8 writing tips from authors who won the Nobel
Writing tips from authors who won the Nobel (such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) are often worth taking to heart. Read 8 of the best pieces of writing advice from acclaimed authors:
1. Don’t use dead language
Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. In her Nobel lecture, Morrison contrasts ‘dead language’ that ‘thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential’ with language that is used with awareness and care. She classes sexist and racist language as the former, saying that they are ‘the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.’
Morrison’s words from later in her same speech give us guidance for how not to use dead language in our own writing:
‘Language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.’
What Morrison suggests here is that it is best to approach grand subjects without trying to make the definitive statement, without trying to say ‘everything’. Tell the one true story that matters to you. A story that explores the themes and ideas that matter to you.
This leads to excellent writing advice from another Nobel-winning writer, this time the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska:
2. Use concrete imagery when you write about large, abstract themes
The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel for literature in 1996, ran a column giving advice to writers in the Polish newspaper Literary Life. In one great piece of writing advice, Szymborska told an aspiring poet the following (her advice applies to fiction authors too):
‘You’ve managed to squeeze more lofty words into three short poems than most poets manage in a lifetime: ‘Fatherland,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’: such words don’t come cheap. Real blood flows in them, which can’t be counterfeited with ink.’
This ties into Morrison’s writing advice. When writing tips from authors who are widely respected overlap, it merits taking especial notice. Grand or historical themes are best conveyed and made into stories by using what is concrete and particular. Instead of describing a character who ‘loves freedom’, for example, describe a character’s actions and experiences that demonstrate this love of freedom. This gives readers a more visual and empathetic reading experience.
3. Work stories out in your head when you can’t write
The Canadian author Alice Munro, who was given the Nobel for Literature in 2013, has dedicated her writing life almost exclusively to the short story. When asked whether she always plots a story first, Munro says:
‘Usually, I have a lot of acquaintance with the story before I start writing it. When I didn’t have regular time to give to writing, stories would just be working in my head for so long that when I started to write I was deep into them.’
To add to this, you could keep a voice recorder or use the voice note function on a smartphone to record ideas or sentences for your novel as they occur to you. This will help you keep creating even when you have fewer moments to sit down and write.
4. Read and draw on wide influences but don’t cram your work with others’ ideas
The Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel for Literature in 1986, describes his reading habits and how reading influenced his writing in an interview:
‘I’ve read widely in the world’s literature, European, Asiatic, American … In other words, I cannot cut off and will not attempt to cut off what is my experience and what is after all, the world’s experience. There is a great deal of intercommunication in the world. A lot of people tend to forget that. As long as I find the means of expression, a form of communication which does not alienate my immediate readership and I do not deliberately cram my work with foreign references to a point where the work is indigestible — these are faults which should never be permitted by any serious writer.’
It’s true that to write well you need to read widely. And reading diverse books will enrich your own writing. But be selective about what references you consciously include because your novel should ultimately be your own story rather than a patchwork of transparent influences.
5. Make people believe in your story first and foremost
The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The celebrated author of novels such as Cien años de soledad (translated as A Hundred Years of Solitude) was also a journalist. When asked about the difference between journalism and writing fiction, Marquez answered thus:
‘In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.’
This last sentence is key: It doesn’t matter if you write realist fiction set in contemporary London or futuristic sci-fi set in a Mars colony. Create believable characters who have credible motivations and flaws, immersive settings and realistic tensions and conflicts and your fiction will feel believable.
6. Don’t focus on the end goal excessively as you write
Of all the writing tips from authors, the advice John Steinbeck gave remains some of the best. In the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review (excerpted by The Atlantic here), Steinbeck writes:
‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.’
It’s easy to feel either impatient or overwhelmed if you focus only on when your novel will be finished. Focus on the task at hand instead. Write just one page today: it’s one more page than you had yesterday. Then write another page tomorrow (continue this approach and your daily page count will likely increase as you gain momentum).
7. Make sure you write regularly and inspiration will come
The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who published over 30 novels, plays and essays, received the Nobel in 2010. In an interview with the Paris Review, Vargas gives advice on how to keep coming up with writing ideas:
‘If I started to wait for moments of inspiration, I would never finish a book. Inspiration for me comes from a regular effort.’
Keep a writing schedule and be as disciplined as you can about keeping your writing appointments with yourself. This will help ensure a steady stream of story ideas.
8. Write to connect
The great Canadian-American author Saul Bellow, who published 14 novels and novellas and won the Nobel for writing in 1976, beautifully described the intimacy between the writer and the reader:
‘When you open a novel — and I mean of course the real thing — you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words … It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he [or she] can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.’
Maria Popova of the excellent blog Brain Pickings describes why Bellows’ advice is relevant for today’s writer:
‘How poignant to consider Bellow’s remarks in our age where people seem to “hunger for” cat videos and where the writer’s voice is being increasingly muffled by the “content”-producer’s agenda — and yet, and yet, when we do encounter those ever-rarer “essences” today, those oases of absolute intimacy with another mind, how transcendent our “emotional completeness” then.’
As Bellows and Popova suggest, write to connect with readers. Show them what both you and your characters think and feel and experience. A blockbuster novel needs tension and suspense and the other ingredients of a good story. Yet when you connect with readers and pour your own unique perspective and temperament into your work, you can connect with readers even without an overwrought plot or the world’s greatest writing style.