Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Unique Writing Advice from Margaret Atwood

I came across some writing tips by Margaret Atwood on BrainPickings.org the other day titled “Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing.” Her advice for writing while on an airplane is quite interesting … and a sign of our times, I suppose. It made me laugh.

Presumably, most of us “write” with a keyboard now, not a pencil. But she makes a good point about backing up your work with a memory stick if you’re a digital writer. Great advice! There’s nothing worse than spending several hours writing anything only to lose the data because your computer crashes.

But listen. You should definitely read Margaret’s advice. The BrainPickings blog has included some great tips from her that we haven’t covered on this blog so far. This is one of the reasons why I recommend reading other people’s work, other people’s advice, et cetera. We can all learn from each other.




On that note, this content first appeared on BrainPickings.org and is being reshared here for your enjoyment:

Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

How to Structure Your Book Outline

How do you write a book? One page at a time. Then again, some days it’s one paragraph at a time, isn’t it? I can relate!

But where do you even begin writing all those pages? That’s the real question. The task can seem daunting at the beginning.

Well, here’s a guideline you may find helpful. It’s a matter of starting out with a simple outline in point form and building it from there. I’ll use a non-fiction “how to publish a book” template as an example outline only because there are usually more points in a non-fiction Table of Contents than there will be in a fictional novel.

First and foremost, I divide my book into sections:

Section One: The Types of Book Publishers

Section Two: Understanding Copyright

Section Three: Book Sales and Marketing

Section Four: The Publishing Process

Section Five: Today’s Book Printing and Non-Printing Options




Now that I know there will be five sections to my book, I want to fill those in further within my outline. What will I be talking about within each section? It’s now time to write the titles of each chapter in between the above outline points:

Section One: The Types of Book Publishers

– Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Publishing Your Book

– Traditional (Trade) Publishing

– Vanity Publishing (Book Production and Formatting for Self-Published “Indie” Authors)

– Supported Self-Publishing (A.K.A. Assisted Self-Publishing, Hybrid Publishing)

Section Two: Understanding Copyright

– An Elementary Introduction to International Copyright

– Copyright Simplified: Understanding Publishing Contracts

Section Three: Book Sales and Marketing

– Traditional Sales Techniques

– Contemporary Online Sales Techniques

Section Four: The Publishing Process

– How to Write a Book

– How to Submit Your Manuscript to a Publisher

– ISBNs and Barcodes

– Publishing Agreements

– Professional Editing

– Professional Graphic Design

– Fact Checking and Indexing

– Professional Proofreading

– Book Reviews

– Distribution

Section Five: Today’s Book Printing and Non-Printing Options

– Ebooks

– Print-on-Demand (POD)

– Digital Printing

– Offset Printing

There you have it. You have your book’s rough outline now. It’s as simple as that. Some sections and chapters will be heavier than others, and that’s okay. You may also want to fill in more points for each individual chapter as you go along. That’s fine, too.




Once you’ve done that, you can now set up your writing schedule and deadlines for completion of the book based on this outline. Guesstimate how much time you think each individual list point will take you to write. One hour, two hours? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s up to you. You’re simply trying to figure out roughly how long it’s going to take to finish this book so you can plan for it.

I recommend setting a goal for yourself to write at least one hour per day, six hours per week, every single week to completion of every point on your outline. This is a totally achievable goal that will help you stay on track because it gives you a flexible but consistent writing schedule to follow each week. Everyone can set aside one hour per day—even the busiest of people—if they really want to. And this schedule even gives you one day off every week!

As you write, the points on your outline may change a wee bit. You may think of additional chapters to add in, and that’s fine. My only caution to you is DON’T EDIT YOURSELF EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE. You can waste hours upon hours by fixating on one sentence or paragraph, trying to edit it over and over again, rather than just moving on and writing the next one. Don’t do it. That’s when you’ll get stuck in a loop, unable to move forward. The idea here is to write something new every day so that you can move forward and finish the book—not edit it to perfection. There’s no such thing as perfection.

“If I waited for perfection I would never write a word.”
~Margaret Atwood

Let another editor polish your book for you once you’ve finished writing it. Take your own editor’s hat off. Put it away. In fact, shove it into the far back corner of your closet, close that door, and LOCK IT! The only hat you need to be wearing is that of the writer. Are you ready to complete your own outline now?

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