5 Things I learnt about Writing from George Saunders

Writing advice from a Man Booker Prize Winner

Angst and Desire
5 min readAug 15, 2023

Writing advice doesn’t come any better than when it’s from a Man Booker Prize Winner. Especially when it’s from a writer as wise, humble and funny as George Saunders.

He’s a master of the short story, and has been teaching the format at Syracuse University for the past twenty years. Now, he condenses his advice in his wonderful book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

Here’s a few sections that stood out to me, which are not only beautifully put, but just great pieces of advice.

1. The importance of causality in storytelling

It’s not enough for something to be nicely written. We need a sense of where things are going. Actions have consequences. In other words: causality.

A well-written bit of prose is like a beautifully hand-painted kite, lying there on the grass. It’s nice. We admire it. Causality is the wind that then comes along and lifts it up. The kite is then a beautiful thing made even more beautiful by the fact that it’s doing what it was made to do. […]

Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a super-power that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.

2. What makes a work of art? It should transcend our expectations.

For the writing to surprise an audience, it needs to first surprise the writer. This is when writing, and therefore reading, become something joyful. It’s always good to start with a plan before we embark on our story, but we should also allow ourselves to step off the map when new possibilities present themselves.

Having an intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme, “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking — then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” And we can add to this my mangling of whatever it was that Einstein actually said, which I rendered earlier as: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

If we set out to do a thing, and then we (merely) do it, everyone is bummed out. (That’s not a work of art, that’s a lecture, a data dump.) When we start reading a story, we do so with a built-in expectation that it will surprise us by how far it manages to travel from its humble beginnings; that it will outgrow its early understanding of itself.

Whatever we are left with should ultimately eclipse our ability to describe it. A reader shouldn’t just be getting exactly what the blurb said it would be. In the same way that a plaque next to a work of art can be no substitute for the art itself.

Or As the poet John Ashbery once said, “The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about it.”

3. Get the first draft down and then just edit

For Saunders, the real writing process comes in the editing, rather than getting a perfect draft down. First, we should just try to get the essence of what we want to say on the page, and then it’s by passing over it again and again that our unique voice emerges.

What makes you *you*, as a writer, is what you do to any old text, by way of this iterative method. This method overturns the tyranny of the first draft. Who cares if the first draft is good? It doesn’t need to be good, it just need *to be*, so you can revise it. You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence. Where does that sentence come from? Wherever. It doesn’t have to be anything special. It will become something special, over time, as you keep reacting to it. Reacting to that sentence, then changing it, hoping to divest it of some of its ordinariness or sloth, is…writing. That’s all writing is or needs to be.

4. The dangers of perfectionism

Aiming for perfection is just too much pressure that we don’t need. It’s a mindset that’s more likely to lead to writer’s block.

If I think of a story as something that has to convey a certain message, as a train that has to pull into a certain station at a certain time, and myself as the stressed-out engineer trying to make that happen — it’s too much. I freeze up and no fun is had.

He suggests we should relinquish some of that control, loosen those expectations on ourselves, and let ourselves be surprised by what we come up with. We’ll invariably come up with something a lot better than anything we could have planned.

5. Should you write for you or your audience?

It sometimes seems as if writing for an audience and writing for yourself are opposite and opposing goals. Saunders overcomes this question by imagining ourselves as our own ideal reader.

Of all the questions an aspiring writer might ask herself, here’s the most urgent: What makes a reader keep reading? Or, actually: What makes my reader keep reading? (What is it that propels a reader through a swath of my prose?)

How would we know? Well, as we’ve said, the only method by which we can know is to read what we’ve written on the assumption that our reader reads pretty much the way we do. What bores us will bore her. What gives us a little burst of pleasure will light her up too.

This is, on the face of it, a weird assumption. We all know, from book clubs or writing workshops, that people don’t read identically.

And yet, in a movie theater, people sometimes do gasp all at once.

And come to think of it, what we’re doing (or at least what I’m doing, when I revise) is not so much trying to perfectly imagine another person reading my story, but to imitate myself reading it, if I were reading it for the first time.

I’m reminded here of Julia Cameron, a bit of a guru when it comes to writing advice, who recalls similar advice from Arthur Kretchmer, a one time editor of Playboy.

“Don’t bother to write for your common reader, Julia,” Arthur told me. “You’ll never meet your common reader. Write for your ideal reader, the one who will get everything you say.”



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