27 Hard-Won Lessons about Writing from New York Times Bestselling Authors
Writing tips are like beer nuts.
No matter how many you have, you always want more.
But do you ever get the feeling that the writing “experts” who are dispensing the tips barely have more experience than you?
Which usually means their advice is either second-hand or second-rate.
And maybe that’s why it fails to hit the spot, and you find yourself reaching robotically for the next tip.
The thing is, sometimes you have to go back to the source to find the real stuff — wisdom borne from personal experience, not well-meaning guesswork or threadbare philosophical hand-me-downs.
So we’ve collected some truly valuable writing advice from authors whose books have achieved what few others’ have — landing on the coveted New York Times Bestseller list.
#1. There is No Muse
Source: Nora Roberts’ Top 7 Tips for Writers and Authors
Nora Roberts is an American author who has written more than 195 New York Times bestsellers, 59 of which debuted in the #1 spot. She has also written under the pseudonyms J.D. Robb (for the In Death series), Jill March and Sara Hardesty.
#2. Ignore the Rules
Source: Lee Child and the “Long Game”: Lessons on Success From One of America’s Favorite Authors
Lee Child (born Jim Grant) is a British thriller writer best known for his Jack Reacher series of crime novels. Each September he starts a new book, finishing sometime in the spring; that makes 22 books in 22 years.
#3. Knowledge is Poisonous
Source: Siddhartha Mukherjee: ‘A positive attitude does not cure cancer, any more than a negative one causes it’
Siddhartha Mukherjee is an Indian American cancer physician and researcher, biological scientist, and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He is best known for authoring The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
#4. Writing Is Your Exhale
Source: Goodreads: Glennon Doyle Melton Quotes
Glennon Doyle Melton, known as the ultimate confessional writer has penned two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Carry On, Warrior and Love Warrior. She is also the creator of a thriving online community at Momastery, an activist, and philanthropist.
#5. No Telephones, TV or Videogames
Source: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers
Stephen King is an American horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy author whose books have sold more than 350 million copies. He is a familiar presence to The New York Times as every single one of his 54 novels has hit their bestseller list.
#6. Writing is Hard but Coal Mining is Harder
Source: The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility
Cheryl Strayed is an American memoirist, novelist, and essayist. She is the author of four books, the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Wild, and New York Times bestsellers, Tiny Beautiful Things and Brave Enough, and Torch.
#7. Everything is Relevant
Source: Interview With Anthony Doerr, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction
Anthony Doerr is an American author of two short-story collections, a memoir and two novels. He gained widespread recognition for his 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
#8. Force Yourself to Finish, Even If It’s Garbage
Source: Jodi Picoult: The million-selling novelist on carving out time for writing and the influence of Gone With the Wind
Jodi Lynn Picoult is the bestselling American author of 24 novels, with the last eight debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. She currently has 40 million copies of her books in print — worldwide in 35 countries.
#9. Never Make Them Read a Sentence Twice
Source: Ken Follett: Masterclass
Ken Follet is a Welsh author who specializes in historical and thriller novels, and has written 22 novels that have ranked high on the New York Times bestseller list. Some of his novels were adapted for movies and TV mini-series.
#10. Stop Making Improvements and Start the Next Book
Source: Neal Stephenson’s writing advice for students (and everyone else)
Neal Stephenson is the #1 New York Times bestselling American author of the supersized novels novels, Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon. Mostly known for his works of speculative fiction, he also writes short stories and essays.
#11. Everyone Has to Work a Day Job First
Source: Interview with Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher is an American author best known for his #1 New York Times bestselling urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files. He is also the author of the acclaimed New York Times bestselling Codex Alera and Cinder Spires epic fantasy series.
#12. Write Even When Your Kids are Sick
Source: Kristin Hannah: FAQ
Kristin Hannah is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling American writer of more than 20 novels. Her international blockbuster, The Nightingale, has been published in over 39 languages and is currently in movie development at Tri Star Pictures.
#13. Daydreaming Isn’t Writing
Source: Quora Question: Andy Weir Gives Tips for New Writers
Andy Weir is an American science fiction novelist, programmer and self-proclaimed space nerd whose debut novel, The Martian, was a New York Times bestseller and in 2015, adapted into a film of the same name.
#14. Don’t be Afraid of Radical Surgery
Source: Words of wisdom for writers from Jojo Moyes
Jojo Moyes is a British journalist and romance novelist. Her #1 New York Times bestseller, Me Before You was adapted into for the screen in June 2016. Moyes is one of only a few authors to have twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
#15. Discover Where the Lies are Buried
Source: Book TV: Michael Eric Dyson on Writing from In Depth
Michael Eric Dyson is an African-American academic, author, editor, and radio host. He is a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, an ordained minister for 35 years, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and author of 19 books, including four New York Times bestsellers.
#16. Writing is Simply a Matter of Discipline
Source: How the ‘queen of the beach novel’ became a best-selling author after her first 4 books flopped
Elin Hilderbrand is a New York Times bestselling American romance novelist who has written 17 books set on and around Nantucket Island. She was previously a teaching/writing fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
#17. Rearrange Your Life
Source: So you want to become a published writer?
Douglas Preston is an American journalist and novelist who has authored 35 books, sixteen of which have been New York Times bestsellers — several reaching the #1 position. Writing books from techno-thriller and horror novels to non-fiction titles on history, science, exploration, and true crime, Preston is best known for his collaborations with Lincoln Child.
#18. Talent Won’t Get You Published
Source: Gillian Flynn: How I Write
Gillian Flynn is an American author and television critic for Entertainment Weekly. Her third novel, Gone Girl, hit the New York Times #1 Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list and was adapted for the screen in 2014.
#19. Stop Trying to Edit Your Curiosity
Source: Malcolm Gladwell on writing
Malcolm Gladwell is an English-born Canadian journalist, author, and speaker. His work is toppling the popular understanding of bias, crime, food, marketing, race, consumers and intelligence. He has written five books, and all five hit the New York Times bestseller list.
#20. Commit to a Goal
Source: 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Liane Moriarty
Liane Moriarty is an Australian author who has written 7 novels — 3 of which hit the #1 New York Times bestseller list simultaneously. Her 6th novel, Big Little Lies released on February 19, 2017 as an HBO limited series.
#21. You Don’t Need a Degree in Writing
Source: Clive Cussler FAQ: Frequently Asked Question and Answer
Clive Eric Cussler is an 86-year-old American adventure novelist and underwater adventurer often described as a marine archaeologist. He’s reached The New York Times fiction bestseller list more than 20 times and written or co-authored 55 books.
#22. Rewrite It Fifty Times If You Have to
Source: 5 Writing Tips from Tana French
Tana French is an Irish novelist dubbed the First Lady of Irish Crime and her 6 books, some on the New York Times bestseller list, have a cult-like following who consider her one of the best writers of intelligent, atmospheric and genuinely scary psychological thrillers around.
#23. Being Stumped is Essential
Source: Five Tips for Reaching Your Creative Potential
Jonah Lehrer is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and widely sought-after speaker prior to having major published works recalled for irregularities in their intellectual content. Admitting to a tremendous amount of remorse, he’s back with his newest, A Book About Love.
#24. Everybody Sucks at First
Source: Writer’s Digest Interview with Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell is a contemporary American crime writer who has authored 29 New York Times bestsellers. Known for her series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell has sold 100 million books in 36 languages in over 120 countries.
#25. Abandon Good Ideas for Better Ones
Source: Feeling Stuck? Good Ideas Hide in Plain Sight, Says Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is an American novelist of 4 books; he’s best known for his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was adapted into the 2011 movie by the same name. His third novel, Here I Am, was an instant New York Times bestseller.
#26. Write, Even If People Think You’re Crazy
Source: Writing & Publishing Advice from Louise Penny
Louise Penny is a Canadian mystery fiction author of the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. Her novels have been published in 23 languages. Her most recent novel, A Great Reckoning hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
#27. Write Until the Water Runs Clear
Source: ‘Hamilton’ Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Key to Writing and Fulfilling Disney Dreams with ‘Moana’
Lin-Manuel Miranda is an American an award-winning composer, lyricist, and performer, best known for creating and starring in the Broadway musicals Hamilton and In the Heights. He co-authored the #1 New York Times bestseller, Hamilton: The Revolution, with Jeremy McCarter.
Slipstream the Success of These Bestselling Writers
Not all writing advice is created equal. Nor every writer.
But the lessons from this list are based on countless hours of experience accumulated by writers who rose to the top of the pile.
Not every example will resonate with you, but you can be sure those that do are grounded in the practical realities of becoming a successful writer.
So it’s time to stop chasing new tips and start applying the battle-tested advice of the true experts.
Because the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll have a shot at joining this league of celebrated writers.
So… which lessons will inspire your future success?