I spent fifteen miserable years in advertising and when I finally left, had nothing to show for it except a few ads no one remembered — and a flat bought on my meagre salary in 1991.

I was fired a lot, for insubordination and general disgust with the people and the process, though mainly with myself, for not having the courage to quit and do something worthwhile.

Once I started writing novels, however, I discovered that those fifteen years hadn’t been entirely wasted.  Which was a relief.  In retrospect I think of it as a medieval apprenticeship, the kind where they chain you to a bench and force you to do lowly things for fifteen years until you’re competent enough to make a shoe.

And so here are a few things I learned in my apprenticeship.

  1. READ.  Bestsellers and obscure new writers, 18th, 19th and 20th century writers as well.  Shakespeare. History and fiction, memoir and picture books, everything that’s really good and occasionally some stuff that’s really bad.  Ideas come from everywhere, and besides, if you’re not interested in books you shouldn’t be writing them.
  2. Marketing is important.  If there’s no market, there’s no money (and writing is, after all, a job – a better than average job, but a job nonetheless).
  3. But….ignore the market when you work.  People writing solely to make money can always be picked out of a criminal line-up. They look cheap, sweaty and desperate. The rest of us just look desperate.
  4. Know how to write.  Really, it helps.
  5. Spend time thinking.  Writing’s only about 20% of the job. Sometimes less.
  6. There are no rules.  Your job is to break the rules.
  7. Be wise.  Know more than your audience about something — anything.
  8. Cut to the chase. The average attention span of the modern human is about half as long as whatever you’re trying to tell him (or her).
  9. Get a life.  Breadth of knowledge is good, emotional depth is even better.
  10. Lie about everything except passion.  Chairs can talk.  Pigs can fly.  But if you don’t care about what you’re saying, no one else will either.
  11. Listen to what other people have to say.  If fifteen people say that your shoe is dull, heavy and cloddish, it probably is.
  12. But…when a publisher says ‘that sort of book doesn’t sell,’ don’t throw it away.  No one knows what sells. Until it does.
  13. Don’t worry about your connections (or lack thereof).  Anyone who’s really good will get there.  Blind, dogged persistence passes the time between now and then.
  14. Edit ruthlessly.  Do not fall in love with your own prose.  God invented the delete button to help you.
  15. Keep at it.  It’s a long game (ask Mary Berry about her 30 years in the wilderness). No one has an easy run from beginning to end. And that goes for life as well as writing.

And that’s more than enough advice for one day.

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29 thoughts on “How to Write.

  1. adele geras 6 years ago

    What a fab piece! Love it! Every word is true and you can’t say that about much, can you?

    1. Shelley Souza 6 years ago

      Ditto. (And, no, I am not plagiarising “Ghost.”)

  2. Shelley Souza 6 years ago

    I feel the same way about the time I spent writing up to three articles a day, five days a week, for over three years. While this didn’t help me in finding a quick way to structure and write the kind of novel-length story I want to tell, the sheer grind of it did teach me how to write to deadlines and how to produce something cohesive, with a beginning, a middle and an end, in one thousand words or less. Even all the years of self-doubt, it turns out, have not gone to waste. In the end, nothing in life is a waste, once you figure out what your real passion is and go for it. I am so glad you did just that, dear Meg. xxxs

  3. David McMath 6 years ago

    That is good advice for all – no matter who has us making cloddish, heavy shoes for them. Or writing blurbs and movie tags.

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  5. Vanessa Harbour 6 years ago

    Absolutely brilliant piece. I was in PR for a while and understand exactly what you are saying. Your list is superb and one I will share with my students. Thank you

  6. Martine 6 years ago

    timely advice for those of us engaged in NaNoWriMo

  7. Catherine 6 years ago

    Good advice to print out and hang on the wall, thank you for sharing it Meg.

  8. jackie 6 years ago

    I was in illustration for 15 years before I found that words were fun too. All of the above are brilliant tips for writing, and the one it took me most time to embrace is the ‘thinking’. I still catch myself only believing myself to be working when I am at the ‘paper face’, and yet I would say 90% of the time is thinking, or as my parents would say ‘doing nothing’. George MacKay Brown described writing as an interrogation of silence. Hunting the silence these days is one of the things that I find hardest. First hunt down a silent space, then allow the mind to breathe, then chase the ideas. And always run with passion.

  9. Hannah Parry 6 years ago

    My parents were part of the “Mad Men” advertising generation and, though it provided a living, it made them miserable too. I’m glad you got out of it.
    Thanks for this list. I’m keeping the faith about number 12.

  10. Lucy Daniel Raby 6 years ago

    Lovely blog post and so wise. I too was a copywriter for years before I got into kids TV writing. Then finally into books – and seemingly out again. Everything you say is true. I have also found that everything I’ve done before has contributed, it’s called ‘transferable skills.’ You build on what you’ve done before and use it.

  11. A. Colleen Jones 6 years ago

    Yup. I’m feeling that way at the moment with my current day job. Great advice. Love your books. Can’t wait to read the next one.

  12. Donna L Martin 6 years ago

    What a great reminder of what to focus on! I think I will print this out and put it on my bulletin board in my study. Great post!

    Donna L Martin

  13. Stroppy Author 6 years ago

    Brilliant, Meg, and as Adele says – all so true!
    I shall put a link to this on the page for my creative writing students.

  14. bookwitch 6 years ago

    Yeah, but where can I order the shoes?

  15. cathi rae 6 years ago

    lovely post… i am waiting for my years of horse poo based activity to be useful in any way except for building impressive shoulders lol

    1. Meg Rosoff 6 years ago

      Nothing is more zen than tending animals. Lots of time to think, and to think about what makes them them and us us.

  16. Michele 6 years ago

    Hi Meg,

    Love this post. Glad you were in advertising so we could meet. Glad you moved on so the world could enjoy your unique and wonderful voice.



    1. Meg Rosoff 6 years ago

      Aw. Thanks, Mich. Miss you lots, but not our profession!

  17. Meaghan 6 years ago

    Meg – I was a lawyer so I get the chained to a bench making a shoe thing. Your advice is so good. Your books even better. Your books are like your advice taken. So succinct. So breaking-the-rules. I’m in the wilderness now. Hope to find my way out soon. Think it will help if I keep coming back to these. Thanks for the flashlight. Hope it’s a headlamp so I can use my hands.


    1. Meg Rosoff 6 years ago

      Ah, you will, Meaghan. Just takes time.

  18. Scrapiana 6 years ago

    Yep, nothing’s wasted alright. Great post, Meg! Keep ’em coming.

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  20. Mona 6 years ago

    Love this post. Thanks.

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  22. Livingfortoday... 6 years ago

    Yet again you have inspired me! I remember last summer when I heard you speak at an event taking place at school and your story was most incredible for me. It has given me a different take on my life and it has really shown me what things are important to me and how actually growing up can be a bit tough sometimes… So thank you very much and I look forward to reading many more of your books.

  23. Sandra Danby 6 years ago

    Write for yourself, because you want to, because you enjoy it. The more you write, the more you learn. After 30 years as a journalist, I’m still learning.

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