Typewriter on old desk

Essential Reading for Writers: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays by Ray Bradbury. It is an anthology of his meta-work; memoir, self-analysis and advice. It is essential reading for a writer.

Who is Ray Bradbury, and why should I care what he says?

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was a great writer of speculative fiction.

Most often labelled a sci-fi writer, his work spanned several genres of speculative fiction (often in a single chapter). He delighted in exploring gentle dystopia; and his early focus on horror stories leaked through into his later works.

He is the writer I recommend to people who “don’t like science fiction”. Specifically, I press The Martian Chronicles into their reluctant hands; this was the book that made me realise my love of the genre.

Bradbury’s work contains no grand AI battles or space operas – when it is set in space, it is micro-focused on the stories of individuals. It’s a gateway drug… and there’s a whole galaxy the other side of the fence.

Ray Bradbury pushed sci-fi into the mainstream, in a time when fiction – when tolerated at all – was only considered respectable if rooted in reality.

. . . fantasy, and its robot child science fiction, is not escape at all. But a circling round of reality to enchant it and make it behave.

‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, preface to Other Worlds: Fantasy and Science Fiction Since 1939 (1980)

If you can’t stand to read the gentlest of science fiction, try Dandelion Wine; lightly fictionalised memoirs, set in a copy of Bradbury’s hometown. The everyday seen through the generous eyes of a child.

Why should I read Zen in the Art of Writing?

You should read it because it inspires.

It is a reliable tonic for the days when words will not flow, or ideas will not germinate.

It holds a magnifying glass over the idea of a muse, and tells you how to pluck ideas from your subconscious.

It also inspires in an ambitious sense. Bradbury rockets from broke story-pedlar to someone who writes, “Some weeks later, [Gerald] Heard and Aldous Huxley invited me to tea.”

Zen in the Art of Writing is a window into the mind and working process of a man famed for his prolific, beautiful prose. It is an immensely valuable resource.

Most importantly, it is delightful. Bradbury used words in new and delicious ways whenever he wrote; including in his meta work. There is a physical pleasure to be had in reading his words.

Who is Zen in the Art of Writing for?

Anyone who wants to write. This includes people who’ve written for years, so long as they desire to continue doing so.

Zen in the Art of Writing is by an author of fiction. It is thus most directly applicable to writers of fiction.

But it is also relevant for those of us who have more success with non-fiction.

The overarching themes – of taking joy in writing, of pouring your loves, hates and buried memories into a typewriter – are ointment.

One could argue that the lessons learned from Bradbury are even more important for non-fiction writers. As ‘editorial’ and ‘advertising’ meet under an often-grim umbrella, we need to rediscover joy. If you can write your ‘content’ with relish, you will be much happier for it; and so will your readers and clients.

. . . If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself.

‘The Joy of Writing’; Zen & the Art of Writing (1973)

Key points in Zen in the Art of Writing

Write quickly, and with excitement.

Cut down and edit later.

The history of each story, then, should read almost like a weather report: Hot today, cool tomorrow. This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water upon the simmering coals.

‘Run Fast, Stand Still’; How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, (1980)

Keep writing.

Every day. A thousand words, at least.

Write lists of nouns. Let them fall onto the page from your subconscious. Look at them later and find your themes through word association.

I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life.  An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done.

‘Just This Side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine’; introduction to Dandelion Wine (1974)

Ask questions.

Of everybody, and about everything.

Feed your muse a varied diet.

Say “yes” to a few more things and study new subjects.

But also read those who do not think as you think or write as you want to write, and so be stimulated in directions you might not take for many years.

‘How to Keep and Feed a Muse’; the Writer (1961)

Send your work to publishers.

Don’t let it moulder in your desk (or on your hard drive). It’s doing no good there.

Be flexible.

If a publisher says your collection of short stories would make a fine novel, then find the thread to run through them. If an audience clamours to see your novel in a theatre, then write a script.


Because Ray Bradbury is one of my idols, I bought the hard copy and the Audible version of Zen in the Art of Writing. I enjoyed both. But this is one of the few instances in which I often recommend the audio book above the hard copy. Jim Frangione is a gorgeous speaker. He makes a feast of Bradbury’s words; allowing the listener to savour each verbified noun and glistening hyperbole.

My actual recommendation is to do as I did, and buy both.

Listen to a chapter as you walk home, and let an idea swell up in you; ripening in time to burst when you sit down to write.

Then, read a chapter in a coffee shop; notebook on hand to make lists of your future stories.

Each essay is a good-sized course on its own – it’s not a book to enjoy in one sitting. Let each chapter settle before you eat another.

In conclusion

There, now, that’s quite enough food metaphor.

In summary, I fully and without caveat recommend Zen in the Art of Writing to any potential, current or lapsed writer.

Enjoy it.

Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me.  After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!

Ray Bradbury, preface to Zen in the Art of Writing (1994)

Further reading

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