Story Writing Lessons From Zadie Smith

In the quest to get better at writing stories, I read a lot of author’s advice.

Zadie Smith is one of the best people I learned how to do that from. She talked about writing in a way that’s so interesting.

About me –– I have a fair idea about story writing because I was a ghostwriter. I diligently studied and practiced the craft for years, following some advice from great books. I’ve written a few books, too. All of these have received positive feedback. Yet, I’m constantly looking for pro authors with something illuminating to share about how this craft works.

Zadie is one of my favorite. She has written many essays about the craft of writing, and among them is Dance Lessons for Writers. As you might guess from the title, she compared writing and dancing. For instance, she preached the importance of failing at writing as a beginner:

The art of not dancing — a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense. It’s interesting to me that both these artists did their “worst” dancing to their blackest cuts. “Take me to the river,” sings Byrne, in square trousers twenty times too large, looking down at his jerking hips as if they belong to someone else. This music is not mine, his trousers say, and his movements go further: Maybe this body isn’t mine, either. At the end of this seam of logic lies a liberating thought: maybe nobody truly owns anything.

Zadie Smith, Dance Lessons for Writers

How to get better at writing stories

You can read some of Zadie Smith’s essays on her expert teaching the concept of story writing. You can start with Dance Lessons for Writers, which is both moving, interesting to read, and enlightening. Other essays like Crfaty Feeling dive deeper into the author’s thought process about the craft. All I can offer in this post is a summary of what you’ll learn from a few of Zadie Smith’s essays.

Storywriting: Study the best. Notice the concept

‘Dance lessons for writers’ is what the title says. It is written for writers – or anyone who enjoys reading beautifully written essays. It takes one dancer’s style and compares the differences and similarities with another dancer. Then, in the same passage, she did the same with two writers that came to her mind.

I explained it earlier on this blog in writing a novel. To become a master of this craft, you have to sit down with as many literary pieces as possible and try to understand what makes one work and why the other works, despite the differences.

“This was made literal on Beyoncé’s Formation tour recently, when the general raised her right arm like a shotgun, pulled the trigger with her left and the sound of gunshot rang out. There is nothing intimate about this kind of dancing: like the military, it operates as a form of franchise, whereby a ruling idea – “America”, “Beyoncé” – presides over many cells that span the world. Maybe it is for this reason that much of the crowd I saw at Wembley could be found, for long periods, not facing in the direction of the stage at all, instead turning to their friends and partners….

“Lady writers who inspire similar devotion (in far smaller audiences): Muriel Spark, Joan Didion, Jane Austen. Such writers offer the same essential qualities (or illusions): total control (over their form) and no freedom (for the reader). Compare and contrast, say, Jean Rhys or Octavia Butler, lady writers much loved but rarely copied. There’s too much freedom in them. Meanwhile every sentence of Didion’s says: obey me! Who runs the world? Girls!

Zadie Smith, Dance Lessons for Writers

And that’s one of many essays. The other interesting and helpful essay for anyone who wants to learn how to write novels is Crafty Feeling by Zadie Smith. It was a lecture given at Columbia University. For anyone who likes to pursue creativity, there are a few gems in the ten minutes it took to read the whole thing. It’s more than writing lessons but an author taking a diamond-fashioned knife to her writing style to show us the fascinating anatomy of how good fiction is created.

Writing Process Is Hard to Describe

First, you should think about writing as a messy exercise. It’s hard talking about it. For each author you read, the process is slightly different. It’s impossible to describe it. The process is messy and usually indescribable in detail. At the end of the day, you persevere and get it done.

Craft is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas. So naturally the temptation is to gussy it up a bit, to find a garment to dress your private language in, something suitable. You borrow the quantifying language of the critic, maybe, or the conceptual analysis of the academic. And then, with a queasy, fraudulent feeling, you try and pass this off as an accurate representation of what it is to write a novel.

Zadie Smith, The Crafty Feeling

Many authors say the same thing, and Zadie emphasizes that writing is just the writing process, and there is nothing special about it other than how you trick yourself into doing the job. Sometimes, you write in a certain place and time, and that works for a while. You can do that for years without a problem. Then, maybe one day, you realize you’re on vacation, and the best writing muse has come while you’re sitting outside and watching two hyenas laughing. You love this new system — looking out for nature, especially animals that derive weird humor from nothing spectacular. This works for now, so you stick with it.

But it’s not a beautiful story to say there is no writing process. Is it? For instance, I started this post one Monday morning in the middle of the night. The time was 2 am. I had the idea after rereading Zadie’s Smith essay, Dancing Lessons. Instead of the previous post about how to write a novel, how about writing about it like Zadie Smith is the tutor of the topic? It took five days, sometimes writing a few sentences after lunch in a local restaurant and sometimes after returning from a walk. I have other job responsibilities, but I have to show up for this work and complete it all cost.


Find what works for you. Zadie Smith does not plan. She starts from the beginning, and often, it takes a lot of time to write the first twenty pages. After the first twenty, things happen quickly, and the rest of the book comes out fast. She used the Macro planner and Micro manager to describe the two kinds of writers.

  • Macro planner — plans the entire book.
  • Micromanager — wants to plan or manage the first few plot areas or structures. The rest will be figured out later.

Choose your path.

Sometimes, you do both (of course, number two tips come to mind.) When writing The Mystery Around Lola, I thought I had a plan or structure, but I didn’t. I got stuck and reverted to Micromanaging each act structure. Story writing is hard, no doubt. But it will be hard not knowing what works for you and when to revert to another planning process when you need to.

Motivate Yourself with Other People’s Work

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. I can’t do it alone. I need sentences around me, quotations, the literary equivalent of a cheerleading squad.

Zadie Smith, Crafty Feeling

You can not do it alone.

Writer’s block happens; sometimes, you need inspiration, like oil, to improve your writing fluidity. Then, you should see one by reading lines of poetry or by reading works of an author you admire so much.

Depending on what you’re struggling with, there is an author who does that like it’s her birthright, like no one else can handle that area of story writing as she does. Chimamanda and intelligent insights in fiction. Zadie Smith and universal storytelling. Margaret Atwood has a casual but profound style of storytelling; her sentences are like having a chat, but looking at it, you see patterns and craft, a style that’s a story of its own. So, when you struggle with what to write, it’s okay to pick some of your favorite authors and read.

My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say, and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style; a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality

Zadie Smith, Crafty Feeling

Other areas in the Crafty Feeling essay cover running into writer’s block and what to do in the middle of the story. They are about checking out, but they are more about how the author handled her work. Maybe they won’t be that useful to the average writers out there. They are helpful to me occasionally when I am stuck and don’t know what else to do, but on other occasions, not that much.

But let’s talk about the last bit that will make your story pop and blow up for good.


The important idea here is to come to the page as if you have little knowledge of what happens next and what happens next. So, when you finish the first draft, keep the book away. Sometime later, usually six months to a year later, you will polish it into a beautiful masterpiece. After that, you send it out to professional editors.

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle.

Zadie Smith, Crafty Feeling

I found Zadie’s essays about writing very interesting and encouraging, partly because I can relate to the thought process. You can read the rest of Crafty Feeling.

As you go out to practice the craft and bless us with more stories, try to remember some Zadie’s rules, like a pocket guide to writing.

Zadie Smith’s rules of writing

If you love this round-up of Zadie Smith’s teaching story writing, you will like her books of essays and short stories.

Thank you for reading. Buy any of my books using this link.