The Best Writing Tips from Electric Literature Interviews

We've collected advice from over a dozen recent conversations, including Ocean Vuong, George Saunders, and Anne Lamott

Photo by Leighann Renee on Unsplash

So you’re a writer who’s come to Electric Lit for some writing advice, but you don’t feel like scanning through all of our conversations with authors to find those glimmering gems of wisdom. Don’t worry, we already did the hard part for you. Here’s a list of some of the best writing advice available on Electric Literature dot com, straight from the mouths of the experts themselves. (For more pearls of wisdom, click through to read the interviews they come from, or any other interviews on the site.)

Jia Tolentino: Throw away the first day

It helps to remember that the first sentence you write, the first paragraph, probably the first day’s worth of writing at a bare minimum (at least on an essay of the sort of length I was doing for the book) will almost always be discarded—it’s just there to get you closer to what will actually stick, and you can’t get there any other way.

Kristen Arnett: Writers are life preservers

These kind of nostalgic memories of places, people, and important events in our lives. We try to preserve them in a way that is not necessarily true to how they are, because as the creator of those memories we get to have a say in how they get to be preserved.

Tyrese Coleman: Know what you’re owed

Join a local union, hire an attorney if you don’t have an agent, question the contract, damn it, READ the contract and know what is up and what is owed to you. Don’t just be grateful that someone is publishing you. Expect to be published.

Karen Russell: Jump out of the bushes

As a reader, I am very aware of how hungry I am for action, for tension: “What? I don’t want your lyricism about the hydrangea. Is this guy going to kiss her? Are they going to fight?” As a reader you want things to stay in the heat of the moment, but as a writer, much as in life, sometimes I have this impulse to flee conflict and dive into the bushes.

Ocean Vuong: Stay obsessed

We tend to see themes as products: once we produce work around them, they should be “done with” and therefore abandoned; we should then “move on.” Otherwise we would repeat ourselves. A culture bent on “fresh new flavors” frowns on obsession, which is misread, particularly in the western lens, as stasis and therefore death. But it’s arbitrary that any book should be an ultimate container for its investigations.

Miriam Toews: Characters are king

I think that the tone of a novel is created by the characters, by who they are, where they come from, what they’re in conflict with and by what is motivating them. I guess I’m saying that I think story informs tone. Or that being true to the character of your narrator will naturally create the tone.

George Saunders: Don’t be afraid to chop

What you’re doing when your cutting, you’re actually saying with every cut, “Dear Reader, I trust you’ll get this without me hitting you over the head.”

Shelley Jackson: Everything is up to you

You have to invent at every moment both the road you’re walking down and yourself, walking.

Tana French: You’re smarter than you think

I always have to go back and rewrite. The funny thing is, though, your subconscious is doing half the job while you write. Sometimes, when you figure it out — “Oh, my God, that’s who done it!” — you realize you’ve actually been planting clues already. Before you even knew what you were aiming for, you already have a lot that fits just right.

Anne Lamott: Trust your gut (and your pen)

Asking for help is the way we develop trust in ourselves. Writing really terrible first drafts is how we develop trust in our writing.

Ivelisse Rodriguez: An ending should sing

 I’ll spend days going over the ending, and it has to sing to me. It has to touch me, and if it doesn’t touch me then it’s not the right ending. It needs to feel like something akin to a gut punch.

Fatima Farheen Mirza: Pay attention

Fiction asks a reader to look closely at a life, and the act of looking itself, even if it is looking at something painful, is a loving act, an affirming one, and it sends a powerful message: your life matters.

Mona Awad: Don’t try to be better than a tree

I feel like a boring tree murderess very often. I always think, “Is this as good as a tree?” It’s never going to be as good as a tree. Why put it out in the world? We need trees.

Helen Phillips: Keep talking to yourself

Part of the reason I write books is because I want to have a conversation about something, and that conversation begins as a conversation that I have with myself as I write.

Mary Miller: Listen to your narrator

Some writers make lists and do exercises to find out more about their characters at different points in their lives, their likes and dislikes, etc., but I’ve never done this. If the narrator is present, he or she lets you know who they are, so these things are unnecessary. And if the narrator isn’t present, no number of lists will make a difference. You can’t write a story that doesn’t want to be written. Or you can, of course, but it will be painful and unsuccessful and hard on everybody.

Tessa Hadley: Stand in the river of the present

The present feels so substantial and self-evident when it’s all around us. But it’s rushing away like a fast silent river in the dark, falling over the invisible waterfall some little distance ahead of where we are. Our present will soon pour into oblivion along with all the other infinitude of presents that have gone before it. I suppose I want to dip my sieve into that rushing river of present moments and hold back some flotsam and jetsam of detail, almost like an anthropologist — just to make a picture, for as long as this present lasts, of what it feels like and what it means for these kind of people to live, just here and just now.

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