J.K. Rowling Offers Advice to New Writers

Jan 08, 2019

Posted by: Dawn Johnson

J.K. Rowling, JKRowling.com, News

Most fans and aspiring authors would jump at the chance for J.K. Rowling’s pro tips on writing. Akin to an acting master class, her experience and insight would prove invaluable, and she has indulged with a three-part Q&A segment on her website.

She quickly opens with a caveat, however, reminding readers that she herself holds to-do lists and “fail-proof” models for success in low regard, ignoring or rebelling against them. In fact, she sites the fact (well covered in Harry: A History) that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone bucked all conventions of the time. Male heroes were not in vogue. Boarding schools were to be avoided. And a children’s book the length of a standard adult novel would never be well received. Rowling defied them all and gained success in spite of it.

So, take such lists with a healthy dose of skepticism and consider instead the following, Rowling’s Non-List, as it were. Rather than  “must do’s” she offers the steps “you probably won’t get far without’s”:

1. Reading

“You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why.”

Rowling notes that most fledging writers will copy the style of their favorites. She advises not to worry as it’s part of the learning process. Keep writing, and you’ll eventually develop one that’s all your own.

2. Discipline

“Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”

It seems unappealing, not to mention difficult, to write according to rote habit rather than when the mood strikes. After all, how can you force genius? But Rowling doesn’t glamorize the work involved. If you want to be a writer, you must write on the days when the words come easily as well as on the days they do not.

3. Resilience and Humility

“These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head.”

Rowling reminds readers that it took seven years for her to move Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from conception to publication. She admits this was due in large part to her abandoning the book for months at a time because she was “convinced it was rubbish.” Success won’t come without perseverance and a willingness to accept constructive criticism.

4. Courage 

“Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do…Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?”

Rowling acknowledges that, inwardly, she felt like a failure but decided that submitting her manuscript was worth the risk. In her words, she’d “faced worse and survived.” You have to have the courage to try in order to succeed. To quote the Sound of Music, (that’s right), “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.”

5. Independence

“By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing…

“Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings.”

Rowling highly recommends a website called Writer Beware, which will help sort through what is actually useful and what ought to be avoided.

After graciously sharing suggestions for would-be writers, Rowling addressed what she loves most about writing life. She replied in typical fashion:

“I can’t answer this without sounding melodramatic. The truth is that I can’t really separate a ‘writing life’ from ‘life.’ It’s more of a need than a love. I suppose I must spend most of my conscious life in fictional worlds, which some people may find sad, as though there must be something lacking in my external life. There really isn’t! I’m a happy person, by and large, with a family I adore and quite a few activities I enjoy. It’s just that I have other worlds in my head that I often slip in and out of and I don’t really know how it would feel to live any other way.”

 As for how it feels to have her own work scrutinized, she observed:

“Having your work scrutinised is an inevitable concomitant of being a professional writer. I never dreamed that there would be a fandom the size of Harry Potter’s picking over the books. It’s staggering and wonderful. Given that I’m fairly obsessive myself, these are kindred spirits.

“I could have spent literally every hour of every day discussing Potter characters, plot twists and theories with fans over the last ten years, but as I want to work on new things, I don’t give in to this temptation that frequently.”

Luckily for fans, Rowling says that she does like to indulge by engaging on Twitter and believes she will continue to do so as long as there are fans who know the world as well as they do. That being said, we’ll likely be hearing from her for some time to come. Love for the magical world of Harry Potter shows no sign of diminishing, and as Rowling expands her story with the Fantastic Beasts series, there will be characters and theories and plot lines to discuss, and opportunities for doing so, for as long as the fans join her there.

Read Rowling’s comments in full here.

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.