The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received


“The reader wants to travel beside you, looking over your shoulder.” It was such matter-of-fact, practical advice, but my wise first book-editor, Charles Elliott at Knopf, had the rare gift of writing with such directness and concreteness that it was hard not to listen to what he said.

I’d begun to learn how to become a writer by moving from grad school (where I had only one reader I was keen to impress, myself) to Time magazine, where I tried to absorb certain basic lessons about clarity and communication (the reader wants to learn about what happened last week in Beirut, not Pico Iyer’s prose style). Friends and elders offered me plenty of sage counsel about following one’s bliss and working with the subconscious and the hazards of the freelance writer’s life. It was all sound advice, but something I needed to learn for myself, the hard way, by doing everything wrong.

Chuck’s advice, by contrast, was as precise, as portable as a doctor’s crisp diagnosis and prescription. I sent him the first two chapters of my first book, and he wrote back, “You write, ‘Every morning, I would wake up in Tibet and walk to a temple …’ If you just changed it to a specific instance, ‘One morning I woke up and went to such-and-such a place,’ it would come into much sharper focus.”

Twenty-seven years on, his six-sentence typed letter informs every other sentence I write, and reminds me not to drift into poetic vagueness when immediacy and specificity would be so much more welcome to a reader. Becoming a writer, I suspect, involves not even thinking of being a “writer,” but simply confiding one’s most intimate experiences to the page, in a way that, through training, makes sense to an unmet stranger.

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Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, twinned and contradictory books on his longtime home. This essay is adapted from Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau, edited by Andrew Blauner.


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