childcare to take long breaks from writing, otherwise one of my rules would be write little and often. So in place of that, here goes a top three for the sporadic writer.

    1. Accept it will take at least three days to get back into your work after being away from it for a while. Resist thinking that you are no longer a writer. Understand that everything you write within those three days will be turgid and ultimately useless – i’s just your brain clearing weeks of junk. The flow will return.

    2. Never stop thinking about your work, even if you are not committing words to paper. Sometimes a break can mean returning with renewed energy, plus a change in character of plot direction for the better, or problems solved after thinking them through properly.

    3. Do not confuse your critical and creative heads.They are both necessary to make a good pice of work, but when they fight nothing gets done.

    Hope you have a great break Kathy and look forward to seeing you sometime soon xx

    • HI Becky – thanks so much for your in depth comment. It really must be hard to take time to write during the holidays, so I especially appreciate it. All three are excellent points , especially when one is taking a break. In truth, No 1 is actually about 3 points, so you did more than me! Resist thinking you’re not a writer is really important – a writer is always a writer, in the same way an artist is always an artist however long the gap.
      Thinking about your work can be an excellent way of problem solving even when you’re not writing. But sometimes we do need a total break to get a fresh eye.
      I like your analogy of the critical & creative heads fighting – it gives validation to the critic rather than it becoming merely a negative process.
      Great to see you here :-))
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  10. My top three writing rules are as follows:

    1. Allow yourself to write badly.
    2. Seek critique partners learn to value constructive criticism.
    3. Write your first draft without making revisions (I definitely struggle with this!)
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    • I love your first one Jeri. I’m definitely a believer in ‘just write’. Quality will come from quantity, but also I think it allows you to be free with what you write.
      My critique partners are absolutely essential. Couldn’t manage without them.
      As to your third – I don’t completely do this, though with my second novel I tried to get through the first draft without laboring over it as much.
      Thanks so much for adding 3 great rules.
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  11. Great post!
    I need to get a notebook and pencil for when I’m out but I keep forgetting which is so annoying when I think of quotes etc and have nothing at hand.
    My first rule though when writing is peace, tv’s blaring and people talking are distracting so I bought myself some background music… waves and thunderstorms to clear everything away.
    I agree with Jeri… just write, even badly! At first I thought every word had to be perfect first time and this was what other people were doing but I have learned to just write… and let the tears and laughter flow with it. There is plenty of time for tissues and corrections later

    • Definitely buy that notebook TODAY Claire – doesn’t have to be anything fancy – but make it small enough so it fits in to whatever bag/purse/or pocket you usually have with you. It’s really just a habit, which feels like the complete norm once you have it down.
      Noise I’m not interested in, I do find a distraction, tho on the occasions I’ve written in a cafe or a waiting room I am able to blank it out. As to playing music when I write, I go backwards & forward on that – maybe I’ll give ‘background music’ a try too.
      But definitely the mantra ‘just write’ is a good one. Most of my short stories started with a ‘freewrite'(where you just write something,anything and don’t stop.) and that works well for me.
      Glad you feel freed up to write without it having to be perfect.
      Thanks so much for your comments & for stopping by. 🙂
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  12. Write with passion, compassion and keep it simple. People should be able to relate to what you have written and above all you should not send them rushing for the dictionary. Cheers.
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  13. A.K., what a fun post!! I’m glad I came back to this one to read it because I never knew Margaret Atwood was so funny 🙂
    The thing is, since she started her list off as though the reader is on an airplane, I imagined the whole thing being on an airplane, up until point 9, when she said don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. So, when she said, have a friend read your work, I imagined Margaret Atwood turning to the person seated next to her on the airplane and asking them to read her book. Heehee!
    Anyway, I’m glad you left us with your three tips. And I would agree with all of them. One thing I found for at least one of my tips though, is to never stop, and NEVER EVER EVER throw your stuff away. I did that once–threw away quite a bit of my journals and stories and totally regretted it later. At the point I threw it away, I thought, I am never going to write again. But I’m a writer and I couldn’t help myself. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing. Thoroughly enjoyed it!
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    • Great comment Bethany – that cracked me up that you thought it was all going to be in a plane! But Margaret Atwood is very surprising isn’t she?
      Really good advice on not throwing things away – it’s bad enough when you have to switch computers trying to make sure everything is in place. But you never know when you are going to use a scene or a character from something you wrote before. So glad you came back to read this post too! 🙂
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