14 Writing Tips from Anne Lamott.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: 14 writing tips from Anne Lamott.

Tomorrow night, I’ll interview writer Anne Lamott at Symphony Space here in New York City. I’m a longtime fan of her work, so am looking forward to hearing her speak about her writing and her process.

It’s especially gratifying for me to do this interview, because years ago, when I was still in law school, Anne Lamott and I were both bridesmaids in my college roommate’s wedding. I was so intimidated by her, a Real Writer, that I don’t think I spoke two words to her the entire time. The intense discomfort I felt around writers was one clue that helped me realize that I wanted to be a writer, myself.

So, in honor of Anne Lamott, here’s a tips list summarizing, very briefly, some of the points she makes in her terrific book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

  1. Write regularly, whether you feel like writing or not, and whether you think what you’re writing is any good or not.
  2. Give yourself short assignments. Keep it manageable so you don’t get overwhelmed.
  3. Write sh**ty first drafts. (I’m not being prissy about the word choice, just don’t want to get hung up in spam filters.) Don’t expect a piece of writing to flow perfectly out of your fingers on the first go. Of all the points she makes, many people seem to find this one the most helpful.
  4. Let the Polaroid develop; in other words, observe, watch, listen, stay in the moment, until you understand what you want to write about.
  5. Know your characters.
  6. Let the plot grow out of the characters.
  7. “If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing…it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right.”
  8. Figure out ways to jam the transmissions from Radio KFKD, the interior station feeding doubts and criticism into your brain. Especially about jealousy of other writers.
  9. Have pen and paper ready at all times. (She always carries an index card.)
  10. Call around. Ask for help.
  11. Start a writing group.
  12. Write in your own voice.
  13. Being published brings a quiet joy, but it doesn’t transform your life, and eventually you have to write again.
  14. “Devotion and commitment will be their own reward.”

One line from Bird by Bird was helpful to me recently. I’ve been feeling a bit panicky about whether I’m going to be able to figure out the structure for my next book; I’m always anxious about a project until I get my structure nailed down. I took heart from her admonition: “Try to calm down, get quiet, breathe, and listen.”

What strategies for writing have you found to be helpful? Or for getting yourself to sit down and work on any big project?

  • Jen Blais

    Excellent tips! They’re useful for writers of any kind. Of course, reading the tips is the easy part. The real trick is *following* the advice – if only I knew how to turn off that terrible, terrible radio station!

  • Luke Goldstein

    Also without seeming to prissy about language, this is the best f’n post I’ve read all day. Thanks so much for pointing out her book, which is now on my Amazon wish list.

    • Mine, too now, Luke!

    • Veronique

      Another really good book on writing is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer

  • BreadCrumbsTeam

    I urge any aspiring writer to read Bird by Bird. Well, actually, anyone in general. I met a successful nightlife promoter who said it was the greatest book he ever read.

  • Break your writing project into small steps so it’s not overwhelming. Take it Bird by Bird!

  • emd04

    Love this…I just “won” my first NaNoWriMo, and these tips are going be so useful as I re-write and edit!

  • Veronique

    The best advice I have ever read from a writer. Thank you so much!

  • Jeanmarie DiTaranto

    How exciting! I think I’ve read most everything Anne Lamott has ever written. Best wishes to you both.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! It should be fun.

      If anyone has any question to suggest – for me to ask her – please post!

  • sigrun hodne

    Thank you – a great list!

    I have read several writers on writing lately, and found many good advices. I am currently following the process described in Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way”, which amongst a lot of other things advices a writer (and also everyone else working creative disciplines) to start every day by writing three pages – first thing: every morning. I have done this for five weeks, its hard, difficult – but also rewarding.

    I would also like to quote the poet Mary Oliver saying:
    – to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely & deeply. Good poems are the best teachers. Perhaps they are the only teachers. If one must make a choice between reading or taking part in a workshop, on should read.

    I have also taken great pleasure in reading Richard Hugo on writing, I have made several blogposts on him, they can be found here: http://omstreifer.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/the-best-poetry-writing-teacher/

    • Anne

      The Artist’s Way is a great book. I just bought it for my 16-year-old son… I wish you much luck in your endeavours… keep writing and don’t give up!

  • Anne

    I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 9 years old. I graduated and got a college diploma in writing. Then, life took over and writing fell off my radar. I got a ‘real’ job to pay my real bills. I’m now 48 years old, my husband and I sold most of our belongings and moved to the beautiful mountains of Costa Rica. I have been documenting our adventure in a blog, which I write every day. I’m not a fiction writer; I now realize I’m much more comfortable journaling day to day events. Real events, however small and seemingly insignificant. It’s the thread of writing every day that creates significance, in the end. And, I write in my own voice now, too. I used to think to be a good writer I had to use lofty words and sound all superior, but for me, I’m learning it’s the exact opposite. Being truthful to who I am feels much more authentic… and so much easier! I cringe when I go back and read my first blog entries, as I use to proofread for a living and believe me, you’d never know it! But I’m letting it all go and now make sure I re-read my entries before impatiently posting. I continue to be motivated to write because every day brings me a fresh perspective of a foreign culture and there’s so much for me to learn. I started reading The Happiness Project last January, and I was inspired when I learnt that you, Gretchen, had gone from law school to writing. It’s never too late to start over and re-invent yourself. Writing for me is getting back to my core desire and just doing it – not second guessing whether I should or not. Maybe all this blogging will lead to writing a book someday… who knows? For now, I’m enjoying rediscovering my passion. Please feel free to check out my blog at hushvalleylodge.com and click on ‘blog’. Let me know what you think. I appreciate any and all feedback. Happy writing everyone!

    • gretchenrubin

      Congrats! Off to check it out right now.

  • Hey Gretchen,

    Love this advice. My journaling software is full of lousy first drafts. But they have been the seeds for so much of my content. I followed this advice for about 13 weeks and a few days ago after 3 years of blogging finally wrote my first manifesto and shipped it. Now I just need to make it a regular habit beyond these 13 weeks. Given that it takes 21 days I think I should be in good shape


    • Congratulations Srinivas, and thank you for sharing the link to your “first manifesto” that has been bookmarked, and downloaded!

  • Thank you Gretchen for bringing Anne Lamont back into my life… “The Happiness Project” Is now bookmarked!

  • I do not believe in coincidence, and your post today reinforced this for me. On our morning walk today, my mother and I were talking about the evolution of dreams. When I was younger I dreamt of being an English teacher. In my mind, this meant studying great writers, encouraging students to find their own writing “voice” and coaching the Forensics team after school.

    After completing my undergraduate degree (English with an emphasis on Creative Writing), I worked as a communications specialist for a national trade association. I wrote press releases, articles and a newsletter. I immersed myself in technology and as the years passed, began educating adults through online and print based training. I went back to school for my Masters and my teaching certification. I did my practicum and found that while I enjoyed teaching at the high school level, my heart wasn’t in it. I got quiet, spent some time breathing and writing and found that my voice was telling me that I love educating adults. In my current job, I have the pleasure of designing web-based, print and face-to-face training. My dream had evolved. Today, I am a teacher, but it looks different than how I imagined it as a little girl.

    My other dream was (is) to be a writer. I have always processed life best through my writing and have had moments where I know that writing is my path. But fear/doubt have held me back. “No one will read what I write.” “I don’t know where to begin.” The list goes on and on. The first time I read Bird by Bird, I felt a sense of relief and awe. Anne spoke to me, she understood me and she wouldn’t let me off the hook.

    Many of the tips you captured here, Gretchen, are dead on and exactly what people like me need to “hear” and then execute. Seeing this list today, reading your posts, The Happiness Project and books like Bird by Bird, remind me that the dream lives on. There is still a chance I could be a Real Writer one day:) THANKS for continuing to inspire so many of us, Gretchen!

    • Tom Whitsed

      Keep going with your dream. BTW – I read what you wrote!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that what I write resonates with you.

    • Joseph F. Lahue


      I read your words too and I found them encouraging. I believe we all have stories to tell which others can learn what to do or not do in order to be; to be happy. We all want to be happy at some level. Your words made me feel happy. Thanks.

      Joseph F. Lahue

      • Thanks Joseph! I am so glad to hear my words made you happy:) Good to read on a Monday!

  • The point about first drafts is so important. So often we can stop ourselves making progress in many areas of life – not just writing – because we fear that what we might produce something rubbish. Better something rubbish we can work on than nothing. It’s a point that was brought home recently when I watched a documentary about the Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin writing his latest book. His first draft – which no one sees – looked like no more than a collection of notes, odd scenes and snippets. From this he then went on to do his research!

  • Katie

    Lighten Up, Francis! That’s my favorite Anne Lamott-ism (which is really from a movie – but for me she brings it richer meaning 🙂

    • Molly

      Love that line from Stripes with Bill Murray. We say it all the time in my family…especially to my dad (who also does have a good sense of humor).

  • Lynvz

    I am not a writer, but as an empty nester, I am trying to find my true voice. Anne Lamont is another one of my favorite authors. I have two questions. How did Anne wear her hair during your college room mates wedding? Seems to me she always struggled with her hair, like I do. And, how does one find happiness, when old pleasures are no longer around? ( I.e., I used to love going to the ocean with my children. They are now adults and no longer want to go to the beach. And, my skin is so fair, that I need to be completely covered and wear a big rediculous hat, which in fact does ruin my hair! )

    • Veronique

      Lynvz my heart really goes out to you. My only child is leaving for university next year. I quit a job I was very successful at and had worked hard through university to be able to do to be home with him. I loved doing things with him and still do and though I have a happy fulfilling marriage I really miss some of the things we used to do but no longer do. Now he and I have different fun together and fortunately he is going to be only at most 60 minutes away when he does leave. Most of my friends still have kids at home and do not have the freedom with their time that I have and I am still not fifty. So what do I do? I have a lot of interests and have begun to find work that relates to my old job, teaching. I keep in touch with my childless friends and find time for my friends who have kids when their schedule frees up and I take fun day trips as well as volunteer at the food bank and at schools, oh and I take classes.

  • bethsings

    Bird by Bird has always been a favorite of mine. I recommend it to all of my business writing students and anyone who asks me about resources for kicking their creativity into gear. When I’m short on time but need the kind of honesty and encouragement only Anne Lamott can give, I pick up the book and just hold it in my hands; it just feels good to connect with her. So I am envious that you have the privilege to sit and talk with her. What a thrill!

  • Hi Gretchen: I love Anne Lamott. I used to read her Salon.com columns many years ago when I lived in Washington DC, and I’ve read Bird by Bird and a number of her books. I now live in Marin county where also Anne lives so I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her out and about – I saw her walking her dog outside of the Fairfax movie theater once. She’s a brilliant writer and makes it all seem effortless (which it is not). Enjoy your interview!

  • Molly

    Great post and comments. Anne Lamott’s advice reminded me of another piece about writing from writer, Anne Patchett. It’s called The Getaway Car for those who are interested and haven’t read it. It’s really a long essay, and I got it on Kindle. I’ve read it several times and it always motivates me to do some writing!

  • Genevieve

    ” The intense discomfort I felt around writers was one clue that helped me realize that I wanted to be a writer, myself.” Oh, man, that hit me. That was how I knew I wanted me current job too. Every time I met someone who did that, I started feeling exactly the same way!

  • robby fernadez

    write is passion when you feel that your article is valued for other who read it and their feel that your article help him to get the problem solving. Or your article can make other feel happy and have self confidence increased.

  • Shilpi Rajput

    thank you Gretchen, for me writing is like am into it and am not into it, happens all the time. am full with content and am at a loss. but your post gave me a some insight about how i must go ahead.

  • Heather Novak

    GOD NOD! WOW. I have her book specially requested via library (for the second time) and it is under a couch somewhere. Seriously. This week. It is DIVINELY written and I will be searching it out today. Funny, I was linking to you as my bodacious blog of the week for a reason, I see. Both of your books are read-slow-and-savor. (Or at least, stop-reading-go-organize-a-cabinent) I also am now the peaceful owner of an altar on my kitchen window of beach rock and a ceramic bird…teal blue, and quite happy. MWAH!

  • brainysmurf

    Whenever I have trouble writing, I recall the line delivered by Sean Connery in Finding Forrester “a writer writes.” It’s that simple. Just start writing. Maybe it’s crappy and incoherent at first but, eventually, we make sense of it.

  • brainysmurf

    Sorry…was trying to add side note in triange brackets and it picked up HTML! Some attribute the quote to Larry from Throw Momma From The Train.

  • I handed out dozens of copies of “Bird by Bird” to incarcerated men when I was working at prison. Not all of them were writers, but all of them responded to the spiritual journey she names.

  • roecocouk

    Feeling inspired to find and read this book. Have long had a battle with my inner critic over lots of issues in life including my attempts to write creatively. Years have passed since my last attempts but I still feel the urge to try. One of the key issues for me has been to try to resist investing any expectations into the pieces I write (e.g that it will be published and/or earn me some money). So often I turn my thoughts about all sorts of projects into hopes that something “bigger” will come out of it and as soon as I do that all kinds of pressures of expectation bear down and change the nature of what I’m working on. I have to learn how to control that tendency. Ambition and drive are useful qualities but can sometimes get in the way of creative flow I think.

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  • Jess

    Ha! I was sitting here feeling bummed out about my lack of motivation to work on my writing, my unhappiness in my corporate job, and my knowledge that if I don’t actually find the motivation to do any writing then the chances of my becoming a writer and busting out of the corporate world are slim to none… so I popped into your blog for a jolt of happiness and lo and behold, a fantastic reminder of Anne Lamott’s great tips! Bird by Bird was one of the books that finally got me off my butt to really start writing, and YOURS is one that keeps reminding me to stay motivated and work towards that happiness goal. The two of you coming together in one single blog post (not to mention a wedding party!) is just what I needed today. Thanks so much! Now I’m off to knock off a few hundred words.

  • Rachel

    THANK YOU! I love reading tips from other writers.

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  • Bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.

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  • James Thomas Canali

    Gretchen and Happy Community,

    I wanted to share a couple other books on writing that you all might find intriguing, Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water, written from a rather mystical, practical and christian view point, but brilliant, and definitely worth reading for passionate writers, whatever your beliefs may be, you will enjoy her book. The other, I’m reading through right now, is Stephen Kings book On Writing, It’s like drinking whiskey, Stephen is full of insight and humor.

    Thanks Gretchen for sharing this post. 🙂

  • Sarah Ricard

    I realize I’m a couple years late to comment. I’m taking a graduate level course on Composition Theory this semester, and we are reading Anne Lamott’s “Sh**ty First Drafts” chapter from Bird by Bird. I discovered your summary of her writing tips when I googled Anne Lamott, which is a happy coincidence since I love your books and am looking forward to your book about habits. Thanks for the help!!

  • I recently read The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block by Hillary Rettig in which she also quotes Anne Lamott and writing the crappy first draft. That is one thing I’ve had to learn to do. I had always been one to edit as I write which always led me into staring at the screen for long moments as I tried to formulate the perfect sentence. I am now learning to disregard the squiggly lines showing misspelled words and just throw down what the voice in my head is saying. I still have the monumental task of creating a writing schedule habit, but that too will soon come.