This blog was featured on 06/18/2019
6 Margaret Atwood Writing Tips
Written by
She Writes
June 2019
Written by
She Writes
June 2019

The beloved author of The Handmaid’s Tale novel is almost as well-known for her straightforward writing tips and guidance as she is for her TV-worthy fiction. Here we’ve rounded up some of her best advice, filled with her perspective on the writing life.

1. Begin outside 

In the idyllic Bluebeard’s Egg, Atwood includes this delectable little adage:

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.

It’s a powerful statement, and it works so well because it draws on feeling rather than raw fact. Nobody casts a vivid image of a sunset by recalling to the reader’s mind that sunsets are typically pink and orange and purple – and you definitely don’t win friends and influence people just by hauling out synonyms (‘the sunset was scarlet, ochre, and violet’ isn’t going to cut it).

Use sensory moments you’ve earned in real life to elevate your writing.

To experience the sunset, the reader must see it through your eyes (and other senses) and therefore your eyes had better be looking at real sunsets. 

This excerpt was originally published in Standout Books. Read the full post here.

2. Write like no-one’s watching

Self-editing is an important tool, but one that ought to be used later in the process, when the words have had a chance to exist without critique.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it,” says Atwood.

This excerpt was originally published in Standout Books. Read the full post here.

3. Dive right in

“I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. “Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?” And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream. Once you’re in, keep going. You may have to crumple and toss, but we all do that. Courage! I think that is what’s most required,” says Atwood.

So stop what you are doing. Don’t even think about creating the ideal work environment or grabbing a latte. Sit down. Open the computer. Type some words. Type some more words. Repeat for 15 minutes/one hour/whatever you’ve got every day for the next month. This is the way to write – by writing, not by being good at it (yet).

What does this mean for revision? You may choose to obscure the truth, white it out or cover it in gauze. You may lie. You may tailor certain words to a certain audience. But if you try to do all of this in advance, the story will be manipulated and obscured before it ever has the chance to be actualized.

This excerpt was originally published in Standout Books. Read the full post here.

4. Face the challenges bravely and gracefully

For Atwood, she says the “hardest part about writing fiction is the part you know you have to put in, that is the expository. It’s like the parts in a stage play where you have to get the characters on and off the stage. So, you have to think of some reason why they’re now going to walk off the stage, and then you have to make sure the timing is right to enable them to get off the page.”

These are the informative parts of the novel that a writer knows the reader must have, but they are often the most difficult to write. They’re unavoidable, but they must be faced – and written – bravely and gracefully so that they fit seamlessly into the story.

This excerpt was originally published in MP Books. Read the full post here.

5. 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,” says Atwood. “Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”

In other words, writing takes resilience!

This excerpt was originally published in The Guardian. Read the full post here.

6. Post-publishing advice

“Your best friend at a reading is a good sound system,” says Atwood on her website. “Check it before starting. Your next best friend is your big-numbers watch. Don’t hog time. People need to eat, drink, and pee sometimes. (Not only you. Audience members.)”

“If working with a publicist, remember: they are not your slaves, bellhops, or playgirls. They are there to help you with your professional careers. Do not chase them around hotel rooms, as was done a lot in the ‘60s. Smiling is work, and they put in a lot of that work during the day. Respect their tired smile muscles. Be clear in your communications with them. You both have the same goal.”

“It’s tough out there in Bookworld. Tread carefiully. Don’t speak so softly that you can’t be heard, not so loudly that you’re deafening. Carry a medium sized schtick. “

More writing advice from Atwood

Can’t get enough of Atwood’s sound and straightforward writing advice?

Take her MasterClass where she shares her own writer’s story and creative process and encourages writers to find their own paths and overcome obstacles like fear.

In her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, she offers a candid appraisal of her own experience as well as a breadth of reading that encompasses everything from Dante to Elmore Leonard.

Photo Credit: Jean Malek

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles