Since 1895, the Nobel Prize for Literature has become a coveted symbol for authors of international acclaim. If you’re like most writers, you may not yet have set your sights quite that high, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from those who have already achieved acclaim. Let’s take a look at some important writing tips from Nobel prize-winning authors across the years.
1. Play to Your Strengths
“I don’t really understand a novel. I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story.” – Alice Munro
Alice Munro’s work encapsulates the human experience across emotion, experience, and time. She has made a name for herself in a particular format, and she hasn’t been shy about sticking to it: the short story. While many authors strive to produce longer works or branch out into different directions over time, Munro’s mastery is a testament to lifelong focus.
Although experimenting in different forms and genres is a healthy part of developing your writing chops, there’s something very powerful about learning where you excel and honing in your strengths. It’s okay to recognize the type of writing you do best – and to devote much of your effort there.
2. Seek Simplicity
“The greatest ideas are the simplest.” – Lord of the Flies, William Golding
In the classic tale of Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s restrained language doesn’t detract from his writing’s impact. Instead, it allows the characters’ evolving relationships and attitudes to take center stage. Where details are expanded on, they always serve to illustrate important themes or evoke visceral experiences for the reader as plot progresses.
Look for elements of your writing that deserve to be developed and emphasized. Then, look at the surrounding elements. What can you intentionally whittle down to allow more important or impactful features stand out? If a word, a phrase, or a section of your work can’t justify its existence, it probably doesn’t deserve to stay.
3. Balance Sound and Meaning
“… as a poet I am in fact straining towards a strain, seeking repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds.” – Seamus Heaney
Known for combining lyrical beauty, ethical nuance, and a sense of place and time, Seamus Heaney is one of the most respected poets of modern time. His style balanced the realism of plain speech with evocative phonetic choices and word combinations.
Heaney’s work is an excellent reminder of the aural aspect of a writer’s labors. The human brain processes even silent reading as an auditory experience. Even if you write in genres that are not usually read aloud as much as poetry, your readers will find your content more appealing if you provide them with an experience that satisfies their senses.
4. Find Your Groove
“Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process.”- Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is an excellent example of an author who’s always had other jobs and still somehow managed to create outstanding works. How does she write Nobel-worthy fiction without being a full-time writer? She takes advantage of times when she feels most clear-headed (in her case, in the early mornings) and maintains certain rituals that help her stay focused and engaged.
When do you feel most alert? Do you work better in short bursts or long sessions? Does silence focus you or make you feel distracted? Start with your natural inclinations and experiment to find your own personal writing groove.
5. Keep the Momentum Going
“I write where I can and when I can, but I’m always writing.” – Pablo Neruda
One of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, Pablo Neruda’s work comprises numerous books and over 3,000 poems. He wrote eloquently, passionately – and constantly. Love, despair, politics, and alienation all formed prominent themes even as his style that shifted over time and according to subject matter.
How did one person write so much? According to Neruda himself, he simply tuned out distractions as best he could and wrote regularly and often. This may seem obvious, but if you practice a mindset and habit of regular writing, maintaining productivity becomes much easier. If you’re making a lot of progress and have no reason to stop, don’t let artificial time constraints interrupt you. Whenever possible, keep writing and keep that momentum going.
6. Consider Other Perspectives
“…when you ask anyone’s advice you see yourself what is right.”- Selma Lagerlof
As the first woman to receive the Nobel Literature Prize, Selma Lagerlof was a trailblazer in more ways than one. The work she is most known for, The Wonderful Voyage of Nils Holgersson, combined a unique blend of children’s fiction and regional geography, perhaps inspired by her time studying to become a teacher. She often wrote of how she and her best friend (and presumed lover) Sophie Elkan would critique each other’s works over the course of many years.
Although Lagerlof sometimes complained about the strong critiques she received, clearly this was an important aspect of her writing process. Consider asking a few fellow writers or peers to beta-read your work and help you identify any weak points or areas that need improvement. Keep in mind that individual opinions will vary, so you should be looking for common themes between all the critiques you receive, not simply revising your work according to every single note of feedback.
7. Learn By Imitation
“When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.” – Anatole France
In a tone both sympathetic and ironic, Anatole France wrote everything from novels and novelettes to essays and poetry. As an individual greatly influenced by many French writers of the past, France himself brought a modern spin and artistic touch to the lessons he learned from imitating those he admired.
While not a call for plagiarism, France’s advice to “copy” good writing is useful for several reasons. Modeling your writing on high-quality examples is one of the best ways to improve your understanding of how different authors use different techniques to achieve different styles. You can learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t by examining the words of others.
8. Give Yourself Mental Margins
“It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything.” – Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is the subject of fascination for many writers. In addition to creating his iconic works, he also left the world with some wonderful writing advice along the way. For Hemingway, writing was both labor and art. As such, it required carefully guarded times of both productivity and play.
Hemingway’s advice is as valuable today as it was to him in the 1950’s. Don’t make the mistake of letting your writing become your sole preoccupation. Allow yourself time to set the work aside and deal with other aspects of life. Wash the dishes and walk your dog. Give your brain some downtime between writing sessions.
9. Reel In the Revisions
“If you start to revise before you’ve reached the end, you’re likely to begin dawdling with the revisions and putting off the difficult task of writing.” – Pearl Buck
Even the most acclaimed authors seem to face some similar struggles, and for this tip we need look no further than novelist Pearl Buck. Known for her depictions of Chinese farm life and generation-sweeping narratives, Buck had much to say on the topic of writing itself. Her advice to hold off on revisions and focus on writing first is both practical and challenging.
If you find that your internal editor is constantly interrupting you as you write, don’t give in! Tell yourself that you will do plenty of revisions later – there’s a reason why you’re doing your first draft first. No amount of premature revisions can help you if the words never hit the page.
10. Write to Connect
“But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” – Kazuo Ishiguro
The most recent Nobel Prize winner for the literature category, Kazuo Ishiguro is a challenging author to define. His works span broad swathes of genres and themes, the most common factor being his bleak yet highly emotive writing style.
As Ishiguro explained in his Nobel acceptance speech, stories are a way to connect with others on an emotional and intellectual level. Look for points where your words converge with the universal human experience. Being able to relate to your readers – and having them relate to you and your work – is an intrinsic reward if you gear your writing efforts towards connection.
No matter where you’re at in your writing career, there’s something to be learned from successful authors of past and present. Remember:
- Play to your strengths and learn to make the most of any areas of natural ability.
- Seek the simplicity of impact over too-ornate language or complexity for complexity’s sake.
- Balance sound and meaning by keeping the reader’s auditory experience of your work in mind.
- Find your groove by identifying when, where, and how you write best.
- Keep your momentum going as much as possible – consistency is key!
- Consider other perspectives to help you find and fix areas of weakness.
- Learn by imitating great writers and works that you admire.
- Give yourself enough mental margins to decompress after long periods of writing.
- Reel in your inner editor and save revisions for after you’ve completed your first draft.
- Enjoy the way that your words can connect you with others!
Like so many areas in life, successful figures in your field are worth turning to if you’re looking for inspiration or working on expanding your skills. These Nobel author-inspired tips are a great place to start!