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8 writing tips from authors who won the Nobel

Writing tips from authors who won the Nobel (such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) are often worth taking to heart. Read 8 of the best pieces of writing advice from acclaimed authors:

Writing tips from professional writers who won the Nobel (such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) are often worth taking to heart. Read 8 of the best pieces of writing advice and nuggets about writing process from acclaimed, successful successful writers:

1. Don’t use dead language

Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. In her Nobel lecture, Morrison contrasts ‘dead language’ that ‘thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential’ with language that is used with awareness and care. She classes sexist and racist language as the former, saying that they are ‘the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.’

Morrison’s words from later in her same speech give us guidance for how not to use dead language in our own writing:

‘Language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.’

What Morrison suggests here is that it is best to approach grand subjects without trying to make the definitive statement, without trying to say ‘everything’. Tell the one true story that matters to you. A story that explores the themes and ideas that matter to you.

This leads to excellent writing advice from another Nobel-winning writer, this time the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska:

2. Use concrete imagery when you write about large, abstract themes

Advice from Nobel-winning authors - Wislawa Szymborska

The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel for literature in 1996, ran a column giving advice to writers in the Polish newspaper Literary Life. In one great piece of writing advice, Szymborska told an aspiring poet the following (her advice applies to fiction authors too):

‘You’ve managed to squeeze more lofty words into three short poems than most poets manage in a lifetime: ‘Fatherland,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’: such words don’t come cheap. Real blood flows in them, which can’t be counterfeited with ink.’

This ties into Morrison’s writing advice. When writing tips from authors who are widely respected overlap, it merits taking especial notice. Grand or historical themes are best conveyed and made into stories by using what is concrete and particular. Instead of describing a character who ‘loves freedom’, for example, describe a character’s actions and experiences that demonstrate this love of freedom. This gives readers a more visual and empathetic reading experience.

3. Work stories out in your head when you can’t write

The Canadian author Alice Munro, who was given the Nobel for Literature in 2013, has dedicated her writing life almost exclusively to the short story. When asked whether she always plots a story first, Munro says:

‘Usually, I have a lot of acquaintance with the story before I start writing it. When I didn’t have regular time to give to writing, stories would just be working in my head for so long that when I started to write I was deep into them.’

To add to this, you could keep a voice recorder or use the voice note function on a smartphone to record ideas or sentences for your novel as they occur to you.

This will help you keep creating even when you have fewer moments to sit down and write. Fition writers might also want to try pantsers’ approaches to story planning, too.

4. Read and draw on wide influences but don’t cram your work with others’ ideas

The Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel for Literature in 1986, describes his reading habits and how reading influenced his writing in an interview:

‘I’ve read widely in the world’s literature, European, Asiatic, American … In other words, I cannot cut off and will not attempt to cut off what is my experience and what is after all, the world’s experience. There is a great deal of intercommunication in the world. A lot of people tend to forget that. As long as I find the means of expression, a form of communication which does not alienate my immediate readership and I do not deliberately cram my work with foreign references to a point where the work is indigestible — these are faults which should never be permitted by any serious writer.’

It’s true that to write well you need to read widely. And reading diverse books will enrich your own writing. But be selective about what references you consciously include because your novel should ultimately be your own story rather than a patchwork of transparent influences.

5. Make people believe in your story first and foremost

The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The celebrated author of novels such as Cien años de soledad (translated as A Hundred Years of Solitude) was also a journalist. When asked about the difference between journalism and writing fiction, Marquez answered thus:

‘In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.’

This last sentence is key: It doesn’t matter if you write realist fiction set in contemporary London or futuristic sci-fi set in a Mars colony. Create believable characters who have credible motivations and flaws, immersive settings and realistic tensions and conflicts and your fiction will feel believable.

6. Don’t focus on the end goal excessively as you write

John Steinbeck writing advice

Of all the writing tips from authors, the advice John Steinbeck gave remains some of the best. In the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review (excerpted by The Atlantic here), Steinbeck says about the craft of writing:

‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.’

It’s easy to feel either impatient or overwhelmed if you focus only on when your novel will be finished. Focus on the task at hand instead. Write just one page today: it’s one more page than you had yesterday. Then write another page tomorrow (continue this approach and your daily page count will likely increase as you gain momentum). His methods for writing sound ideal if it seems too overwhelming to think of having to write a 100,000 word novel. and make this part of your writing habit. For some writers it also helps to have a dedicated writing space. Writing often and consistently will improve your writing skills. So focus on doing actual writing every day, even if it’s just a page or so. 

7. Make sure you write regularly and inspiration will come

The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who published over 30 novels, plays and essays, received the Nobel in 2010. In an interview with the Paris Review, Vargas gives advice on how to keep coming up with writing ideas:

‘If I started to wait for moments of inspiration, I would never finish a book. Inspiration for me comes from a regular effort.’

Keep a writing schedule and be as disciplined as you can about keeping your writing appointments with yourself. This will help ensure a steady stream of story ideas.

8. Write to connect

The great Canadian-American author Saul Bellow, who published 14 novels and novellas and won the Nobel for writing in 1976, beautifully described the intimacy between the writer and the reader:

‘When you open a novel — and I mean of course the real thing — you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words … It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he [or she] can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.’

Fellow writer Maria Popova of the excellent blog Brain Pickings describes why Bellows’ advice is relevant for today’s writer:

‘How poignant to consider Bellow’s remarks in our age where people seem to “hunger for” cat videos and where the writer’s voice is being increasingly muffled by the “content”-producer’s agenda — and yet, and yet, when we do encounter those ever-rarer “essences” today, those oases of absolute intimacy with another mind, how transcendent our “emotional completeness” then.’

As Bellows and Popova suggest, write to connect with readers. Show them what both you and your characters think and feel and experience. A blockbuster novel needs tension and suspense and the other ingredients of a good story. Yet when you connect with readers and pour your own unique perspective and temperament into your work, you can connect with readers even without an overwrought plot or the world’s greatest writing style.

Connect with other writers now so you can improve your fiction through helpful writing feedback.

What are your favorite writing tips from authors?

Share in the comments below.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

17 replies on “8 writing tips from authors who won the Nobel”

This awesome. I’m a writer myself, and I agree with everything you said here. Anyways, kudos for this article. It’s informative and well-written. This is the kind of post that should be reaching other writers. I’ll be sharing this on social media. I’m sure others will love it as much as I did.


One issue that comes up is to outline or not to outline. Some things–such as hard nonfiction–need to be outlined, but creative writing, especially fiction should keep open the possibility of happy accidents. Rather than outline before writing, write notes to yourself as you write. This can be like creating the outline as you progress to help remind you of where you’ve been and keep an eye to where you are going.

I also have a book to help writers that avoids (like the plague) stale,
redundant, and cliche writing advice. It’s called A Writer’s Homeschool
MFA: An Informal Guide to Writing and Living a Writer’s Life. Available
on Kindle.

You raise valid points, OrchardWriting. The same approach isn’t perfect for everyone. I wouldn’t say outlining is a stale or redundant approach, however – it simply works better for some than others, and what you suggest is a form of outlining in itself. Thanks for sharing about your writing manual, I’ll be sure to look it up!

This is a great article! It is a topic that has always fascinated me. Yet it would have taken me years to do all the research and thinking to write something like this. Thanks for sharing! Every thing you have listed rings true to me. I especially love the quote in #8: “Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he [or she] can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.” When I write, I am already stepping out of the reality to act as an observer. However, I also need to step out of my writing process and observe how/why/what I write. Thank you for finding me a great tip on how to do this!

Hi J.L., thank you for your generous feedback. I’m glad this article resonated with you! It is a great quote, isn’t it? Quite a profound comment on the beautiful communicative relationship between author (or text) and reader.

That is one of the hardest things to do – to both inhabit one’s creative process fully while also maintaining a sense of perspective and purpose. I would add to what you say (‘I also need to step out of my writing process and observe how/why/what I write’) by quoting Jorge Luis Borges who described writing as being autobiographical, revealing of identity or purpose by nature:

‘As the years go by, [the artist] peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. [… Later], he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.’

Thanks again for reading our blog and sharing your feedback!

I will always be inspired by John Steinbeck’s advice to write one page a day but to even do this can be challenging, considering that a page in Word contains about 400 words and many of us work a day job full-time. Now that it’s fall/winter and the lawns are dormant, I have more time to write – mid autumn to early spring is my peak time of the year for doing my book writing.

One thing that should help me year round is that if it’s Friday night and I don’t have Saturday work available at my job, I begin spending about 25 minutes working on my latest book once I become too sleepy to do anything else on the internet; consequently, I go to bed with around 200 words written.

Hi Todd, you’re right, one page can even be challenging when there are many demands on your time. Even one page every second day is better than none. I’m glad to hear that you have more time to write at the moment, though! Good luck with your current project and happy holidays. Thank you for reading our blog.

This is a poignant article, beautifully true, something like elation to be reminded how worthwhile it is, as a writer, as a human, to be authentic.

Thank you

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