Writing advice from Zadie Smith

It was inevitable that I’d include Zadie Smith in this series of writing advice posts.

For those who read and love her, Zadie Smith is an example of what to do with a sentence, how to mould a character, and how to write a novel or short story that has a rhythm that rolls you forward and sucks you in until you’ve forgotten to eat and drink or talk to your loved ones that day. Danielle Bowler wrote an ode to Zadie Smith in Feminism Is, if you’d like to get a South African take.

Smith needs no introduction from me, I’m sure. But, just in case you have never heard of her, she is the author of nine books that include novels, essay collections, and short stories. She has been shortlisted for and won a host of prizes and accolades and for those lucky enough to live in New York she is a tenured professor of fiction at New York University.

Many people have read through Smith’s ten rules of writing which includes at number ten “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

Her advice on when to edit might be tough for some of us to take, but I think it is valuable and something I should do more. In summary, don’t rush. In full, see the excerpt from the Brain Pickings article below.

“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.


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 twelve 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.

Zadie Smith as quoted in Brain Pickings

Good luck to you all in forgetting that you wrote something. I hope what you find in those drawers a year from now is surprising and exciting.