Image: Matthew Loffhagen
J.K. Rowling was the first author to become a billionaire through writing alone and was the bestselling writer of the decade between 2000 and 2010. Though Harry Potter has been put to rest as a series, his legacy lives on through films, theme parks, merchandise, and the recent screenplays and spin-offs (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Cursed Child). Beyond Potter, Rowling is known for her detective fiction: The Casual Vacancy and, as Robert Galbraith, the Cormoran Strike series.
Arguably the most famous and consistently successful writer of the past twenty years, there’s a wealth of valuable lessons Rowling can teach aspiring writers. She’s also been refreshingly vocal about her own methods, and when she’s not getting in arguments with right-wing pundits on Twitter, she’s giving advice to young writers. I’ve plundered Rowling’s interviews, articles, and tweets and, following in the great tradition of writer’s advice columns (in which we’ve covered Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, and William Faulkner), we present to you J.K. Rowling’s five best pieces of writing advice.
1. Think of writing as work
This should be obvious, but too many of us think of writing as a nice relaxing hobby to do in our spare time. No, says Rowling, echoing writers and artists as diverse as Tchaikovsky (who wrote ‘inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy’) and Neil Gaiman (‘those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not’), you’ve got to put the hours in.
You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your teacher told you you needed.
– J.K. Rowling
Of course, maybe you can’t make writing a nine-to-five job – maybe you’ve already got a nine-to-five job. No excuse, says Rowling – she herself was famously working full-time and raising a child as a single parent when she wrote the Harry Potter books. The trick is learning to work anywhere and in whatever time you can grasp.Learning to steal moments may be what makes you an author.Click To Tweet
Rowling speaks about planning character profiles on sick bags while on an airplane. ‘Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there,’ she says.
2. Finish what you start
Starting a project is easy; it’s actually finishing things that takes effort. I can’t be the only one with a dozen first chapters that go nowhere.
Rowling took to Twitter recently to express the importance of finishing the work you start. The benefits of finishing things have less to do with actually having a piece of work to publish and wrap up in a little bow; rather, finishing something is psychologically beneficial. A writer who actually finishes his/her first story knows that they can finish something again.
The discipline involved in finishing a piece of creative work is something on which you can truly pride yourself. Once you’ve done it […] you’ll know you can do it again. That is an extraordinarily powerful piece of knowledge.
– J.K. Rowling
It doesn’t actually matter whether the work you finish is something you’re completely happy with. As you progress as a writer, you’ll inevitably find that you begin to wish you’d done things differently in those early works – even Rowling has gone on-record saying she wishes she’d used fewer adverbs in the early Harry Potter books.
Rowling is quoted in her January Magazine profile:
You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot.
– J.K. Rowling
Of course, with word processors, you don’t even have to waste any trees. That’s what I call a win-win.Writing is like learning an instrument – hitting the wrong key is part of the process.Click To Tweet
3. Plan, plan, plan
Planning is something writers can’t seem to agree on. For every writer who insists you can’t write even a single word until you’ve got a solid plan, there’s one who thinks you’d be better off just getting on with it and letting the story emerge organically.
Rowling falls into the former camp, and it seems to have paid off for her. She famously planned out all seven Harry Potter books before she even started writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This means getting your characters down, your central plotlines, your settings, the book’s key themes… no mean feat! Harry himself was apparently fully formed when he was conceptualized, which isn’t too surprising – he’s a fairly bland and admirable reader proxy character. But though he was birthed easily, getting everything else in order took Rowling about five years!
And, of course, planning doesn’t end there – it’s not something you do once and then forget about. While you’re writing, keep a close eye on pacing and the progression of your plot; neglect this and all your planning might be for naught. Rowling finished the first Harry Potter book and realized that her pacing was all over the place and that she’d given away the entire plot of all seven books, so had to go back and rewrite the whole thing. Learn from her mistakes! And don’t be afraid to…
4. Redraft and rewrite
Even if you’ve planned everything down to the smallest detail and have kept pacing and plot progression in mind while writing, chances are you’re not going to hit perfection on that first draft. Some writers are very protective of their work or else get so sick of their huge project that going back and redrafting seems like an agonizing prospect, but Rowling insists that rewriting is a vital part of writing. She herself re-wrote chapter one of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone fifteen times!
Huge plot points in the Harry Potter books were taken out and altered. Important characters were dropped entirely (including a forgotten Weasley, Mafalda, who was originally set to be in Slytherin), others were relegated to the sidelines (Hermione’s father and Dean Thomas both played much larger roles at one point), and timelines were reshuffled or dropped entirely.
Of course, it takes real knowledge and instinct to know which characters to keep and which to drop, which story lines to focus on and which to relegate to the background. How do you cultivate this kind of instinct? The answer is predictable:
Read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.
– J.K. Rowling
Rowling helped stratify her redrafting process by writing the entire first draft in longhand, meaning that rewriting it was going to be a practical necessity anyway. This is a great way to force yourself to rewrite if you know you’re the kind of writer who’ll do anything to avoid it.Writing your first draft by hand makes redrafting a necessity.Click To Tweet
5. Be brave
Rowling recognizes the importance and difficulty of finishing what you start, but she’s also very vocal about the challenge of starting in the first place. The fear of failure is something that stops many would-be writers ever putting pen to paper, but such inaction is, argues Rowling, itself a failure:
Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
– J.K. Rowling
Failure by default – is nothing easy? Rowling’s exhortation here is closely linked to her commitment to finishing what she starts, and comes back to the rejection of perfectionism. The least any writer can do is at least get some ideas down in a loose plan; think of some characters, some themes, some topics you want to explore. Think of stories you think need telling. Don’t know what to write about?
Write what you know: your own interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets will be your raw materials when you start writing.
– J.K. Rowling
Passion, Rowling suggests, is something you have to work to conjure, but it is vital. If you don’t love what you’re writing, you’ll never finish it and you’ll never have the discipline to make sure it’s the best it can be. If you’ve got any pre-existing passions (and not everyone does), start there. If not, don’t despair – do your best to work up some enthusiasm about something, no matter how niche it is. ‘What you write becomes who you are,’ writes Rowling, ‘so make sure you love what you write!’
Putting it all to use
Few writers are as qualified as J.K. Rowling to give advice to young bucks (about their young books), and as someone who produced her most successful work while working full-time and living as a single mother, there’s a real sense that her success is hard-earned, something that isn’t always true of successful writers (who can tend to either be born into massive wealth and privilege or else have genius genes on their side).
As such, Rowling’s success seems more achievable than, say, the success of Zadie Smith (the prodigy who wrote White Teeth while skiving off lectures at Oxford University) or George Saunders (recipient of the McArthur ‘genius grant’). The key, according to Rowling, is hard work, human will, and sheer grit.
So get to it; put time aside, think seriously about the story you want to tell, plan, write, revise. Be brave. To quote a tweet Rowling herself quoted:
Hey! You! You’re working on something and you’re thinking, ‘Nobody’s gonna watch, read, listen.’ Finish it anyway.
– Melanie Dione
Which of Rowling’s tips do you think is the most useful? Did you glean any important lessons directly from her books? Let me know what they were in the comments. Or, for more great advice, check out Are You Sabotaging Your Own Success? Here’s How To Stop and There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write?