5 Ways Zadie Smith Can Help You Improve Your Writing

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Zadie Smith is one of those writers whose success story is so staggering that you can’t help but resent her a little. Her first novel, the wildly successful and intimidatingly brilliant White Teeth, was published when Smith was just twenty-four, and it’s rumored she received a £250,000 advance based on only a synopsis and two chapters. She wrote the thing while studying at – you guessed it – the University of Cambridge. Not to be bitter, but sigh.

A more productive alternative to my proposed bitterness, however, might be to listen to every word Smith says about the writing process, because her talent and craft are just as impressive as her success. After all, she wasn’t just born some kind of super-writer; she made mistakes, learned lessons, and worked hard along the way. Let’s see if we can scoop up a little of her genius for ourselves.

1. Write, don’t ‘be a writer’

This is a tip aimed explicitly at young writers, for whom part of the desire to write may be bound up in the starry-eyed elevation of writerly stereotypes. You see this a lot in any university English department: clusters of plaid-wearing, chain-smoking boys with questionable facial hair desperately trying to be as Kerouac-y or Bukowski-ish as possible. Just as prevalent are the would-be Plaths and Woolfs desperately affecting airs of isolation and melancholia.

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While these uneasy pretentions might make you look hip in cafes, they’re not how writing gets done. Smith, a woman who wrote her first published novel as an undergraduate, knows this better than anyone. It’s perhaps this firsthand experience that led to her rather exasperated tip in The Guardian:

Don’t romanticize your vocation. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.

– Zadie Smith

Hey, you’d be exasperated too if you’d shared classrooms with Foucault impersonators for three years. But beneath the heavy sigh, the exhortation to actually write stands tall. Don’t talk about writing, don’t think about it, don’t tell strangers at parties that oh, I’m a writer – sit down and earn your spurs.

On a similar note, Smith warns against the allure of ‘movements’ or ‘cliques’; while the famous literary coteries of writers such as Stein, Wordsworth, and Emerson sound romantic and wonderful, Smith suggests that the feeling of prestige that writers’ groups instill in their members is illusory; you’ve got to focus on actually sitting down and writing.

Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

– Zadie Smith

If that sounds a little anti-social, it won’t surprise you to discover that Smith’s next suggestion is…

2. Isolate yourself

Writers are often rather hermetic creatures and, by her own account, Smith is no different. Like many of those who strive to work in our information-rich society, Smith claims to be sensitive to overstimulation and distraction. As such, she locks herself away from the total noise of the world.

This tip may be geared towards the younger generation of writers, or at least those who’re constantly immersed in tech. Writers like Nicholas Carr have picked up where famed rock-star theorist Marshall McLuhan left off to theorize how the internet is changing the way we think, and Smith seems to agree, as she’s a famous Luddite (going so far as to say in a 2018 Guardian interview, ‘I can’t stand the phones and don’t want them in my life in any form. They make me feel anxious, depressed, dead inside, unhinged etc.’). She suggests writers prone to distraction should ‘work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet’ and, taking her preference for isolation away from the purely technical, declares:

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

– Zadie Smith

Smith doesn’t elaborate on why she keeps her writing space under lock and key, but it might be down to her particular way of working; she reads a lot while writing novels, and her desk is always ‘covered in open novels’, meaning outside interference could result in more than a few lost pages. Her protectiveness of her space seems to be about maintaining a kind of homeostasis, an ideal writing space made by her, for her. Everyone will have their own tastes, and it’s important you’re able to exercise them.

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3. Fool yourself

As Dorothea Brande discusses in Becoming a Writer, many of the obstacles between an aspiring writer and a finished novel are psychological. It’s easy to let the mammoth task ahead of you crush your spirit, especially if you’re the type of person prone to occasional bouts of self-doubt or defeatism (and who isn’t?)

It seems that even Smith struggles with self-doubt every now and then, and she’s one of the best British novelists alive today. In the wake of publishing White Teeth, she said:

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.

– Zadie Smith

Yes, there will always be easy reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t write – that voice in your head will always be there, asking questions like Who on earth cares what you have to say? and Do you honestly think you have the talent to write a decent book? Please. The trick – and you might be noticing a theme by now – is to sit down and write. Don’t think about writing; don’t wistfully imagine the life you’d have if only you could write; write.

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Oh, but I’m afraid that’s only step one. Step two is decidedly less cheery:

Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

– Zadie Smith


4. Be honest

Like Ernest Hemingway, Smith champions a kind of authenticity in literary work. There should be no perfect paragons of virtue, no irredeemable monsters; just people, warts and all.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to be realistic and, actually, honesty is a confusing thing when it comes to fiction; as Smith wrote in her Guardian article on dance and fiction,

Any writer who truly attends to the way people speak will soon find himself categorized as a distinctive stylist or satirist or experimentalist.

– Zadie Smith

Rather, you should be honest in the observations you’re making and in the messages your fiction is communicating. White Teeth is, of course, contrived; but it’s honest and generous in what it says about its characters, about racial politics in England, and about London, where the story is set. As Smith tidily puts it:

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it.

– Zadie Smith

5. Edit like a stranger

Finally, we come to editing. Even a novelist as talented as Smith can’t rely on a first draft; there are always things to change. The difficulty of self-editing, according to Smith, is establishing the necessary distance to enable you to view your work objectively. She suggests:

Put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal – but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.

– Zadie Smith

Of course, this might not be possible and, even if it is, it won’t be easy. But, for the good of the book, hold off for as long as you can – remember, ‘you need to forget you ever wrote that book.’ Only then will you be able to forget your attachment to it sufficiently to spot moments where, when writing, you allowed yourself to be sloppy, pretentious, self-indulgent, or just plain lazy. We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another, and it’s far better to catch it before you try to sell/get published.

Spend time away from your book between writing and editing.Click To Tweet

Feel free

So, there you have it: the writing advice of one of the finest writers of fiction working today – though hopefully that aforementioned ‘lifelong sadness’ won’t be on the lesson plan.

What are your favorite books by Zadie Smith? What lessons have you gleaned from her writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published and Why You Need A Dedicated Writing Space And How To Find It for more great advice.


7 thoughts on “5 Ways Zadie Smith Can Help You Improve Your Writing”

  1. Haha, Fred. You brought an audible chuckle from me when I read “Not to be bitter, but sigh.” Talk about honesty.

    IMHO, the fifth tip is the best. Only after you’ve distanced yourself from your work for a couple of months can you say, “How could I have written such drivel?” or “It’s the best thing since light bulbs were invented.”

    1. Ha, glad my envy earned a chuckle! And yes, tip #5 is a good one – heaven knows I’ve returned to work after a few months to find a completely different piece than the one I remembered. Spooky.

      Thanks for reading!


  2. Thanks Fred and thanks Kathy. Kathy, your chosen word “drivel” is an understatement. I have four letter words in mind about some of my stories after they have percolated for a few months or more. Unlike wine and cheese, they do not age well. I dial 911, and the Muse comes to my rescue.

    1. Hi Marc,
      I’m glad you found the post helpful! Best of luck with your work, and thanks for your comment.

    1. Hi Stephen,
      Actually, Smith’s advice stands in pretty stark contrast to many other successful writers. Stephen King, for example, suggests rushing through a first draft as quickly as possible, with the emphasis placed on editing and redrafting, whereas Smith agonizes over the first draft but then does little follow-up work and no redrafting. Similarly, Jennifer Egan, far from warning writers away from writing groups, suggests that finding a writing community is a fantastic way to get feedback as you write (indeed, she credits her writing group with the success of her latest novel, Manhattan Beach). One more: Cormac McCarthy, unlike the more humble Smith, sees no need to try to trick himself into confidence–he knows he can write, and has no psychological hurdles to jump. Every writer is different, and many of us who admire famous writers find it interesting and useful to hear about their creative processes.
      Thanks for your comment.

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