7 Useful Writing Tips From the Incomparable Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is a legendary author whose work has been solidified as classic, must-read literature. Read on to see what writing advice she has to offer!

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Margaret Atwood smiling framed by the covers of The Handmaid's Tale and The Penelopiad on a pink background.

Anyone who has taken a high school English course in the last decade or so is probably familiar with Margaret Atwood. Her prolific novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is taught all across the country for its prescient vision of the future, as well as its themes of gender roles, religion, and women’s right to bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom. With the lasting legacy of The Handmaid’s Tale, not to mention Atwood’s myriad of other novels (and poetry!), it’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about writing. So whether you’re looking for some tips and tricks to get you through NaNoWriMo or you’re just curious to know what one of the foremost modern authors has to say about storytelling, here are seven pieces of writing advice from Margaret Atwood herself.

1. Read as much as you write.

If you want to write in a certain genre, you have to know that genre well. The best way to learn about a genre is simply to read it as much as possible! Great writers are always first and foremost great readers.

The Handmaid's Tale cover by Margaret Atwood, handmaid wearing a long red frock and a white bonnet.

What you read is as important as what you write.

Margaret Atwood via Writer’s Digest

2. Don’t underestimate the importance of a hook.

If readers aren’t grabbed by the first few pages of your book, they’re unlikely to keep reading. Your opening has to be strong enough to draw readers in; that way, they’ll stick around to learn what you really have to say.

Alias Grace cover by Margaret Atwood, a woman sitting in a jail cell with the shadow of the bars falling across her face.

If you can’t get the reader at the first page, they will never read the brilliant insights in the rest of the book.

Margaret Atwood via Medium

3. Actively seek out inspiration.

If you want to write about a certain topic, the first thing to do is to throw yourself into learning about it! Ideas don’t appear out of thin air, so if you’re searching for inspiration, take the initiative to delve into your area of interest.

Bluebeard's Egg cover by Margaret Atwood, a woman hiding under a large chair.

Nobody knows where ideas come from, but let us say, if you immerse yourself in something, whether it be music, painting, or writing…you are going to get ideas about it. But you have to do the immersing first. You’re not just sitting there, waiting for lightning to strike.

Margaret Atwood via The Writing Cooperative

4. Always get a second pair of eyes on your work before submitting it to agents or publishers.

As much as we might like to think we’re impartial evaluators of our own work, it’s impossible to assess our writing objectively. Before going out on submission, ask a writer friend for feedback! Your story will be better for it.

Bodily Harm cover by Margaret Atwood, woman looking out a plane window.

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.

Margaret Atwood via the Gotham Writers Workshop

5. Find a personal writing routine.

One of the most challenging parts of being a writer is simply finding the time to write. Working around all of life’s obligations can feel all but impossible; however, getting in the habit of writing regularly is essential to a successful writing career. Whether you write a single paragraph or an entire chapter, disregard word count and quality and just find a way to work writing into your daily schedule.

Lady Oracle cover by Margaret Atwood, woman with red hair cutting several inches off of it with scissors.

Write every day if you can, no matter how awful you think it is. Just keep doing it.

Margaret Atwood via the Cornell Chronicle

6. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

Writing is not always an easy process. It rarely goes as smoothly as we would hope. That said, when you encounter an issue or a roadblock in your story, don’t give up hope. If your first idea wasn’t successful, try a new one! As long as you’re flexible and you allow your story to take unexpected paths, you’ll eventually reach your destination.

The Blind Assassin cover by Margaret Atwood, woman in a long red dress leaning back against a railing.

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.

Margaret Atwood via She Writes

7. Write without fear!

As anyone who has ever attempted to write a novel will know, writing can be scary! At times, the writing process can even be painful, but in order to accomplish your writing goals, you have to gather your bravery and just do it. Push your fear and discomfort aside and keep going! If you do, no doubt you’ll discover that you’re capable of accomplishing things you never could have imagined.

Stone Mattress cover by Margaret Atwood, woman in a long winter coat shining a flashlight in front of her.

I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. ‘Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?’ And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream. Once you’re in, keep going. You may have to crumple and toss, but we all do that. Courage! I think that is what’s most required.

Margaret Atwood via Standout Books

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