The Sunday Times/ PFD Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlisters Share their Writing Tips

Posted on 2nd December 2016 by Sally Campbell
Every year, The Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Prize shortlist showcases the most inventive, unusual and down-right brilliant young writers. Andrew Holgate, one of this year's judges, said: "This is a sensationally strong list of books and writers, all of whom have a real future in literature, and any of whom as winner would stand comparison with the prize’s extraordinary list of past recipients."  Showing us just how it’s done, shortlisters  Andrew McMillan, Benjamin Wood, Max Porter and Jessie Greengrass provide their hints on how to be a better writer.


Andrew McMillan, author of Physical

Tip 1. Read. Read widely. Read things you don’t like, and then think why it is you don’t like them. Read as many poems by as many poets as you can find. If you want to write a poem, try reading a hundred contemporary poems by different poets first. Read novels. Read non-fiction. listen to plays on the radio, go to an art gallery, see interesting films; read across all cultures and read translated fiction. Take everything in, and eventually it will all begin to synthesise into something which feels uniquely yours.  

Tip 2. Know that where you’re from, the way you speak, is just as worthy of literature as anyone or anywhere else. No one place is inherently more poetic than any other, no one way of speaking is more literary than any other; places become ‘poetic’ because people write poems about them, so go on, what are you waiting for?

Tip 3. Tell the truth even if that’s the poetic truth, not the what-actually-happened truth. There’s a great quote about acting, that you only need to stand on your mark, look the other actor in the eye and tell them the truth. I think of writing the same way. Put your pen to the page, look the reader in the eye, and tell them the truth. 


Benjamin Wood, author of The Ecliptic

Tip 1. Remember that fiction is not real life but a heightened version of it, stylised for dramatic effect. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures."

Tip 2. Learn which moments of your story should be opened out into scenes and which are better off relayed through summary. Not every part of your story will be scene-worthy

Tip 3. Avoid contrivances. Kenneth, the tennis pro, who borrowed the female protagonist’s racquet in chapter one, should not return as her convenient love interest in the final scene to give the story a neat resolution. An unexplained electrical fire should not destroy the murderer’s handwritten confession before the police can reach his house. And so on.

Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Tip 1. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

(Writers are what they’ve read. Read all the time, read outside your comfort zone, how dare you not read but expect others to read you.)

Tip 2. Weatherproof your value system and write the work that only you can write without imitating others or trying to anticipate markets.

(Things will hurt your feelings, distract and disappoint you, so shore up you reasons for making the work and believe in them, and yourself. Resist the imitative impulse, despite the power of those impulses in publishing.)

Tip 3. Never tear a page out of your notebook.

(What embarrasses you now will spark a fire years later. Make lots of work with no thought for its use value, make it because you are compelled to, and worry about what to do with it later.)

Jessie Greengrass, author of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It

Tip 1. Read a lot: you need to be a reader first, I think, before you can be a writer. Read widely and without prejudice. You don't need to try hard – it's not about reading critically, or reading classics, but more about a kind of general absorption. Out of everything you read will come a kind of scrap basket of bits of narrative, characters and effects, moods: things that you can use to build your own voice. Plus reading is fun – a good thing to keep hold of when writing isn't. 

Tip 2. Take it seriously: writing is, in the end, a job. You need to sit down and work at it. It requires an allocation of space and time. Find your own routine and then stick to it, even when it feels like an absolute slog. Personally, I find that it's only ever any good when it feels like a slog. I'm sure there are people who can wait for inspiration to strike and then sit down and write reams of deathless prose straight off the bat but I don't think there are very many of them. For the rest of us it's effort and practice, just like everything else.

Tip 3. Edit: again, I'm sure there are people who don't need to do much of it but they're very, very, lucky. Or you might get the odd story or chapter or poem that comes like a gift and writes itself, but most of the time the actual writing part is only a tenth of the work. I tend to think of it sculpturally – writing the words is like acquiring a big lump of rock: now you've got a big lump of rock but it's going to be a lot of fiddling and tapping and squinting and all the real application of skill before you've got Bernini's bust of Louis XIV.



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