Words of Wisdom by Writers for Writers

Even successful writers have self-doubts. Here’s their advice on how to overcome them: can you share your own strategies on how you keep going as a writer? 


Helen Garner:

You’ve got two selves I think. One of them is the deep one that can do the work, and the other one is constantly discouraging you and saying: ‘oh come off it, who do you think you are?’Some days when you feel like this you just have to keep on.

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: this is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on the bed. I feel I’m going to be exposed. Other days you start a paragraph and suddenly out it comes, all these ideas streaming out of you and you can hardly keep up.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate Grenville:In writing ‘Lillian’s Story’ there were endless doubts. The pleasure reigned supreme whenever the writing was just a private thing that I was doing for myself. If you ask yourself what your book’s about you get all twisted up, and if you ask whether or not it works you will always find fault with it. Getting into the reviewer or critic state of mind makes me timid as a writer. I start to play it safe, and the writing gets strangled with sheer caution.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Greenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate wrote 30 drafts of he last book, ‘One Life’, which she calls ‘a Story’, neither a novel nor a memoir. Her breakthrough as a writer came when she stopped being a critic, learned to break with convention, and to tap into the Unconscious (in Freud’s sense of the word).



Garner again: whenever I read Christina Stead I get an electric thrill from the way she breaks all the rules. She can string seven adjectives together in a row. She holds the noun up to to the light and uses the adjectives to make it shine this way and that way. I envy that naturalness,–as if she sat down and out it poured.

I don’t plan very much, because if I do, I start to wield the plan against my instincts, and it acts as a clamp. It becomes a duty, or a trap. It prevents me from being flexible or alert to a fresh possibility.

Linda Jaivin on ‘Truth in Fiction’ Write a novel and the first thing you’ll be asked is if it’s a ‘true’ story. In recent years, readers, reviewers and journalists alike have become increasingly fixated on the question of how much fiction is based on fact. It is as though identifying the biographical or autobiographical elements in a novel provides not just a key to it but validation. Perhaps the better question to ask would be how much fact is based on fiction. Truth in literature, novels and biography alike, is never quite as simple an equation as x=y.

Hannah Kent: To be a good writer you must, first and foremost, be a good reader. How else will you learn what to do? Read as much as possible, as often as possible, and if you read something you like, or something that makes you laugh, or something that moves you in a strange, ineffable way, ask why. Re-read it. Read it aloud. Pay attention to the use of words, and the narrative voice, and the comic timing. If you don’t understand words, splurge on a really great dictionary and look those words up. The more words you know, the greater your control over language.

If there is one quality I have consistently drawn upon to get any kind of writing in print, it was not a gift with language. It was diligence. If you want to write, you have to be diciplined. You have to put the hours in, even when you don’t feel like it. You especially have to learn to write when you are uninspired. You have to take your work seriously, and this means setting aside time for it, preferably on a regular basis. This often means making sacrifices.

What do you think is the most important piece of advice? What works for you? I have italicised the words that most resonate with me: keep going, trust the unconscious, be diligent.



  1. Thanks Dina for these wonderfully considered answers and authors’ efforts and undertakings.


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