For all the people who just wrote to ask me how to improve their work, see below:
After twenty-two years of helping people to improve their writing–this applies to all genres–the top ten bits of advice come down to four. I’ll leave it to a famous writer to pass on, since I love her work and people seem to listen more closely to the famous:
Zadie Smith (pictured above):
1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t . . All that matters is what you leave on the page.
5. Leave a decent space of time–preferably a year or more–between writing something and editing it.
10. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
& #5–revisited in depth (from her essay “That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith):
Step Away from the Vehicle
You can ignore everything else in this lecture except number eight. It is the only absolutely 24-carat-gold-plated piece of advice I have to give you. I’ve never taken it myself, though one day I hope to. The advice is as follows.
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle.
The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.
Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they’ve read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in 12 different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.