A Handful of Writing Truths

photo-72A meme is making its way around the internet this week—14 writers give their advice, written on their hands. It made me think about the different ways we approach our writing, and how we all come to truths of our own over time.  I have been thinking about what my truths are and how I arrived at them.

It’s a good thing to think about.  What are your writing truths and how did you arrive at them?

A lot of  mine came from the science fiction world, which is where I spent a lot of worshipful time as my writing self emerged.  There is/was a lot of practicality in that group of old SFF gods—”write early,” said Ray Bradbury, “before you let the world in.”  He loved writing, loved creating, loved living the writer’s life. The wildly prolific Isaac Asimov was a brilliant thinker who never took his intellect so seriously it kept him from writing fast.  He clearly gloried in writing, reveled in it, took great joy from it. He famously said that if he had 6 hours to live, he’d just write faster.

Bradbury, too, was a believer in fast writing.  In the Zen of Writing, he wrote about rough drafts:

“The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.”

From the two of them, I realized that writing didn’t need to be some terrible, laborious, difficult process. It could be a joyful pursuit, like cooking or gardening, something you learned more about as you went, something that could give life depth and meaning as an act, rather than an offering.  It’s ok for me to play, to experiment, to give in to the pleasure of diving into something for the joy of it.

Of course, they wrote to be read. So do I.  It occurred to me during my training as a journalist that I needed to be clear enough to be understood, that all my baroque curlicues, my vast vocabulary and clever turns, were not doing my reader any favors.  Why should they work hard to read my stories?  Language can be beautiful, but it must first be clear.  That was the start of my profession as a novelist. Finally, I understood the basic bones of story and delivery: first clear, then beautiful.  Rough draft, then polishing.

Another of my beliefs: a writer’s voice arrives through writing. We’ve heard it said many times in many ways—write a million words.  Malcolm Gladwell rephrased it into 10000 hours. Whatever. Writers write.  They write and write and write and write, until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page.  By the time I had my recognition of simplicity and beauty in college, I’d probably written well over a million words.  Diaries, short stories, essays, and five novels.  I was twenty-one, but had been writing madly for a long time.

If you don’t give yourself that gift, the writing and writing and writing, you can get too bogged down in what is Right and Wrong and How You Are Supposed To Do Things.  We all know a writer who has been working on the same manuscript over and over and over again, getting buffeted about by every contest comment, every mean editor letter, every critique meeting or workshop experience, never trusting the voice within.

Which leads me to another truth: close the door until you have a working draft of a novel. Don’t let people in too quickly, before it’s formed, before it has had time to brew its own special bouquet. Give it that private time when it’s just you and your book, like the courtship and honeymoon of lovers.  Get to know your book well before you expose it to the world.

I’m not sure where that one came from.  Maybe just from my own observations of the damage I’ve seen done to emerging voices that had the potential to be magnificent.  The way I apply this to myself is to write whole books as much as I can, even if it would be easier/faster/better for my budget to write synopses.  I just don’t want too many people—or anyone but my most trusted reader—in the book with me before it’s shown me who it is.

My last belief is in filling the well. I’ve spoken of my passions for gardening, cooking, photography, travel. They give me breaks from the consuming work of words, and create a pool of images and metaphors and details that then serve me well in the creative heat of writing.  My work is imbued with the smell of carrots fresh from the earth, and the simmering bounce of garlic in olive oil and the flutter of strange trees in New Zealand.  Even if I take the same photos over and over—a flower, close up; a plate of food; a garden at sunset—the experience enriches me and my writing.

What are your rules for writing, and where did you learn them?  If you are still developing yours, share one or two you’ve found and where. 


About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    I think the real discovery for me was that you don’t have to be a “literary” writer… not everyone can be that kind of writer… once I realised that, and once I understood that genre-writing is completely legitimate I was able to start writing some creative works that I’m actually quite proud of…

    I’m currently working on a book, and for the first time it feels real and authentic… before this attempt, all my other attempts just felt weak… and I think my use of language has improved since I stopped trying to be pretentious and just write in a way that feel comfortable to me.


  2. says

    My #1 rule of writing is always “Don’t stop” because for me, my creative juices are at it’s highest when I’m constantly writing. When i stop, I always hit a speed bump and take longer to get it going again.

  3. says

    What a beautiful post, and full of so many thoughts that ring true for me… When it comes to first drafts, I’ve found that working on one by myself (until it’s at least a semi-formed story) is best for me, too. I love the way you phrased this: “I just don’t want too many people—or anyone but my most trusted reader—in the book with me before it’s shown me who it is.”
    Yeah :).
    Thank you!

  4. says

    First of all, a disclaimer: I hate Nike. I hate the company, the way it does business and most of the athletes whom it bribes into endorsements. That said, it’s former and most notable tag line is my cardinal writing rule: Just Do It.

    It’s a rule that carries two imperatives. The first is to sit in the chair and type. Just do it. The second is to write what I think, what I like and what I can caring only about telling a good story. Just do it.

    It’s a rule that keeps it simple and keeps me going.

  5. says

    I am a trained journalist, too. “Write clearly” is one of my fundamental rules. Other rules include: develop compelling characters first because great stories are character-driven, write often, unleash your imagination in the first draft and carefully observe human behavior. Thanks for a thoughtful and eloquent post.

  6. says

    You are always sage, Barbara. You had me at…’writing didn’t need to be some terrible, laborious, difficult process. It could be a joyful pursuit’. There it is. Say no more.

  7. says

    Thank you for writing this post. I am exactly at that stage with my first novel… wrote the first draft quickly, and have done two major revisions, about to blast through a third before I start to send out queries and seek an agent. I believe in my work – I know my story is important – but am a bit shy now about sharing it with the world. THANK YOU for your words of encouragement to stay true to my own voice!!!

  8. says

    I like, Barbara, when you say writing has meaning “as an act.” That certainly speaks to me. I don’t have any rules about writing. I’m like an ice skater who trusts the frozen water so I can waltz across the surface with sweeps and turns and spins, and occasional falls. Writing is a liberation for me so the first step is opening up and letting go. If I do that absolutely honestly, then character, voice, structure usually follow. But it’s still hard work and I love it. There is a point when I think about the reader and this refocuses me to rewrite … almost like skating backwards.

  9. says

    The simmering bounce of garlic – I adore your voice.

    Problem is, you’re a hell of a cook and I’m getting fat.
    When blue, I bake bread, just to knead dough, but my sweet rolls never developed beyond hockey pucks. Then I read The Secret of Everything, and came across Vita’s recipe, where your descriptions brought the process to life. Mmm, star anise, I am now a cinnamon roll super star.

    For making sense of complicated relationships and interesting recipes, I thank you. Now, what’s next?

    • says

      Kelly, thanks for this and making me laugh this morning, and I am thrilled to pieces to know you are now a cinnamon roll superstar! The world always needs more great cinnamon rolls.

      What’s next from me is THE ALL YOU CAN DREAM BUFFET, coming March 4. Lots of recipes in that one–it’s about 4 food bloggers coming together at a lavender farm. Hoping to see a cover soon.

  10. says

    A wonderful post with so many truths that I follow, probably because I often look to Bradbury’s advice. One truth that I embraced in college was to always think about the audience, to think about the reader. Be kind. Be clear. Another that has formed in my mind comes from experience and outside influences: voice. Find your voice, not just because it makes you unique, but because YOUR voice is the only honest voice you can use and the only voice your readers will fully embrace.

  11. says

    I just finished reading Bradbury’s ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING this morning, and then I come here and read this post! :)

    I’ve been struggling lately with finding the joy again in my writing, and both the book and this post reminded me to find the play in the work, and to trust in myself and in the craft.

  12. says

    Great post, Barbara, and thank you for sharing it with us this morning. I am just finding my “voice” which has been extraordinarily elusive up until now. But I did as you suggested, and through writing more and more, am finally seeing the “me” in my writing.

  13. says

    “Writers write. They write and write and write and write, until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page. Wow! Never been better said, that’s a keeper, thanks. My rules are: patience, persistence, and going down deep where the truth lies. And remember to smile, writing is supposed to be fun.

  14. says


    What a beautiful post. Personal truths. I love the way you put the last one, and realize that I need to integrate more of that into my hectic life and writing schedule.

    I can attest to the quote by Bradbury (who was also one of my early influences): “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.”

    My most honest words come when I’m doing that “trance” writing, when it’s just free-flowing pen and a free-flowing mind. When I think, I have a natural tendency to sugar-coat, and it takes forever!

    I do that in speaking, too. I stammer if I try to be delicate when I yammer. When I don’t give a flying…well, sometimes I have to eat my words.

    Great truths. Wish I had more hands.

  15. says


    This post is packed with great advice. You grew up in the SFF world? Wow, didn’t know that. I know it’s true, though, due to your use of “SFF” rather than “sci-fi”. You are from that tribe.

    I also know it’s true since you quote Bradbury’s timeless Zen and the Art of Writing. All should read it. While I don’t observe that writing fast results in writing well, it does remove the pressure of perfectionism.

    I think what Bradbury meant when writing one should be one’s most authentic self. For Bradbury, this was the inner five-year-old boy full of wonder. In perhaps his last live interview Bradbury was asked why he was successful as a writer. He said, “I’ve remained a boy.”

    I think you’ve adapted the speedy approach perfectly: first draft = clear, second draft = beautiful, third draft = polish. But you’ve added to that the wise awareness that your manuscript must (once drafted) go out into the world. It will grow with experience (i.e., critique).

    Your posts ought to have the title “Zen and the Art of Barbara”. They leave me feeling serene. Thanks.

    • says

      What a great compliment, Don! Zen and…yes.

      And yes, I was an SFF girl, and still love it. My favorite recent read is a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others. The title story is the best short story I’ve ever read, I think. One of them, anyway.

      As for Bradbury staying authentic with that inner five year old boy–he really did. Dandelion Wine is one of my favorite books of all time. I read it over and over, delighted every time.

  16. says

    Wonderful post, Barbara. For me, it’s important to have a regular writing time, and to keep my story to myself until it is solid.

    Love the Bradbury quote about writing first drafts quickly…something I’d like to master!

  17. says

    Hmm, “gloried in, reveled in and took great joy” from writing.

    In the craziness of the rest of the business I sometimes forget that part.

    But when the dust clears, isn’t that what it’s all about?

  18. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I love your posts. They have the clarity and beauty you write about cultivating. This particular one has infused me with courage. Thank you.

  19. says

    ‘If you keep writing you’ll be published’ -Julia Cameron, The Right to Write
    ‘Believe in the power of your words’ -the book of hard knocks.
    I’ve also benefited from advice glemaed from Steven King’s On Writing and Nancy Lamb’s The Art and Craft of Storytelling

  20. says

    While I agree with pretty much everything you said, Barbara, one thing I’ve found to be true, is that there’s no right way to write and no right way to arrive at a finished manuscript. The right way is whatever way works for us while we’re doing it. It may even be different from book to book. Just because one process is right for one writer, doesn’t mean it’s right for another. We all have to write our way, and trust that our way is the right way, even when other people tell us we’re supposed to do it differently.

  21. says

    I love this post.

    My writing, for years, has been about fitness, weight loss, practical stuff. About two years ago, I began writing fiction. Actually, I started writing fiction in 5th grade, but I found out in college that it wasn’t practical.

    What is practical about Sci-Fi? And, who’s made more money writing, Asimov or me? Ha.

    I’m giving myself that gift you mentioned. To, “write and write and write and write, until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page.”

    I can’t wait to read about the bloggers on the lavendar farm.

  22. says

    Some of my favorite writing truths:

    “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love.” Ray Bradbury

    “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.” Jane Austen

    “The only pictures worth making are the ones that are playing with fire.” Billy Wilder

    “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” Emile Zola

    “Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

  23. says

    I started to write a comment at 8 a.m., and then I’m not sure what happened–a whole lot of life! But getting back to it, one of my best writerly lessons came from Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk. Beside my desk is a note that reads, “Ole. Show up.” It’s such a simple trick. Sit. Type. Something will happen.

    I also think it’s important to love your story, even if you may not *like* it all of the time, or want to spend time with it. (This is reminding me of my relationship with my kids on a bad day!) But there has to be something that brings you back to it, that makes you want to dig deep to make it the best it can be.

    You’ve also inspired an idea for how to draw a little attention to my next book, when it’s time to draw attention to my next book. Thanks for that, and for this wise post.

  24. says


    I love, love, love this post. So much good, nourishing wisdom. I’ve recently read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (twice!) – and I found myself copying down so many of her thoughts on writing, adapting them as they speak to me. Among them are: get out of your own way – in other words, don’t think so much about what you’re writing, just write. And my favorite, begin by looking through a 1-inch picture frame – just one little image to start yourself off and go from there. To remind myself to start off simply and yet vividly I bought a little $2 frame in the discount section at Michael’s and framed a little image of a fancy key-hole.

  25. says

    For me it has been “never stop learning.” I’ve given up on the idea that I will ever graduate with my degree in story telling. It’s a never ending process. Along with that is this–return often to an education on the fundamentals. That means re-reading or attending workshops about such drab subjects as “show don’t tell” and character development. After about ten years of thinking I had it figured out, I’ve now spent the last couple digging deeper into my education. I am always reading or re-reading a book on writing along with my usual fiction choices. Thank goodness for Kindles and iPads. I have my whole library with me all the time.