If you’re like me, you loved the Harry Potter series. Maybe you watched the movies or even visited the theme park, and you wondered about JK Rowling’s writing process and the strategy she uses to write her best-selling books.
If you’re like me, though, you’ve also been deeply hurt by things Rowling herself has said. On Twitter, on her website, in interviews, and more, Rowling has promoted harmful views of trans people, and you might be one of her many readers who find it painful, or even impossible, to return to the Harry Potter books you once loved.
I understand. Before I dive into the wisdom we can draw from Rowling’s writing process in order to write our first draft (or others), allow me to share a principle with you.
Death of the Author: Or, How to Love the Book, Not the Author
In 1967, a French literary critic named Roland Barthes wrote an essay called La mort de l’auteur, or Death of the Author, in which he states that any piece of writing should be separated from the author that wrote it. In other words, he believed in judging the written work completely on its own merits, without involving personal beliefs or actions of the author in question.
Sometimes, this is possible to do.
Sometimes, it isn’t, and we readers have to apply discernment to what we read and the lens through which we view things.
I have two examples for you.
First, HP Lovecraft, whose incredible work literally created today’s modern horror genre. Do you enjoy any kind of tale with Elder Ones, or chaos gods, or even just good old Cthulhu? (I know I do!) His work was so creative, so new, that you’d be hard-pressed to find any horror story that doesn’t show at least some of his influence.
Unfortunately, Lovecraft was also an extremely xenophobic racist.
Now, I enjoy a good chaos god, and I’ve made the decision to separate his xenophobia from his writing. That means, of course, that I must view critically anything he wrote that implies white English people are somehow the pinnacle of humanity.
It means I purposely do not allow his racism to infect my way of thinking. By doing so, I am practicing la mort de l’auteur.
Here’s a second example: JRR Tolkien, whose work defined modern fantasy. Do you enjoy anything with elves and dwarves or made-up languages? We owe Tolkien for that. He redefined and polished the fantasy genre so well that everything from movies to MMORPGs still use his templates.
Unfortunately, he also described his orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”
Now, was Tolkien a racist? Not exactly. In fact, according to the standards of the time, he was absolutely liberal and anti-racist. So then what do we do with this bizarro and racially horrifying description?
We see it and choose to discard it. Generations of artists and authors have done exactly that, turning orcs into anything but “least lovely Mongol-types,” and aiding this genre.
Again, it’s important to see the problem so you can avoid letting it influence your work. We enjoy the good parts while consciously discarding the bad, rather than being influenced by it.
So What About JK Rowling?
She’s not dead. In fact, she’s still saying harmful things, even as we speak.
Instead of listening to her readers, who (at least initially) approached her in love, trying to help her understand, she doubled down, rejected their experience and their words, and in the process, caused an unbelievable amount of pain.
Here’s the thing about la mort de l’auteur: it is entirely up to you whether to apply it to what you read, or to simply discard the whole thing and find less troublesome authors.
Both roads are valid.
In no way do I condone her attacks on the trans community, or her persistent sharing of misinformation. I choose to apply la mort de l’auteur for the simple reason that I benefited from the good things she’s written, and I wanted to share them with you.
However, if you aren’t comfortable doing that, you are absolutely welcome to walk away. In fact, I’d suggest these writing articles instead: Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing, or how to create your own rules of writing.
Okay. Awkward stuff done. Ready to dive into the process stuff instead? Let’s go!
9 Rules From JK Rowling’s Writing Process
Over the course of her writing career, Rowling shared a lot of solid writing wisdom, and in my opinion, eight writing rules stand out—along with a ninth we can apply from her choices since.
Whether or not you’re writing your first book like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) or last book in a series (like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), I think these rules speak to Ms. Joanne Rowling’s philosophy on writing.
They are great writing tips for you to reflect on in your spare moments and then apply to your writing process, for short stories, novels, bestsellers, or even the first time you’ve ever attempted a book.
Rule One: Protect your writing time
Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it.
This is especially hard for those of us with family. Our loved ones come first, and while that is important, our loved ones also need to understand that we need time to write.
Setting reasonable boundaries is a crucial step for a writer—even if they’re as simple as, “Mommy needs fifteen minutes of quiet time, okay?”
If you have trouble setting boundaries with loved ones, try setting a reasonable boundary for one week. See how it goes.
If it’s too much time or too little, tweak it. Establish a routine that signals to others that it’s your writing time, but also lets them know that outside of your writing space, you’re there for them.
Not only will this teach the importance of flexibility and discipline to others, but also that your writing is valuable. It’s your work, and your dream! Needing quiet time to write doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family.
Your writing deserves your time, too. Open communication about this can help everyone understand and respect that.
Rule Two: Treat your writing like a job
You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline.
It’s easy to forget that writing is a job.
We don’t always feel like doing our job. We certainly don’t always feel inspired. To be writers, we must train ourselves to sit down and write even when we don’t feel like it. Those moments are the ones that really matter, even more than the shining, flying, muse-kissed moments.
Writing when we don’t feel like it is what turn amateurs into professionals and rough drafts into polished manuscripts.
Rule Three: Believe you ARE a writer
I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
Yes, writing is possible with another job.
Yes, writing is possible with other responsibilities.
Are you a writer? (I know your inner critic snarled no, but I also know a tiny candle-flicker of unquenchable hope in you whispered yes with so much longing you could cry.)
You ARE a writer. That means you write.
A runner runs.
A painter paints.
A cook cooks.
You are a writer. You write. Accept this, fight to believe it, and be amazed at how far that takes you.
Rule Four: Write what you know
Write what you know: your own interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets will be your raw materials when you start writing.
This doesn’t mean you need to experience aliens in order to write about them. It means that all good stories have universal application. A great example is this Google Doodle. (Trust me. I’m going somewhere with this.)
Take two minutes and thirty-six seconds to watch this.
It’s adorable, right? Without a single word, this video told an effective story. You felt for the little ghost, both when it was sad and when it was happy, right?
News flash: you’re not a ghost. That was universal application.
It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from or what language you speak; all human beings know what it is to be lonely, to feel left out, to be frustrated, determined, and to finally be with friends.
That story works because the creators used their interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets to tell this story. (I’m fond of the kitty, myself.)
I’m greatly oversimplifying, but here’s the gist: you already know how to tell a moving story because you live one. If you’ve ever had emotions, ever responded to anything, then you already know what universal application looks like. Listen to the people around you, and apply empathy.
You don’t have to be a ghost to write a good ghost story.
Rule Five: Read
I always advise children who ask me for tips on being a writer to read as much as they possibly can. Jane Austen gave a young friend the same advice, so I’m in good company there.
Read some more!
The more you read, the bigger your arsenal of words will be. The more you read, the better your grasp of metaphor, poetry, beauty, passion, and empathy will be. The more you read, the greater you will be as a writer (and probably human being).
It’s like learning more dance moves or impressively difficult notes on an instrument. The more you learn, the better you’ll be.
So read in your genre. Read outside your genre. Get in the habit of finding time to pick up a book instead of your phone (unless it’s to open up another book.)
You DO have the time to read.
Even if that’s just ten minutes a day.
Any time counts.
And the more stories you read, the more likely you’ll start to implicitly develop the skills you need to become a great writer.
Rule Six: Persevere
Perseverance is absolutely essential, not just to produce all those words, but to survive rejection and criticism.
This is one of those unpleasant truths about publishing: you’re gonna get rejected. A lot.
I wish there were a way around this. Harry Potter was turned down again and again because that’s just the way it goes sometimes. And it isn’t only publishers: when you get published, and your work is out there, you’ll get bad reviews, too.
Mostly, they’ll just be people who don’t understand what you’re doing. Intellectually, you’ll know that. Your heart, on the other hand, is going to break into a thousand pieces.
But here’s the secret: you can’t stop writing because of push-back.
You MUST NOT stop writing because of push-back.
Keep going. Don’t stop. When you get rejected, pick up your pen and keep going (and use the way you feel to put more universal application into your work).
And when you’re feeling really discouraged? Remember that when someone doesn’t like your book, they might also just not be your ideal reader. That person just wasn’t your target audience.
If your book isn’t to someone’s taste, that’s all right. It will be to someone else’s.
Keep writing your book, because your ideal readers need it.
Rule Seven: Bring your whole self to the page
What you write becomes who you are … So make sure you love what you write!
Writing is a little like a Mobius strip, in a way:
Your beliefs and experiences and feelings all help craft your writing. However, your writing clarifies, corrects, and often reveals your beliefs, experiences, and feelings.
As you write, you’ll discover things about yourself. You’ll clarify things, too, because it’s only as you come to write them that you realize they needed clarification in the first place.
Now, understand: this means that if you haven’t given yourself a good look to find your biases (we all have them), you will bring those to the page, too.
It’s important to see who you are as you bring your whole self to the page. Writing is a brave, bold venture, and life-altering discovery is part of the journey.
Rule Eight: Accept that failure is part of the process
Failure is inevitable—make it a strength. 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. I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.
Failure is normal. Also, it is okay.
You’re going to write a lot of crap. You’re going to push past those things and write more crap. It may take you twelve years. It may take you a million words. If it does, then you’re on the right path—the same one your favorite authors walk.
Accept that it will take time, and that sometimes, your pencil won’t be your friend. If you accept it, then when it happens, you won’t throw in the towel and set the house on fire. Instead, you’ll be able to go, “Well, dang; that sucked, didn’t it? Knew it would happen. Time to write some more.”
Rule Nine: Respect Your Reader
Sadly, this rule doesn’t come from writing advice she’s given, but in a way, it’s the final conclusion of the previous eight.
This involves bringing your whole self to the page. This involves empathy and universal application. This involves perseverance, never quitting, and willingness to tackle your writing troubles.
If your readers value what you created, they will listen to what you say. Your words have the power to uplift or hurt others.
None of us can ever really know where someone else is coming from, and it’s essential that both our stories and our interactions reflect respect.
Respect yourself enough to be a better person. Respect your readers enough to hear what they have to say.
This sounds scary, I know, but I promise you, it’s worth it.
Writer, Persevere With the JK Rowling Writing Process
You can do this, fellow writer. We’re all on that same path, and that means we can encourage each other on the way. Please don’t give up.
And if you feel like giving up, reach out to the writing community here.
We all struggle with moments when we’re ready to quit—but maybe that just means it’s a chance to apply some death of the author logic. You don’t need to feel guilty if you still love characters like Hermione Granger , the Weasleys, and Snape, settings like the wizarding world or Hogwarts, or the children’s books as a whole.
But you don’t need to love the author to learn from a Harry Potter book or the Harry Potter series as a whole.
And if you want to walk away from both books and author, I understand that, too.
Whatever you decide to do, as a writer, make sure to acknowledge your struggle, fight your fear of not finishing or being good enough, and then toss what’s holding you back in the trash with your other messy manuscript pages.
Non-fiction, fiction, or memoir writer—publishing with Bloomsbury Publishing or Amazon—that voice trying to get you to stop doesn’t respect your writing.
But you should.
It’s time to write some more.
Which of these rules from JK Rowling’s writing process speaks to you? Share in the comments.
Write what you know! Set a timer for fifteen minutes and take a single experience from your life—one that you responded to with emotion—and apply the universal application to your current story. Or, start a new story based on that experience. This may be about loss or love, anger or fear, rejection or acceptance.
Whatever it is, after you write it, post it in the comments, and don’t forget to comment on three other writers’ practice.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.