Do it like Zadie Smith

6 writing takeaways from Zadie Smith

We were lucky enough to attend a talk (under a circus tent!) with Zadie Smith at this year’s Crossing Border Festival in The Hague.

Chances are you’ve already read at least something by Zadie Smith—a story in The New Yorker, an essay (this is one of our favorites: “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction“), or one (or more) of her five novels. If you haven’t, you’re missing out! Smith is a writer’s writer.

Her brilliant debut, White Teeth, was a bestseller and won loads of prizes including the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award, and her novel On Beauty won the Orange Prize for Fiction, just to name a few of her accolades.

Especially given her incredible success, we were surprised and impressed by Smith’s humble, no-nonsense attitude toward her work. So often we place conditions on ourselves as writers, on our ability to write, and there are so many things we expend time and energy worrying about that don’t serve us. Smith’s approach is to ignore all that and just get on with it.

For those who’d like to ‘do it like Zadie Smith’, here are six of our favorite takeaways with quotes from her talk (lightly edited for clarity).

  • You don’t need the perfect situation to write – “In New York, I just worked in the university library because we were in an apartment. Now, I have my study again. But I can work anywhere. If I have a laptop, if I have some brown noise in my ears, I really couldn’t care less. I don’t have any tchotchkes or interest in pretty views.”


  • You don’t necessarily need to have the story all figured out to write a book  – “I feel the book just comes and I just write it down. That’s how I feel. That’s exactly how I feel…. I think you have to be flexible. You have to be quite unconscious. That’s the best way I can put it. I don’t plan.” [Note: This approach doesn’t work for everybody, and a little planning, especially for those just starting out, can make the difference between finishing and floundering. You might want to check out this summary of Smith’s famous talk on the ‘two types of novelists’ or her essay for more nuance.]


  • Don’t romanticise being “A Writer” – “I love writing! But it’s enough for me. I don’t need any extra stories about it… It’s not very fashionable: for me, it’s a vocation.” “I’m interested in something, so I write about it, and that’s what I do.”


  • Don’t worry too much about form – “To me, it’s just writing. I don’t make any distinction [between an essay or a novel]. I have the thing in front of me and I think, ‘I’ve just got to do this as well as I can do it,’ and that’s the end of the story.”


  • Don’t worry about TikTok replacing the novel – “Since I’ve finished this book, I’ve been reading loads of novels and it seems very lively to me out there, honestly. I don’t feel like the form is dying. There are all kinds of crazy books being written, and they all seem really interesting, so I wouldn’t be panicking. Also, I see them—even if people are not always reading them, books are certainly a status object on the New York subway, in the London streets. I see girls walking around with them day and night. They’ve got bags. They’ve got hats.”


  • Don’t worry about how people label you – “There are moments in which you are Black and British. There are moments in which you are a mother. There are moments in which you are a hip-hop fan…These are all moveable terms. I am all of those things. And I move in and out of them. And the final definition of a human being is their own name. I am a Zadie. And I feel fine about that.”


Thank you to Crossing Border for making Smith’s visit (and that of so many other wonderful authors) possible. Check out their year-round BorderKitchen programme.

Photo by Chris Boland 

20 December 2023

1 responses on "Do it like Zadie Smith"

  1. Very appreciative of the “International Writers Collective” because it reminds me that the door 🚪 to writing is still open to me (even though the course I desire is not yet available, namely: ‘how to write a theatre 🎭 play) . International writers collective simply provides me with inspiration – like this article “Do it like Zadie Smith” I agree with her observation and personal experience, that you basically don’t ‘need to have the right situation to write, or worry about form or have the story all figured out in order to write’ – of which I’m guilty of, all the above. And with that, off I go to read one of her works, White Teeth.

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

IWC small logo

The International Writers’ Collective

We offer workshops, retreats and a vibrant international community for fiction writers and poets

Join our mailing list

Sign up for a monthly dose of writing advice, special offers and info on upcoming events

Subscribe to our newsletter


Sarah Carriger, Director
Tel: +31 6 45950359

© 2024 International Writers Collective. All rights reserved.          Privacy ¦ Terms ¦ Complaints

Subscribe to our monthly update

You’ll receive special discounts and invitations, plus writing tips, publishing opportunities and more.

You have Successfully Subscribed!