My Harry Potter story is unique: I didn’t attend Hogwarts via the book series for the first time until I was 17, almost too old to be a student. The first Harry Potter movie I saw in theaters was Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in late 2018. I’d heard of Harry Potter growing up, but I had so many other good books to read, I simply never found the time.
But although I fell in love late, I fell hard. On any given day, you can catch me wearing my Ravenclaw Quidditch (est. 1092) sweatshirt, listening to the movie soundtracks, and drinking a butterbeer latte at a coffee shop.
The book series about a young wizard boy is a classic, but for writers, it’s more than just a good story: Analyzing what exactly made the Harry Potter books so successful can help us become better writers. Here are the top things we can learn from Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling (the first self-made billionaire author) to carry over into our own writing careers.
Get Creative With Worldbuilding
J.K. Rowling’s worldbuilding skills are admired by many, and for good reason: They seem to be impeccable. Anyone who has read the Harry Potter series instantly has a fully-formed picture in their head if they so much as hear the word “Hogwarts.” Why? Rowling’s books are so detailed because she did her world building first—then she started writing. She dropped details on every page that fleshed out Harry’s world little by little.
As a novelist who often writes dystopian or fantasy, I’m always looking for ways to make my worldbuilding stronger. Rowling inspires me to pay attention to the details: the little things that make a world and a story stronger. Focusing on the details and plugging any possible holes in your story can make your writing better, too.
Rereading Order of the Phoenix recently, I was struck by a line that mentioned Ginny Weasley and Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat, playing with butterbeer corks. It’s those brief and seemingly insignificant things that make a strong story, and to drop in those little details, you have to be intimately acquainted with the world you’ve built.
Writers can also be inspired by Rowling’s use of symbolism. She carefully chose names for her characters, filling them with deeper meaning. For example, Harry Potter’s mother, Lily, is named after a flower associated with death and resurrection, and “Draco” means dragon—a nod to how the Malfoys value power.
When you dig into the symbolic meaning behind many of Rowling’s choices, you begin to understand and appreciate the story more … and it can inspire you to think about the deeper meaning in our own stories and how we can represent it.
Despite its admirers, Rowling’s world building has received some criticism. The magical community she presents is just not plausible, some people say. That might be true … but it doesn’t really matter. The picture her words paint is still magical. As you write, consider whether your story is plausible, but don’t obsess over it. Sometimes, credibility can kill a story. Like Rowling, stay close to magic.
Know Where You’re Going
Whether you’re writing a novel or a magazine feature, at some point you have to plan out what you’re going to write. J.K. Rowling definitely did; that much is evident from her foreshadowing.
For instance, in Chamber of Secrets Harry hides in a cabinet in Borgin and Burkes. Then on page 627 in Order of the Phoenix, Fred and George mention a Vanishing Cabinet on the fourth floor of Hogwarts. The Vanishing Cabinet turns out to be the same one Draco uses to let Death Eaters into the school in Half-Blood Prince.
The amount of detail and thought Rowling put into the Harry Potter series is mind-blowing, especially to someone like me—I have a bad habit of rushing through writing books and articles without much of a plan.
Rowling has reported, however, that revisions will often change the entire direction of a story. She makes a detailed plan, but often ends up deviating from the original idea. For example, J. K. Rowling’s initial plan was that Lily and James Potter stole the Philosopher’s Stone from Nicholas Flamel, who was already dead when the books began. Of course, this isn’t how the story read when the books went to print, or else things would have turned out much differently.
Even if you don’t like to outline your work ahead of time, you have to have at least a general idea of where you’re going. Focus on the details, and your writing will be better because of it. Just don’t be afraid to switch things around when you edit. Having a set idea as you begin writing is important and helpful, but don’t let it get too set in stone; be willing to change it as the story grows and becomes better.
Treat Writing as a Job
J.K. Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter as a single working parent, understands more than anybody how difficult it can be to find time for writing. But she was still self-disciplined enough to focus in on her craft.
“You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your teacher told you you needed,” she said. Her message is clear: Writing as a job isn’t always fun. Often, it’s incredibly hard work. But if you put in that work, there’s a good chance you’ll succeed.
Rowling first worked as a researcher and translator for human rights organization Amnesty International and later as an English teacher in Portugal. The bulk of the first Harry Potter book was written in Portugal and then back in the U.K., where Rowling was on welfare without a job, but the seeds were planted at Amnesty.
Day after day at her Amnesty desk, Rowling typed up stories on her computer or scribbled character details during meetings. Writing the next great American novel while on the clock at your current job may not be the best idea, but Rowling’s dedication can inspire us to look for pockets of spare time in our day and use them to write.
Maybe writing is more of a side hustle for you right now, but you want it to be your “real” job. J.K. Rowling was the same way. She didn’t start out as a billionaire; she started as someone who wrote magical stories for fun, the way many of us did. But she understood how important her mindset was. Before long, J.K. Rowling began to treat writing as her real job until it became her real job.
Like Rowling, find ways to fit writing into your busy life. Can you write on your lunch break, in the car line when you’re picking your kids up from school, or for an hour before bed? Make writing a priority. If you want to make a serious living from your writing, take your writing seriously.
Form a Dumbledore’s Army
Writers, we can’t do this alone—we need a community of writers. Page 231 of S.D. Sipal’s A Writer’s Guide to Harry Potter reads, “You may write in all the solitude you need to, but when it comes time to navigate the trials and tribulations of the writer’s career, build up your Dumbledore’s Army and always have a good base of support around you.”
Why is it important for writers to have fellow writers? Community is important for everyone, but for creatives, it’s especially essential. You need people who will bounce around ideas with you; you need another set of eyes to read your work and provide feedback. You need writers, both mentors and peers, who will encourage you and give you advice on tough days.
If you haven’t found a community of writers yet, try looking online for writer’s workshops and other events in your area (maybe at a local library, college, or bookstore). You can also find support groups for writers on social media or other websites.
Just like the members of Dumbledore’s Army, who practiced their craft together and hoped to make a difference for good in the world, we need to surround ourselves with fellow writers. Find a community of creatives who are working toward the same goal of publication and of making a difference in the world through stories.
Don’t Be the Next J.K. Rowling
Upon hearing that I’m a writer, many people over the years have commented to me, “Oh, so you’re trying to be the next J.K. Rowling.” I’ve always said no. J.K. Rowling is a great writer … but so are you.
Although we can learn from her success, we shouldn’t and can’t copy her career exactly. In the end, the goal isn’t to be the next J.K. Rowling, but to be the first you.