Columns > Published on August 3rd, 2012

Some Practical Writing Advice From Douglas Coupland

LitReactor asked me for some advice for younger writers. In the end, I don't know how much advice you can really give a writer. They're either going to follow it or they're not. So rather than get mystical, I thought what might be helpful is a simple, practical list that I wish someone had given me 25 years ago. So here goes…

  • The moment your writing feels like homework is the moment you should stop doing it. It means that your project is either wrong or has gone off the rails. This is when you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re writing whatever it is you’re writing.
  • People who make a living from their writing INVARIABLY put aside a time and place to do it EVERY SINGLE DAY. On some days the words might not come, but you have to put yourself in a time and place where they can visit you.
  • Books are long and they don’t just come to you “When the spirit moves you.” They take discipline. If the spirit is moving you, then make a daily time and place for it to do so.
  • Most people are only good for one proofread no matter how much they love you. Use the request to proofread sparingly, and only ask people to proofread after you’ve gone over your work a thousand times and feel confident that it’s as clean and tight as it can get.
  • Writer’s block will happen. Don’t get too cosmic when it does. Writing will come back to you, so beating yourself up is a waste of time. Go easy on yourself. And keep putting yourself in a regular place and time to write.
  • Don’t write for magazines you don’t actually read. People can tell you’re not 100 percent into it.
Most people never finish the books they start. I’m guessing 97 percent. So if you can just finish the damn thing, you’re thousands of miles ahead of most other writers. So just finish it.
  • Magazines encourage writers to develop a specific voice; newspapers make writers conform to house style. If you don’t like having your voice squashed, avoid newspaper writing.
  • Writing can be a form of exhibitionism and writing in public can be a good way of unlocking doors, even, yes, at Starbucks. Many writers with steep deadlines go to a hotel in their own city and lock themselves away and finish things more quickly — familiarity with an absence of distractions.
  • Many editors are happy to meet a new face for lunch. Many are just plain bored. Phone and ask to meet them but… you have to bring a large pile of pitch ideas with you or the lunch will go nowhere.
  • Intern as much as possible, free if possible. The moment someone goes on maternity leave, you’re in. This is true for most jobs, actually. Nobody wants to go through 200 resumes when there’s a warm body right there in front of them.
  • People who come out of the magazine track often don’t understand why people from the lit stream see getting published as being mystical. One writes to be read and readerships are to be expected; don’t be cosmic, just get your stuff out there.
  • Your life doesn’t change much after being published. “The calm following the calm.” Even if a book strikes big, life doesn’t change much. Calibrate expectations.
  • If you’re writing because your parents are literary types and you think that writing will please them, best to stop for a while and find something else you perhaps would rather do. By the same token, don’t become a dentist merely because one of your parents is. People think this rule doesn’t apply to writing, but it applies as much to writing as to any other activity.
  • There’s no way to erase your high school teacher’s grammar voice in your head — or your lit prof’s voice. This is good because grammar is important. But the moment you follow any rules they gave you about content, you’re lost. You and only you decide what the content is that you’re going to write. Channeling a long gone prof’s elitism or quirks is crippling.
  • Creative writing doesn’t seem to help people one way or another. It can be fun, but it won’t get you anywhere faster. Literary groups can be helpful but they can contain incredibly needy people. Just saying.
  • Most people never finish the books they start. I’m guessing 97 percent. So if you can just finish the damn thing, you’re thousands of miles ahead of most other writers. So just finish it.
  • Most people who write long form fiction for a living tend to have done something else in their life, and the writing part came to them by what seems like an accident. So go out there and do other things.
  • With extremely few exceptions, writers need to be roughly 30 to start writing novels. If you’re under thirty, cut yourself some slack.
  • Most agents or editors won’t look at books that begin with its character sitting in front of a computer screen.
  • Writing can be a profoundly jealous business. Don't let yourself be sucked into jealousy spirals. You’re doing what you love doing, right? It’s the only reason you’re doing it.
  • A good teacher is someone who taught you what to love. A bad teacher is someone who taught you what to hate. Use your judgment.

Header background: Talking Sticks, Douglas Coupland, 2009. Image:

About the author

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian novelist, visual artist and designer. His first novel in 1991 was Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. He has published thirteen novels, a collection of short stories, seven nonfiction books, and a number of dramatic works and screenplays for film and television. Coupland’s novels and visual work synthesize high and low culture, web technology, religion, and changes in human existence caused by modern technologies.

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