J.K. Rowling’s Top Tricks for Working Magic With Your Writing

J.K. Rowling’s Top Tricks for Working Magic With Your Writing

One of the most miraculous aspects of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is that it’s just so darn big. If you’re an aspiring author, you may wonder just how Rowling managed to crank out so many books, use so much imagination, and keep the ideas flowing.

Here’s a secret: she didn’t just wave a magic wand. She wrote every single one of the 1,084,170 words in the Harry Potter series (and lots more in her other books, plays, and movies). How does she keep churning them out? Will the wizarding world ever stop growing? And what’s the real trick to becoming a bestseller?

Before you stop reading and start googling “Hogwarts School of Writing and Wizardry,” here are eight steps for diving into your writing, creating a routine, and not giving up—even when it seems He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named and all the forces of the Dark Arts are against you.

1. Believe in Magic.

Okay, not literally (at least, unless you do). But this tip is just about believing in yourself as a writer, the content you create, and your ability to keep going. Take it from J.K.: she had always wanted to be a writer, and she kept inventing stories until people read them (and boy, did they read them). To make it as a writer, you have to believe you’ve got the magic it takes to make words come alive on the page.

It all started out as a dream for J.K. Rowling, too. Hear the world-renowned author talk about her pie-in-the-sky idea of becoming a writer.

2. Treat writing like it’s your job.

This is true whether writing is, in fact, your job, or whether you just want it to be. Treating it like a job means setting aside time to finish what you need to do. Some authors give themselves strict daily word limits (Mark Twain averaged right around 1,800).

J.K. hasn’t talked about giving herself a word limit, but she has made it clear that she puts in her time. Since she hit the big time with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone, in the American edition) and managed to make it her full-time gig, she’s careful to put in her eight hours a day—even if that sometimes means working through the night. But before that, when she was a single mom on social assistance, sometimes it was all she could do to snatch a spare moment to scribble a stray idea.

In her words:

You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your school teacher told you you needed…You need it.

3. Treat writing like it’s not your job.

Yes, that’s the opposite of Step 2 and no, you’re not reading it wrong. It’s important to set a routine, make yourself fill quotas, and be serious about this gig, but if it’s too much of a job, you risk losing the magic (remember Step 1?).

That said, don’t over-stress about things like words per day if it’s not your style. For some writers, tallying up those numbers is a big motivator. But for other writers—and also for certain projects or stages in creating a new project—it’s not all about hitting a word quota. It’s about brainstorming, coming up with lists of names and ideas, making a chart of how your story will unfold, or doing research about the history of wizards in Europe. That sort of work feels a lot more like a game.

4. Inspiration can strike at surprising times. Be ready.

If you chain yourself to your desk and stare at a piece of paper hoping for words to appear on it, they’re probably less likely to materialize than if you mix in a little bit of Step 3. But sometimes a lightning bolt strikes—and you’re suddenly imagining a kid with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead.

For J.K. Rowling, the idea for that kid “fell into” her head while she was staring off into space waiting for a train from Manchester to London. No, she didn’t happen to be on Platform 9 ¾; she just happened to have an idea. But unfortunately, she didn’t have a pen.

This might sound like a cautionary tale against not being ready for inspiration striking. But being ready isn’t just about carrying a pen, post-its, or an iPad: it’s about being prepared to let the ideas flow. Rowling says of the experience:

I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me […]Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them.

There you have it: a delayed train and lack of writing utensil were all it took to conceive of one of the greatest literary franchises in recent history.

And it wasn’t the only time she found herself short of materials, either: another famous anecdote tells of Rowling scribbling down the names of the characters on a barf bag on an airplane. Luckily, it was unused. That’s why Rowling says:

I can write anywhere.

It doesn’t mean you should deliberately forget to bring stuff to write on or with when you’re traveling from point A to point B. The lesson here is to keep your mind open to ideas that drop into it.

5. Plan ahead. Way ahead.

The idea for Harry Potter may have fallen into J.K. Rowling’s head in that train station in 1990, but actually writing the story took a lot longer. Over five years, Rowling mapped out the entire series, book by book. She had the plot developments, characters, names, and rules that governed the wizarding world all figured out before she so much as considered the words “Chapter One.”

That shows the importance of planning. Readers learn the word “Horcrux” for the first time in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—six whole books into the series—but by the time they’re fully explained, you realize that they’ve been showing up ever since the very beginning. (Note: that wasn’t a spoiler, in case you haven’t read the books. Maybe you know to look out for Horcruxes, but just try figuring out what you’re looking for.)

Anyway, by planting a seed early in her series that would become central to the plots of the later books, J.K. shows the vital importance of planning before you write.

And here’s the kicker: this doesn’t apply only when you’re writing a multi-book series. One book, one story, an article, a blog post, you name it: create an outline, determine when you’re going to incorporate key details, and don’t start at the beginning without knowing the ending.

6. Kill your darlings.

This quote isn’t from J.K. Rowling; in fact, it’s most often attributed to William Faulkner.

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

The gist: be willing to leave stuff out, even if you think it’s good. In other words: edit, edit, edit.

This is an important one after Step 5: you may have made a thorough plan that looks really solid in bullet-point form, but once you start turning it into prose you might find out that some details don’t work as well as you thought they would, or a scene leads somewhere unexpected, or maybe doesn’t lead anywhere at all. It can be agonizing, but willingness to adjust your plan and edit your writing is key to success.

Our author of the hour, J.K. Rowling, is no exception. She wrote, re-wrote, and re-worked the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone not one, not two, but fifteen times. Here’s what she has to say about those early drafts:

You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is […] It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.

Be willing to make changes, and know that you might end up cutting out words, sentences, and entire sections you thought belonged. The reason? You might love those little darlings, but to a reader they might just be unnecessary details. Which leads us to…

7. Write like a reader.

J.K. Rowling says she didn’t have a particular target audience in mind while writing Harry Potter; she just thought of what she would want to read.

Ask yourself questions like these: Are you giving away a juicy detail that could come later? Including a “darling” idea that you’re proud of, but doesn’t really advance the plot? Telling what happens, instead of ending the chapter (or book) on a cliffhanger?

This ties in with planning: keep the excitement and the mystery by not giving away your secrets too early. J.K. Rowling says she had finished her first draft of the first Harry Potter book before realizing she’d included some key plot elements that shouldn’t show up until much later in the series. So it was back to the drawing board.

Plot and pacing are the meat and potatoes of writing for your readers, but it’s also important to work in time for some sweet, sticky candy to keep your readers addicted. Rowling does this with things like fun-to-say names (Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans), out-of-this-world concepts (earwax flavor), and characters that real-live humans can truly empathize with (no, not Bertie Bott—Harry and his friends). Her ability to capture readers’ imaginations and hearts is as much about the details of the wizarding world as the sequence of events in the series.

Hear Rowling talk about where some of her ideas come from—the blend of influences from her life, pure invention, and human motivation is exactly the reader-focused recipe we’re talking about.

8. Read inspiring quotes about writing.

The overarching tip here: love what you write and don’t give up. But we’re going to give the last word (or words) to J.K. Rowling. Sometimes all it takes is a push from a role model to get you rolling in the right direction, so keep these mood boosters nearby if you’re feeling down on yourself or writing. Believe us: J.K. knows what she’s talking about.

Can you make that kind of transformation with Polyjuice potion?

Failure is inevitable—make it a strength.

A step up from writing for your reader: being your reader.

I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself.

Maybe you thought you are what you eat. Not according to J.K. Rowling.

What you write becomes who you are…So make sure you love what you write.

If you’re waiting on publishers, agents, or other forces beyond your control, you just have to let those forces do their thing. It’ll work out in the end.

Wait. Pray. This is the way Harry Potter got published.

How could you not feel inspired?

We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.

In the end, we can’t promise that these tips will snag you a Pulitzer Prize, but setting a writing schedule and letting your imagination run free are important first steps.

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Comments
  • Melissa Roscoe

    “The gist: be willing to leave stuff out, even if you think it’s good. In other words: edit, edit, edit.” Agreed. I feel very sad when I cut some words put off of the text. But few days letter I like this edited text better.

  • T Paul

    I agree. You have to be ruthless when you self-edit. Everything has to advance the story. Not just methodically, but powerfully. You can never allow your reader to be put off by your personal pet plot device.

    I still can’t bring myself to ‘kill my darlings’. When I publish, I will make them available on my website. Readers will be able to read the backstory that I simply could not leave in the novel.

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