Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Aspiring Writers

In fiction, writing on 09/06/2012 at 14:02

In February 2010, Jonathan Franzen was asked (along with Zadie Smith, Richard Ford and Anne Enright—whose lists I hope to get to soon) by The Guardian to offer ten pieces of advice he thought young writers should consider very seriously. I thought I might enjoy going through them.

1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

Too many times—with literary novels especially—I feel as if the author is challenging me to go forward, screening me to ensure that I’m part of the elite few who have been accepted to read the chosen book. Sure, great novels are rarely “easy” reads, but writers need to keep in mind that people pay money and dedicate time to novels. Authors do not owe the reader anything, per se, but do need to keep in mind that they’re working together, not against one another.

2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

There’s nothing wrong with writing for money. I’ve been writing copy for money and fiction for myself (and hopefully others, one day). If you, as a writer, aren’t scared of or excited about what you’re writing, it’s unlikely you’ll finish writing it—and it’s almost a definite that no one will finish reading it.

3. Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

‘Then’ works occasionally, but the real advice here is the “lazy” aspect. If you have too many ‘ands’ you’ve got to rework some sentences. ‘Then’ works most appropriately when describing a physical process with many parts (i.e. He unwound the rope, looped it and knotted it, swung it up over the tree, then scanned the ground for something to weigh it down with). I just invented that sentence, and could easily excise ‘then.’ But there are rare times it works.

4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

I personally live by this, I much prefer third person, but a lot of people write in first person so it’s not really a be all end all bit of advice. However, especially for young writers, it appears easy to tell a story from the first person and then, much later in the work, realize the narrator is not a developing character, but simply yourself. While fiction is a process of self discovery, it’s unlikely that you will be a completely changed person at the end, meaning your narrator will also go unchanged, and that’s just no good.

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

Honestly I’m not sure what Franzen is saying here. Something like if a topic is so popular that people are surfing the internet and looking into it on their own, there isn’t much point writing a novel about it? Do fill me in if you have a better understanding than I do.

6. The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Another bit of advice vital to the young writer. Writing is an escape, an adventure—get as far away from yourself as possible, and that’s where you’ll find all the answers you’ve been looking for.

7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

As far as the writing process, I couldn’t agree more. Franzen’s characters are often sitting in a room, doing nothing as their train of thought or a narrative trick brings them to all the places in their lives, memories, where truly interesting events occur. Don’t feel like your character needs to have a gun pointed at their head or be in a car chase for tension to exist.

8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

The internet is the ultimate distraction. Dozens of times a decent writing session, on the brink of a breakthrough, has been derailed by tumblr or However, many writer’s blocks have been broken with a quick wikipedia fact check. Know yourself, know what’s best for you.

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

Don’t be excessive in describing what your characters are doing. They should be doing what humans do—walking, talking, sitting, fucking; how often are you doing something (physically, anyway) that you can’t put into words?

10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

This reminds me of an anecdote a professor told me once (kind of). He knew an editor at THE ATLANTIC, and in the wake of 9/11 the editor was receiving tons of 9/11 stories…the problem was, they are all bad. They weren’t poorly written, but not enough time had passed for people to suss out their truer emotions. All they had was anger, and as you’ve probably already learned, no one enjoys reading “angry” fiction.

Think about it in terms of people, rather than characters. It’s not very often you truly hate a person unless you, for some time, quite enjoyed their company.


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