5 Ways J.K. Rowling Can Help You Improve Your Writing

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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?


14 thoughts on “5 Ways J.K. Rowling Can Help You Improve Your Writing”

  1. The problem herein lies. I believe I spend too much time reading about writing than actually spending time writing. There are so many interesting articles on how to write, there is less time to actually write. I am writing and joined a critique group, most of what I get in feedback is constructive and helpful, but there is one, that is just plain mean and insulting. Unfortunately I have decided not to go to the meetings unless I really have something polished in all ways. She helps kill people’s spirit.

    1. Hi Sandy, it’s a slippery slope for sure! But rest assured that the time you spend reading about writing isn’t time wasted – it’s helping make your writing better. Best of luck!

  2. I am a huge admirer of J K Rowlingfrom the moment I read her first Harry Potter book. Not cause it was successful because it was just published but because her imagination is so hugely wide.
    Thanks for this condensation of her advice.
    At 55years young, I only began writing 4 years ago and advice from folks I admire is always welcome.
    Thanks much and God Bless

    1. You’re very welcome! I was lucky enough to grow up with the Harry Potter books, and even then I got the sense that Rowling’s imagination was impossibly wide and vivid. Best of luck with your own writing.

  3. Most of what J. K Rowling said I identify with as true, I’ve tried for several years to write two books which I’ve collected notes and have researched and plan out not so much in detail because they’re more nonfiction and a cook book. The first book wasn’t well written or well edited, but I still wasn’t afraid to write it and published it. Although I get many like on Facebook, and on my blog pages, I’me still not too satisfied with it, so now I’m in the process of rewriting the whole book. I still have a problem with adjectives, but have learned from the many mistakes I’ve made, not so much in what I wanted to say, but how to lay out what I’ve written to make it flow like a clear clean running stream one can drink water from when they feel thirsty for some knowledge. Book name is Mind Process and Formulas. KB

    1. Hi Ken, I think it’s great that you’re taking the time to redraft and rewrite, as it’s important to be happy with your own work – that said, be careful about chasing perfection! It sounds like you’re approaching writing pragmatically, so I shan’t worry too much. Best of luck with it, and thanks for the comment.

  4. Excellent article, Fred! I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it inspirational. As a part-time VP of Marketing for a startup high-tech Air Purification company as well as an aspiring successful novelist, I was able to make significant correlations between the gritty work of creative minds that are well-disciplined in their novel work and the necessary daily strivings of excellent salespeople. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to take snippets of your article and apply them (quotes, etc.) to my sales force in their next few weekly newsletters!

    1. Hi Greg,
      Thanks for the comment! I’m so glad you found my post useful, and I’m very happy for you to quote it in your newsletters. I think you’re right to draw parallels between good writing and good selling – after all, both rely on effective communication and on the subtle manipulation of readers. Best of luck with your work!

  5. Hi Fred,

    Thanks for posting these tips!
    I found it very supportive. I ve just finished some writing (for school though) which I found rather stressfull. But then I think of those tips of JK Rowling you wrote about and I feel encouraged again.

    So Thanks!


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