leguinFeeling that she no longer has it in her to write another full-length novel, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin has started an on-line writing workshop at the Book View Café, and gotten such a huge response that the question submission form had to be disabled. She has posted her first answer, which is to the question, “How do you make something good?”

Her answer is written in the full, rich prose that has made her novels such classics of literature, even if it does boil down to about the same advice any experienced professional writer would give a neophyte: practice, practice, practice.

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

Different people find different tricks and secrets that work for them, but not necessarily anyone else, she explains, but you have to find them for yourself because nobody else can tell them to you. So you need to put enough time and effort into it, and write enough words, that those secrets have the chance to reveal themselves.

The answer in full is well worth reading for itself, and Le Guin looks forward to answering more such questions—but she does hope most of the rest of them will be a bit smaller topics, such as “Do I have to outline my plot first?” or “How often can I split an infinitive?”

Related: Ursula Le Guin’s Web site. Publicity photo copyright © by Marion Wood Kolisch.


  1. Having spent a lot of time trying to explain a good friend exactly that, I’m happy to see that Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the world’s top writers for decades now, thinks the same way. Doubly so as a lot of writers seem to have their pet rules they follow absolutely and insist that everyone else should, too. Good find!

  2. When a good friend of mine, awoke my long dormant dream of writing science fiction and fantasy, I put myself on the path to do just that. It took several things to allow me; but the most important lesson. You cannot write a perfect story, the first time. A painful realization that even today I fight against but it’s power over me is lessing.

    The second lesson. Do not listen to anyone’s rigid suggestion that one way — seat of the pants, Snowflake, Outline — is the only way. I tried all ways, finally determining /my way/

    The final; if you have problems, always ask for help. Get together with other writers, learn from them, ask questions. Being as I am, it was a difficult movement.

    Now, with a storyworld of my own, several series that have pre-made characters, and settings I’m starting to move past “freshman writer” and into “Sophomore writer”

    Take this into account, new writers. Ms. Le Guin is correct in all she said. If it is a dream, then fight tooth and nail for that dream. No one will give it to you, many will try to stop you, as sad reality showed me ten years ago. Work, practice, listen, ask. Especially if you have a problem, as I did. I solved it only six months ago, but I spent five years trying to figure out “why my stories die on the vine” — It was basically I couldn’t see the story in my mind and I kept going on every dead-end on the path.

    No…I could not walk away from Omelas, for I would fight for the child alone in the little room. Even if they was already broken and defeated. My writing is that child, and I will not leave them.

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