Neil Gaiman on Writing

As culled from The Guardian:

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.


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56 Responses to “Neil Gaiman on Writing”

  1. Thank you for posting this.

  2. This has nothing to do with writing. WTF is this…

  3. Seriously “find the right word” writing is more than this.”Put one word after another” <—

  4. Gaiman isn’t just a great writer; he is very generous in helping new writers.

    I wonder about Rule N.5, though. In my experience, a few reviewers/beta-readers can “feel” that something isn’t right but lack the needed analytical skills or knowledge of the trade to suggest WHY the piece doesn’t work. That’s right.

    Yet, more experienced readers can tell you exactly where the problem is and why, and when you fix the problem as per their suggestions, your piece works.

    Another reason why suggestions may be correct lies in the reader’s will to be “on the side of the story,” helping you in finding out what you intended to write and write it better. Those who are wrong in telling you what doesn’t work in your piece are the critiquers who would like you to write the story THEY have in mind, which is not always the one YOU wanted to write.

    More tips: I have translated Umberto Eco’s “Rules for Writing (Well)”, never published in English before. Funny and worth reading.

    • Bless you, Gio. Eco is one of my idols and having his Rules for Writing (Well) translated is a treasure. Many thanks.

    • Olive Sullivan Says:

      I think the idea is that you have to fix it yourself, no matter what your readers say. You have to come up with your own solution to the problem. Their suggestions may help you discover it, but eventually, you’re the one with the right words.

  5. Sorry, I mispelled my own name, lol.

  6. Gloria! For God’s sake. Relax. Writing is putting one word after another. Writing an interesting or informative narrative may require more. We have to start with something and we’ll never get better without the “… after the other.” rule. OK?

  7. The first rule is, appropriately, the most important.

    Write and write some more, but also… read. And don’t just read… read outside the box, outside your comfort zone.

    Truth is everywhere if you but look for it.

    • Another good piece of advice to coincide with the idea to ‘read out of your comfort zone’ is to read poetry whilst writing prose. This gets you to think briefly, and to focus on what’s at hand, be it imagery, emotion, or action. I think many prose writers often try to put all three into a paragraph at once, and bog down the pace. I know I do.

      • Jonathan, what a great idea! However…
        I’ve attempted to embrace poetry many times, and for reasons similar to what you suggest. Maybe I just don’t know where to look, though. Might anyone have any good ideas of “first-step” poetry?

  8. Thanks, definitely needed this.

  9. maxine B. Lovern Says:

    These are wonderful rules for writing. I am 91 and was published at 79! I have been writing since I as a child. I write poetry and prose. I am a professional storyteller and have told and taught in many states. I also belong to a writer’s club and teach for that. I believe your rules hit the nail on the head, and a “wayfaring man, though a fool”, if he observes them, should reach the finish line! Thank you for reminding me about finishing! A big bugbear!

  10. survivalguru Says:

    very good list and mos interesting and you know? I thought about the part where people tell you something is wrong, they are probably right? I love opinions because it makes me look at the whole picture, not just from my perspective.

  11. Great words of advice that I find myself coming back to time after time.

    I love Mr Gaiman, he is a great writer with an amazing imagination and if it weren’t for him I would have never have had the inspiration to take up writing seriously.

  12. I particaulary like items 1 and 3 on this list. Thanks for posting it :)

  13. ahh yes ‘finish what you write’ thats a no-brainer
    thanx for posting
    its better than Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules

  14. […] Gaiman has a knack for breaking it down. (Also.) This entry was posted on Monday, March 1st, 2010 at 2:19 am and is filed under […]

  15. You should really reference your sources:

    There’s a great story, apocryphal I can guess, about a friend going around to James Joyce’s house one afternoon when he’s writing Finnegan’s Wake to find the writer absolutely frantic because he’s only written seven words that day. The friend says “that’s pretty good for you, why are you so upset?” To which Joyce replies: “I don’t know if i’ve got them in the right order.”

  16. chasing perfection is reading the sentence you just wrote and start it all over…meanig you´ll never finish the first page.leave the little bit that seems to be missing to the readers interpretation and you´ll write tons of suff.

  17. One of the best things I’ve stumbled upon in a long time. I’m an aspiring writer at my young age, and coming from Neil Gaiman, this really sparked something in me. I am writing as I speak now, and I owe it to this post. Thank you, I have a renewed will to continue writing.

  18. I learned these truths from a great author, Madeleine L’Engle. It was great to read them again. The way she told us to write was ” think about your subject, then write and don’t think” In the class I took we did this over a week-end and amazed ourselves and we the writers as we came up with terrific writings. Thanks for your advise. I now want to read some of your books. GramNan

  19. Simple but very well put.

    Where I suffer is on item 4… I love letting those important to me read my work, but then I take correction or criticism hard. I am getting better, but still have issues when a person tells me what they think is wrong.

    This is the same with both my technical writing for work as it is with my writing at home.

  20. that is one of the best check lists on writing i’ve seen

  21. rohit_blr_gupta Says:

    Hi All,


    1) How important is it to be well read to write well? How does that influence one’s writing?

    2) Do u conceive the whole plot of your story before u start writing and then start putting in pieces of scenes that would ultimately form the body of your preconceived thought or is it that you start putting in pieces and then see how the whole story turns out at the end when the pieces are being chained together?

    Please clarify if you know.


    • cairnwood Says:

      1. Very important. Much like an artist studies the Masters, so too a writer must study the master’s of their craft.

      2. For myself, I begin with a germ of an idea or a scene or two and I write from there. No outline. I write organically, allowing the story to grow and be nurtured by the moment, rather by the constraints of predetermination.


    • cairnwood Says:

      And my response is littered with typos owing somewhat to my typing faster than I can think or reason.

      Apologies… even though the gist of my thoughts remain intact.

  22. […] life) Written on March 4, 2010 by Antony Mayfield in Uncategorized0 Comments – Leave a comment! The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed […]

  23. nancy brownlee Says:

    Gaiman is a wonderful writer, a real original, and has given excellent, true, effective rules for writing. He’s also a gentleman and probably would never say
    1. Shut up. Don’t talk about writing. Write.
    2. Stop thinking about how to write. Write.
    3. Don’t aspire to particular style. Write.

  24. I both love and hate No. 5. Whenever people tell me something is wrong, but they can’t tell me how to fix it, I end up beating my head against a wall, but what I’m doing eventually gets better, and the lesson usually sticks. When they tell me exactly how to fix it, I merrily fix the problem and keep repeating the same errors over and over again.

    • There is nothing less useful and more obnoxious than nonconstructive criticism. Especially from a boss (you should really know better if you are managing people)

  25. An excellent example that less is more. I didn’t recognize the name Neil Gaiman at first, but it sounded familiar. Then after i Googled it, I realized that he wrote Mirrormask and Coraline! I love both these movies, and was wondering if anyone could recommend which one of Neil’s books to start off with, in order to get a good first impression of this author’s work (looking at his site, The Sandman: Book of Dreams sounds interesting).

    Anyway, any suggestions are appreciated! And thanks again for posting this list, I really enjoyed taking it in.

    • cairnwood Says:

      My personal favorite is American Gods, though you may wish to start with Coraline or The Graveyard Book.

  26. Niel Gaiman is wise in all things so if he says this if how you write THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE

  27. I liked it, short and practical and not preachy.


  28. […] Mr. Gaiman has had a solid grip on my attention. He is a good writer (and has interesting thoughts on writing in general), but but not a fantastic writer. There are times in his novel where he dances too close […]

  29. I hearby permisify




    :To be written free-er

    And for everyone leaving a comment to relax
    :feels awful to read because

    :Your squeezing BIG, ENORMOUS, (Larger than no-HTML would have it)
    , ly creative ideas through this virgin membrane called the internet.
    And your intellectual ego at stake has brought your shoulders to your ear lobes.


    nobody is that important, and certainly everyone is not that important.

    Relax, and leave out a period here and there:

  30. […] des conseils sur l’art d’écrire, ce blogue mérite le détour. J’aime ce conseil […]

  31. raevpet Says:

    If following this advice will make me write arbitrary rubbish passing itself off as quirky, weird or even brilliant, like most of Gaiman’s stuff does, then I’d really rather not.

    • cairnwood Says:

      To each their own, but I respectfully disagree.

      • raevpet Says:

        Well alright, perhaps I’m being obstinate. I do respect Neil Gaiman as a writer, but none of the books he’s written have captured me. I did enjoy Black Orchid, though.

      • cairnwood Says:

        American Gods, in and of itself, puts him in my hall of fame.

  32. […] Writing Month. There are articles on writing from experienced and famous authors, like the ones here, here, and […]

  33. […] Gaiman has a knack for breaking it down. […]

  34. Judas priest, absolutely brilliant. I’m inspired now… really. Thank you.

  35. Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing is now available as a full color poster from Cemetery Dance Publications.

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