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Ian McEwan Offers 3 Pieces of Advice to Aspiring Writers

Being a writer is extremely difficult. There aren’t any shortcuts to completing a book, and even when it’s finished, there’s much work to be done.

As a bestselling author and winner of the Booker Prize, Ian McEwan knows a thing or two about the writing process. Ian is one of the few writers that has experienced many successes in his career, and continues to make strides in the literary world – his latest book, Nutshell, was just named one of the best books of the year. Though he believes “everyone should find their own way,” he has some tips for writers that are struggling to stay disciplined and consistent.

Watch the video below to hear what advice Ian McEwan has to offer aspiring writers.

Transcription of Ian McEwan offering three pieces of writing advice.

I often think that I don’t really have any advice to give at all, and that everyone should find their own way, but that never really satisfies anyone.

My advice is this to anyone who announces they want to be a writer. Well, for a start, nothing should stop you. You cannot go around saying “I want to be a writer,” you can only go around saying “I am a writer.” All you need is a block of paper and a pencil.

What should you do? Well, my first piece of advice is this: concentrate on the short story. Do not waste the next five years of your life writing an 800-page block of a novel that might well be a failure. Put your toe in the water gently.

The short story is a very difficult form – hard to do well. But it is a wonderful laboratory. You can try out all the voices. You can consciously imitate those writers who seem to be breathing too passionately down your neck. But a good short story, or even a bad story, could only take you a week, three weeks, six weeks, and you will not have wasted three years.

From that, I would say that the next move would be to write a novella. Find the short story that you’ve written that seems to tug at your thoughts a little. There’s something incomplete about it, something remaining to be developed. And write the 140-page novel. Again, it could take you a year, could take you six months. You might even get it all down in one delirious month.

But it’s a bit like building a tunnel. You need all these props at the beginning. Later on, you can take them out because there’s maybe some kind of casing to deliver you to the place you want be.

The other bit of advice – I guess this is the third – is that you must dedicate yourself to keeping a journal. When I look into my own journals, what fascinates me most about what was going on in my life 30 years ago are the things that we would consider the most mundane. What was I reading, who was I talking to, what were the main subjects of conversation.

Where you’re living, what’s on your desk, who do you love, even what you had for breakfast, it doesn’t matter. The banalities actually begin to shine after many years have passed. You don’t have to write in it every day. Once a week would be fine. 500 words a week doesn’t sound much, but it really mounts up. That’s 25,000 words a year.

The terrible thing about life is that most of it is forgotten. A lot of it is rich. And a lot of that richness can be retained for future use by an occasional excursion into a notebook.