What I Learned About Writing From Reading Margaret Atwood - Craft Your Content
Margaret Atwood

What I Learned About Writing From Reading Margaret Atwood

There are many authors who have one or two books that I can count among my favorites. Margaret Atwood is not one of those authors.

To me, and many others, everything that she’s written is fascinating and worthy of a spot on my list of favorite books.

As a teenager, her gripping plots, masterful storytelling, and relatable characters had me pulling all the Atwood novels that I could carry off the library shelves. I’ve read everything that she’s written since then with equal gusto.

Her novels have not only influenced my reading choices (I hit my dystopian phase hard), but they’ve also provided me with several lessons that have encouraged creativity in my own writing and helped me to find inspiration.

Creativity Can Get the Point Across

Margaret Atwood
Just because a piece of writing is informative doesn’t mean it can’t be colorful.

Atwood’s novels are imaginative, entertaining, and filled with interesting plot lines and characters. And they also manage to deliver pretty loaded messages.

Take a look at Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was published in 1985 but was also the most-read book of 2017 according to Amazon’s charts. It’s inspired numerous film, radio, television, and stage adaptations since its publication. Recently, it’s seen a resurgence in popularity in large part due to Hulu’s tv adaptation, which says a lot about its creepy timeliness.

People love the dystopian storyline of the handmaid Offred (a woman forced to be a concubine) and her attempts at independence. It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that part of the appeal (back then and now) is the anti-establishment message it puts forward.

Whenever I write, I find myself thinking that if someone is reading my stuff, they’re probably doing so to learn something or to understand what it is that I have to say, not to simply be entertained.

Well, what if a piece of writing could be both?

Atwood’s novels are definitely entertaining, but they also make people think a lot, and by doing this, she reaches a far wider audience than she would have if she had only chosen to deliver her messages in dry essays.

Even if you can’t turn your subject matter into a work of mind-boggling speculative fiction, adding creative elements to your post or e-book, like personal anecdotes or illustrations of a point, go a long way toward making a piece much more interesting to read.

Plus, by adding images or anecdotes, you’re also helping your audience learn more about the topic and about your own style.

Sure, if you’re writing anything other than fiction or poetry, the most important thing is that your writing delivers your message. But if your readers can be entertained while grasping the message you hope to convey, then you’ve got a strong piece of content.

Write From Reality, No Matter the Subject

As a professional writer, you’ve probably heard the advice “write what you know.” Though it may not be obvious from the content of her novels, Margaret Atwood has taken this to heart.

On the surface, her novels contain strange and scary circumstances, with laws and societies that seem quite alien. However, as she has been quick to point out, nothing that she writes about is actually that far removed from reality.

In response to a tweet about the current state of our world seeming like a Margaret Atwood novel, she tweeted:

The inclusion of these real situations in a dystopian setting makes the messages that she puts forward in her novels hit much closer to home.

In an interview about her novel Oryx and Crake, where she talks about the societies that she creates in her novels, Atwood said,

“As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress … So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.”

Putting real-life scenarios in her novels isn’t just a way to get her points across—it also makes her books feel more believable, something that most writers strive for, even fantasy writers (in their own unique way—it’s why they spend so much time on worldbuilding).

When you read an Atwood novel, you know that there isn’t going to be anything to take you out of the story or threaten your suspension of disbelief, which allows you to stay immersed in the world she’s built. Immersion is what makes a piece of writing fly by without the reader noticing and what causes them to be fully invested in what they are reading; it means the writer has succeeded in engaging their audience.

In my own writing, I’ve found that I draw upon my real life to keep readers engaged with the topic I’m talking about. Using real-world examples and getting ideas from true situations ups the authenticity factor in my writing as well as giving me writing inspiration.

Atwood’s writing has made me really consider the importance of believability in my own writing—the less readers have to say “hmm, that doesn’t seem quite right” about any element of my writing, the more they will enjoy reading it and will trust my authority as a writer.

Don’t Let Genre Confine You

Margaret Atwood
Open the window of possibility and think outside genre lines.

Despite winning the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction in 1987, Atwood does not see herself as a science fiction writer. Instead, she prefers the term “speculative fiction.”

In an article on the subject, she writes, 

“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”

Though she may not see her novel as science fiction, there are many who disagree with her, with some even saying that she uses extrapolation of current events and ideas in the same way as the pioneers of science fiction, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

Even though she has strong opinions on the genre classification for her books, she clearly likes to explore other genres.

To her name are many short stories, poetry collections, children’s books, nonfiction works, and of course, several novels, including a graphic novel. Her early novels were considered to be nongenre, or simply “literary,” and she saw it as a bit of a risk to write something more speculative with The Handmaid’s Tale.

After reading The Handmaid’s Tale and trying to decide for myself whether or not it’s science fiction, I came to a firm conclusion: It doesn’t matter! The novel is compelling and insightful regardless of whether it’s read under the umbrella of science fiction or speculative fiction.

What I learned from this debate is that when it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter if you can classify a work into a genre. Atwood’s novel hasn’t been harmed in the slightest by the debate around its classification— what’s important is that it’s a novel that resonates with a lot of people, as well as entertains them.

In my own writing, I don’t worry about whether or not something fits any predefined genre rules—I create it the way that I feel it should be created. Writing in this way, at least for me, has become a much more relaxed and fulfilling way to create stories or write blog posts.

And thanks to Atwood, I know that if I feel like making a detour into poetry or children’s books, that’s totally OK.

Keep Reading to Keep Learning

Margaret Atwood
Opening up a good book is a great (and fun) way to develop writing skills.

The cool thing about reading when you’re a writer is that you can pick up and devour an amazing novel by a great writer and call it “learning how to become a better writer.” You wouldn’t even be stretching the truth!

Writers have a lot to learn from Margaret Atwood, myself enthusiastically included. Her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, which is based on a series of lectures, should seriously be required reading for writers in every industry, both as a guide and an example of great writing.

Not only are Atwood’s novels counted among my favorite books, but she inspires me in many ways, beyond the lessons I’ve learned about writing.

Growing up reading Atwood means I’ve developed a bit of a healthy rage against the status quo. But the fact that she’s my writing role model whether I’m looking to be inspired or just for a good read means she’s a keeper.

About the Author Giselle Sproule

As someone whose childhood was spent having books pried away from her at the dinner table, a future working with words was almost inevitable. Giselle has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Calgary, and has worked as a writer/copyeditor for a newspaper, freelance proofreader/editor/writer, and piano teacher. She splits her time between Mexico City and Calgary, Alberta and always has her eye out for adventure, whether that be backpacking in the Rocky Mountains or picking up a new instrument. Giselle is a content editor for Craft Your Content.

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