Philip Pullman. Writing tips.

In honour of Philip Pullman’s new book (The Book of Dust  La Bell Sauvage) here’s a collection of his writing tips, (some of them are off-beat).


My main rule is to say no to things [like being asked for writing tips], which tempt me away from my proper work.(from a 2010 guardian article)

Which he then breaks in this bbc article:

1. Ignore the market and write what you want

2. Stay at your desk

3. Find the way of writing that works for you

4. Let the protagonist propel events

(There are just as many ways to structure a novel as there are to write one. A good steer, however, is to let the actions of the main character drive the plot. It's useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead. Even if the story begins with them committing a murder, by having the protagonist be the instigator, your audience will care about them regardless of their terrible actions.)

5. Explore different formats and genres

And then breaks again in this second bbc article:

1. Let characters show themselves


2. There are always more stories

3. It's normal not to be confident - but don't listen to music

(I never think it (my writing) is good. The most I think is, "Well, that will do".

When I'm writing, I'm more conscious of the sound, actually, than the meaning. I know what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be before I know what the words are going to be in it.

That's a very important factor in the way I write. That's why I can't write with music playing.

Some writers do, but I couldn't begin to do that.

Silence? Yes. Pneumatic drills? Fine. Traffic noise? No problem. But music is an absolute killer. So I have to have silence, so I can hear the rhythm.)

4. Tone is more important than structure

I sort of know where things are going - but I don't know the way to get there.

As for not structuring - well, I do. But structure comes later. Structure is sometimes seen as being a fundamental thing. It isn't.

Structure is a superficial thing. What is fundamental in a book is tone, the tone of voice, and to change that is to change every single sentence.

But you can change the structure at the last minute. You can say: "I'll start in the middle", or whatever. The structure is there, but it comes later.

5. Choose a favourite pen

6. Write for yourself

When you're writing, you have to please yourself because there's no-one else there initially.

When you're writing, you have to please yourself because there's no-one else there initially.

But the book doesn't fully exist until it's been read. The reader is a very important part of the transaction - and people have to read things they want to read.

I'm writing for me - I write for all the "me's" that have been.

From the first me I can remember, the me who first got interested in stories and loved listening to them; to the me who was here at Oxford 50 years ago; to the me who was a school teacher, telling stories to the class.

All of these. I'm writing for me. And I am lucky to have found such a wide audience - and an audience which contains both adults and children is the best of all.

Me:  This tip comes up a lot from writers I read and speak too.  Pullman has written on this before (from a 2009 Q&A)


Don’t listen to any advice, that’s what I’d say. Write only what you want to write. Please yourself. YOU are the genius, they’re not. Especially don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want.

Readers don’t always know what they want. I don’t know what I want to read until I go into a bookshop and look around at the books other people have written, and the books I enjoy reading most are books I would never in a million years have thought of myself.

So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone. That way, you’ll have a chance of writing something that other people WILL want to read, because it’ll take them by surprise.

It’s also much more fun writing to please yourself.