Writing Tips from Jonathan Franzen

Courtesy of TIME.

Jonathan Franzen is one of the most celebrated writers today. His face on the cover of TIME with the headline “Great American Novelist” in 2010 came a decade after Stephen King’s; no American author was honored like this in the time between. But Franzen’s butterfly to fame began as a crawl – he didn’t make a splash in the literary pool until his ten-year project, The Corrections, was published in 2001, to a tidal wave of critical and commercial success.

I’m reading The Corrections right now and I can testify to the power of its prose. It’s everything at once: hysterical, poignant, lyrical, epic. I once skimmed his debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (published in 1988), while browsing for a new read in my hometown library, and the stylistic contrast between it and The Corrections not only reflects his growth as a writer but documents his steady command of language over the years.

With that said, he is not a firework, brilliant but brief. He is more like a torch, and his advice for writers has the lasting quality of wisdom. Here are his ten tips for writers published in The Guardian, with my occasional commentary:

  1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
    As Joan Didion once said, writing is, by nature, hostile. The conversations we have with what we read are conversations with ourselves – writing imposes; it doesn’t change. By this logic, and to relate it to Franzen’s first tip, a writer should be mindful of her audience. It’s easy to be didactic when you don’t have a reader in mind. Write a story as you would tell it to your friend.
  2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
    After all, if we only wrote what we knew, writing wouldn’t be so hard and drawn-out. I’ve always identified with Don DeLillo’s remark in his “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review that writing is a concentrated form of thinking. Joan Didion says the same thing in “Why I Write.” We write in order to know what we think. Writing fiction often forces us to reconcile personal tensions, resolve contradictions, reflect on forgotten moments. In the process, we narrate a story previously unknown to us; the adventure can be one of self-discovery.
  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.
  4. Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
  5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
  6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.
  7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.
    The big picture exists only from a distance. A footnote to this, however, is that by sitting still you miss the chasing after, the action. It’s only one side of the coin. An establishing shot in a movie, for example, can’t depict what a point-of-view shot can.
  8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
    Writing is reflective, a time to synthesize and array. The internet, on the other hand, gives this sedentary generation the opportunity to indulge in vicarious (i.e., once removed) living at all hours.
  9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
    The opposite of what many professors recommend. One of the mantras of many English professors I’ve had is that the verb “to be” is “vague” – which may be true for academic writing, but in fiction it can be a neutral palette on which other parts of speech add layers of color.
  10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

Check out Franzen’s fascinating “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review here.

Posted by James


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