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Post series: Writing Advice from Famous Authors (Page 2 of 2)

Writing Advice from Famous Authors: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens


Let’s dive into our third edition of Writing Advice from Famous Authors. I have been impressed by how well received the first two informal installments of this series were, so we’re going to formalize it (sort of) and make it a recurring piece on Nothing Any Good. Check out the excellent Writing Advice from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ian McEwan.

Our third Famous Author is the brilliant lightning-rod of a writer that was Christopher Hitchens. If you are unfamiliar with the late Hitchens, who passed away in 2011 and would most likely be mad a me for saying late and passed away—sorry, he died; Christopher Hitchens died—is a writer with very strong and vocal opinions about, well, mostly everything. He is largely known for being a professed atheist and was very publicly vocal towards many public figures, including Mother Teresa and Princess Diana.

Regardless of whether you agree with Hitchens, and many people feel very strongly against him, he was a brilliant thinker and fantastic writer. He has written or edited over thirty books, including the New York Times Bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

His writing is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to think deeply and be be challenged if you pick up any of his books or articles.

Here is Christopher Hitchens in 2010:



“If you write, it must be the thing not that you want to do or would like to do; it must be the thing you feel you have to do.”

Hitchens main point in this open statement is that being a writer is a very disappointing undertaking. We love to glamorize the life of a writer, but truth be told, it is often times a path paved with  disappointment. Being a writer can be a lonely undertaking. In fact, that’s one of the central tenants of Nothing Any Good. That is, Nothing Any Good is partially aimed at trying to help pierce into that loneliness. My goal has been to create a platform for Indie Authors to collaborate and share in this journey together.

Hitchens knows this life of disappointment far better than I do. If you feel you have to write, regardless of the outcome of that writing, this will serve you well as you persevere through the daily disappointments and rejections.


“The idea is to find a voice, and I try to write as if I was speaking to people.'”

This is great advice. I think many inexperienced writers fail this test. They try to use big words and an odd turn of phrase in an effort to show that they belong as a writer. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect. The reader’s eyes start to glaze over and they become bored.

If you want to write well, find that speaking voice that resonates with readers and speak directly to them.


Fnd that voice that resonates with readers and speak directly to them. Click To Tweet


“Alcohol is a personal deformation of the scribbler.”

I love this line. It is emblematic of the great thinker and writer that Hitchens was. This simple statement is fairly deep and is stated beautifully, all while having a touch of dry humor wrapped into it.

Because of the isolation that naturally comes with writing, many writers look to alcohol as a crutch. Alcohol is the voice that drowns out the silence left in the void between the author and the reader. Alcohol is match that lights the fuse of creativity. Alcohol is a personal deformation of the scribbler.

If you frequent Nothing Any Good, then you know I love a nice glass of scotch or red wine. It’s no secret to anyone that knows me. (If you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas, there you go.) The key is to make sure the indulgence doesn’t make the quality suffer. I think this is what Hitchens is cheekily and poignantly getting at at the end of the clip.



Find more writing and publishing tips at Nothing Any Good.


Writing Advice from Famous Authors: Ian McEwan


Recently I posted writing advice from Ta-Nehisi Coates, a video which was shot for the Atlantic. This was very well received and people seemed to particular enjoy my additional commentary to the advice. This has inspired me to do this more often.

For the next installment, we’ll look at writing advice from the great novelist Ian McEwan.

McEwan has written over a dozen novels, including Atonement and Solar, and has seen the majority of his books adapted into movies. In 2008, The Times featured McEwan on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945“.




“I think it’s very hard to teach people to be novelists and poets, but I think it’s quite useful for people to set aside time.”

I find myself paradoxically agreeing and disagreeing with McEwan on this opening point.

Experience is the best teacher. Very little is learned by sitting in a classroom and being taught how to write. As writers, we need to write and write and write and write.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour theory applies to many fields, but I think it applies abundantly to becoming a strong writer. The best way to reach 10,000 hours of writing is to set aside time to write.

However, and I realize I may be putting context into McEwan’s comment that is not necessarily intended by him, isn’t there still teaching in this process. An editor provides feedback. Readers offer criticism. Reviewers spout opinions. All of these things are forms of teaching. This teaching is how we learn to become novelists and poets.

I suspect McEwan’s underlying point is that you shouldn’t feel compelled to shell out your hard earned cash for a creative writing program, certainly not if you think the end result will be that they’ve taught you how to be a great novelist. Only experience and repetition can create that.


Experience and repetition create great novelists.Click To Tweet


“What’s useful is to have expectations laid on you that you’re going to produce the work.'”

A common sentiment is that everyone has at least one great novel inside of them. I find this tends to be true. The difficulty is sitting down to actually write the novel, and then sitting down to actually edit the novel. Having outside expectations are usually beneficial in forcing us to sit down and write.

As Coates said in his writing advice, what you write is never as good as the idea in your head. Most writer’s learn this the hard way and become paralyzed by the inability to perfectly express that idea in their head. Having deadlines helps to free you of that paralysis.


“Writers need to read.”

I love this point and it gets to the heart of a deep frustration of mine. I have seen amongst some of the indie author community a mindset that bothers me to no end.

Why do authors that are writing a book say they aren’t reading anything right now because they don’t want it to influence their writing? Why is this a thing? I don’t get it at all. It could be the stupidest response to the question, “What are you reading right now?”

Hyperbole aside (since there may be a stupider response to the question, although I can’t think of one right now), the two best ways to become a better writer are to write and to read. Why would you entirely cut out one of those avenues to becoming a better writer? What, you think somehow reading George Saunders is going to negatively impact your genius humor? You think you can’t read George Orwell because your unconscious mind will inadvertently steal ideas from him? Don’t flatter yourself.

They WILL impact your writing—positively.

I get the idea of not having as much time to read as you would like, but the fact that you can’t read while you’re writing because you’ll unknowingly steal ideas is preposterous to me. What, do you also not talk to the barista at Starbucks because you might decide to create a character based off of her for a scene in your book? How is this a thing? How have I heard this response from dozens and dozens of authors?

Now I’m worked up.


“I do wonder sometimes if having so many writers sequestered on campuses across the United States means that writers are cut off from cities, or from countryside, or from original places.”

McEwan’s point here gets to the heart of what it means to be a writer. Writers are empathetic observers of the world around them. We watch, synthesize, and tell.

What McEwan seems to be railing against in a large portion of this clip is undergraduate writing programs. If too many writers are simply observing their peers on college campuses, this becomes increasingly uninteresting to the reader. McEwan wants to see writers tell unique stories pulled from their lives in unique parts of the country or unique parts of the world.

He tells an interesting story, anecdotally pointing to the fact that John Updike left Manhattan to live in small town New England as evidence of the need for writers to experience the world, not to be taught how to write about the world in a classroom.

If nothing else, it’s clear McEwan believes great writers are formed from writing and reading A LOT.


Writers are empathetic observers of the world around them. We watch, synthesize, and tell.Click To Tweet



Find more writing and publishing tips at Nothing Any Good.

Writing Advice from Famous Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates

I enjoy much of the writing I’ve seen from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is thoughtful, challenging, and always well-researched. I enjoyed The Case for Reparations in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. I enjoyed his 2015 #1 Bestseller Between the World and Me. I even enjoyed his discussion/interview with his friend Neil Drumming on This American Life’s Status Update episode from last November.

Needless to say, I was delighted last weekend when my sister-in-law sent me this video clip of writing advice from Ta-Nehisi Coates.


I’d like to share a couple of points from Coates that gave me pause to think.



“Breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself.”

Coates expresses that breakthroughs come from periods of deep stress. While he didn’t say it specifically, I believe he’s talking about creative breakthroughs.

This comment recalled for me an interview I once heard with Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels. He was asked why in today’s age of social media and connectivity where it would be so easy for writer’s and actors to keep in touch throughout the week on their sketch ideas, does he still have the same cramming he always has done since the ’70s on Wednesday and Thursday nights. His reply was that he believes that true creative genius happens under times of stress and exhaustion. This is when we let our guard down and tap into our deep creative subconscious.

This is a similar sentiment we hear from Coates in this video. While on unemployment and struggling to make it as a writer, Coates wrote his breakthrough article on reparations, which was a catalyst for him toward more and more writing opportunities and fame.

Napoleon Hill also touts a similar sentiment in his uber-famous Think and Grow Rich. Hill stresses that if you really want to make it in a particular industry or career, then you have burn all other bridges so that there’s no other option other than to make it. I don’t fully subscribe to this mentality, but the value in the advice is clear.

Coates’ point on creative breakthroughs coming from times of great stress is why I always encourage writers to keep on a schedule and don’t stray from it. No matter how tired or bored or uncreative you feel that day, stick to the schedule. It will increase the likelihood that you’ll have a creative breakthrough.


“Or you quit the field and just say, ‘Oh I suck.'”

This is funny because it’s true. It’s exactly the reason that I like Napoleon Hill’s advice to burn all bridges other than the career bridge you want to cross, but I don’t unequivocally adhere to it. You may succeed because you have no other option, or you may end up destitute and alone. As a husband and father of two, I have a hard time rationalizing the act of burning all other bridges.


“Writing is an act of courage.”

Putting your words and your story on paper is incredibly courageous. It requires a deep vulnerability and willingness to expose yourself.


'Writing is an act of courage.' -Ta Nahisi CoatesClick To Tweet


“If you’re doing it correctly…the ideas in your head will almost always come out really badly on the page.”

Writing is 10% the idea and 90% continuing to revise, revise, revise. Coates expounds on this idea with the idea that when writing you should try to go from really bad, to okay, to acceptable. His point is that writing is a process of failure. The idea in your head is never going to come out perfectly onto the paper.

I think this is important to remember. Many new writers are prone to freezing up and giving up on their passion because they just can’t seem to get their writing to match the idea “see” in their head, but none of us can. That’s the great struggle of the writer. There are countless things I would change in Pieces Like Pottery. At some point, you have to let go of your work and give it over to the readers.


“The best advice I got…if you are a young person, then you should keep going.”

Coates is sharing advice he received when he was young in his career. The point is that having a career in writing is desired by so many people that it’s hard to get an opportunity when you’re young, but the road is incredibly difficult. Eventually, as you grow older, your competition begins to give up and goes to business school leaving you as a writer with an incredible skill set and years of training.

I simultaneously enjoy this sentiment and flinch at it. I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I often tell friends with whom I went to college that they already have a huge leg-up on people simply from the fact that they have been educated in an American university. Now they just need to work harder than their peers and they’ll be just fine.

At the same time, I’m mid-30s and while I have been writing since I was a teenager and honing my skill set, I didn’t take my first leap into the seriousness of the craft until last year. The idea that I’m already screwed and can’t make it as a writer because I’m too old both frightens me and causes me to scoff.

The takeaway for Coates, however, is that writing is about perseverance, which I couldn’t agree with more. The life of a writer is solitary and full of roadblocks. Show me a writer without perseverance and I’ll show you a writer who’s an accountant.


Show me a writer without perseverance and I'll show you a writer who's an accountant. Click To Tweet



Find more writing and publishing tips at Nothing Any Good.

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