In 2010, The Guardian made a series asking for writing tips. Here are Zadie Smith’s:
When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
Don’t romanticize your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides (New Yorker bios) sat down in then October 2016 New Yorker Festival discuss writing habits. The two agreed that eight hundred words made for a good day (though Zadie as a child could write more). Eugenides spends six to eight hours at his desk in a sitting, while Smith believes that her work goes bad after four. More in the conversation below.
She has said: "It might not always feel meditative, but when the book is very good you'll notice it is because time passes in a strange way in a book you love… four hours you didn't even notice, you haven't even moved from the sofa. To me that's kind of the ideal writing mind."
She doesn’t glamourise being a writer, but she has written some good perspective as well: “Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra—they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigour when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.”
I think you follow your contemporaries from afar. At least, I do.
She was at my university, we only overlapped a year. We never met, just crossed paths in passing. I was a science specialist with a theatre and writing interest; she was in the Arts. She did edit the May Anthologies (as did Nick Laird), which I did a few years after along with a friend. (I also in a different year had a poem published in them, as did Laird)
I knew her work. I knew she was with Nick Laird who qualified into law and was a practising solicitor for several years while also a poet before moving into full time writing.
Working in the city and writing I could connect with.
Her voice reminds me of my West London.
While she is not my yellow brown banana colour, she’s not the causcasian pink white of the UK’s last 20 or 30 prime ministers and kings and queens
So she looks like me in that she bears no resemblence to our ruling elite - difference plus difference equals something similar? But, she is who she is - the multi-cultural poster child thing plastered on to her, probably unfairly.
I mention Nick Laird, as I gather they were friends a long time before marrying, and friendship presumably came before love. They also edit each other’s work.
Anoushka somewhat edits mine of late, and she does see an early draft before almost anyone else. I’d give it to someone like my playwright mentor friend, Jane Bodie, but am too embarrassed about the state of an early draft.
“Do you want to make a fool of yourself in front of me, or in front of x amount of people?” (Smith/Laird)
I recall reading she was cautious about having children (who would bring children into this world…) and then learning she had a child (then another) about the same time as me.
Most is written about her novels. But, I love her essays. I trace Susan Sonntag, John Berger, David Foster Wallace all in her essay writing.
Her sentences are great in either form, but her angle of opinion always seems to provoke a thought in me from her non-fiction. The conversations you can see of her on youtube are erudite and thoughtful. Maybe one day I’ll bump into her in NW6/10 or NYC.
Lastly, another in conversation with youtube of her chat at nypl.org around 2013