Writing advice for beginners: Natalie Goldberg’s six rules of writing practice

Happy July, Steins and Steinbecks!

When I quit my full-time job to “play at being a writer,” as Bukowski would say, I immersed myself in how-to books. Natalie Goldberg‘s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within proved to be an invaluable resource.

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones
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Beyond being a writer, Goldberg is a practitioner of Zen; one of her books – Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America – is a autobiography/biography of her twelve-year relationship with the late legendary Zen master Katagiri Roshi. Another recent book is titled The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.

So be warned: this post will likely veer into mindfulness/woo-woo territory at some point.

I know, I know, but you have to churn the butter before you can spread it on the toast

My intention with this post is to offer some valuable writing advice. I say this is for beginners, but these are great rules to get writers of all stages going. Here’s how Goldberg suggests you do this.


Now is NOT the time to think about editing. Just go – get the words out. And I suggest you do it in the most physical way possible: by hand.

When you take something totally intangible like a thought and transmogrifying it, through a physical act, into something tangible, like words on a sheet of paper or images drawn on a paper plate, you’re literally creating magic. I always feel like I’m putting in the work when I do it by hand (giggity). I wrote the discovery draft of my scifi/fantasy/musical by hand. Granted, there was a lot of “and then they go to the PLACE and then THINGS TRANSPIRE” but it was an incredible experience. I actually had to get physical therapy for my shoulder after. However, Pittsburgh-celeb and weiner lover Rick Sebak was getting pt at the same time, and I got to chat with him a bit, so it really wasn’t that bad at all.

Typing is fine; you can certainly get more words down quicker with much less shoulder pain, but there’s an element of separation there. You’re taking an unreal thought and transferring it to the unreal digital medium. If you want to type, be sure to print it out before you revise (change the font size and style as well). You must get physical with your craft.

Just make sure you can read what you write


Much like the first rule, this implies the need to just get it out. There are no mistakes at this point. One could argue there are no mistakes, but I’m tryna focus on writing advice rn and not get all metaphysical and woo-wooy.

Remember, this is NOT the editing phase. That comes much later.

Take the pressure off yourself that it has to be perfect. Once you do that, then you can have fun. Creation should be fun. It’s not going to be perfect the first (or second or third or fouth or …) time because perfection doesn’t exist. Jack Kornfield tells us the Zen masters of old said to be enlightened is to be without anxiety about imperfection.

No idea is good or bad, they just are. Just get them out.

When it’s time to reflect on them – remember, that’s later – THEN you can cross stuff out. A single strike-through will suffice. You never know when an idea that doesn’t work right now might contain a kernel of usefulness that you can use later.


If your cot up in teh minutia of spelling, punxuation and grammer when you sti down too right, your never going too get dun.

All right, that’s enough of that.

Send your grammar nazi to the gulag and get out of your own way. You will have plenty of time to worry about the finer details later, but now is not that time. There’s greatness inside you just waiting to get out on the page. I know. You wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t. Let the greatness inside you out. How do you do that?


Now is not the time for restraint. You can’t be authentic and restrain yourself. Restraint has kept you silent for too long. Make like Prince (RIP) and go crazy! What are you worried about? What people will think if you’re honest? Here’s a hot tip: You are not responsible for the opinions of other people.

I previously mentioned a podcast Goldberg did with the Upaya Institute and Zen Center. In it, she talks about how she felt after she wrote her first poem (about a chocolate cake):

I didn’t care about whether anyone else thought it was good or not, cause it felt so good. And that’s really where we have to come from as writers, as meditators. Meditating is very hard, and sometimes it feels terrible, but it’s your terrible. It’s coming from you. It’s your relationship with yourself, and then of course with all sentient beings, but that takes a little bit of a while.

Poetry Series 1: Natalie Goldberg, The Orange Bowl

Human behavior specialist Dr. John Demartini says, “When the voice and the vision on the inside become more profound, and more clear and loud than the opinions on the outside you’ve mastered your life.” People are going to have opinions about things with or without you. All you are responsible for, as a writer, is writing your truth.

You can always pull back later, but now is not the time for that.

You must lose control.


Your inner critic can be your greatest ally, but if you allow it to sit with you when you’re at the beginning of your writing project, it will completely petrify you. I’m working on a piece about my journey to discovering my inner critic and the relationship we’ve formed since. I’m excited to share that with you, but for now let me just say you can kindly tell your critic no thank you and just write.

Is your idea derivative or just rewritten fanfiction? Big who cares! Art is seldom logical because it doesn’t come from the logical side of the brain.

I wish my brain was half this tidy

There will be time to find solutions to your plot holes later, but you can’t do that until you have a plot, and you can’t have a plot until you actually sit down to write. All the epiphanies and a-ha! moments mean nothing unless you string them together into a cohesive whole. That takes some work, and sometimes something you were really jazzed about won’t fit. That’s fine! Put it in a folder and save it for later. You never know when you’ll be able to recycle it into something.


You can’t be afraid of your writing’s honesty. Scottish poet Horatius Bonar wrote “Think truly, and thy thoughts / Shall the world’s famine feed”. Fear keeps your hand still and your voice silent.

Don’t pussyfoot around your pain; it’s “your terrible” after all. Bleed it out on the page. Admit to yourself, and the pain, that when it happened your level of consciousness prevented you from handling it in a healthy way. You may not want to dredge it up, but is it doing any good staying buried? Carl Jung said, “What you resist persists.”

Every time you push away pain, you’re reinforcing the idea that it’s something to be pushed away. You must learn to see it not as a part of you, but merely as a thing that happened to you once. Is it happening to you right now, currently? All that remains of the experience is the story you’re telling yourself about it.

That doesn’t mean that you love the experience. That just means that you accept it as a thing that happened and you do what you need to to move on from it. Easier said than done, I know, and if you need more help, it is available.

You no longer have to carry that into your future. You can write a better story, right now.

You can tell yourself that enough is enough, that you’ve had it with these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane (I guess the stories are the snakes and your brain is the plane in this metaphor?). You are no longer the victim. You are a shining vibrant soul, and I love you.

I’ve processed things I didn’t even realize I needed to process by writing about them. Writing it out puts some distance between you and your experience. You’ll be able to better examine the story of your experience, and you’ll see that while the incident may have happened, the only thing keeping it alive is the story you’re telling.

Be mindful of what kind of story you’re telling about yourself.

They’re wondering why they haven’t gotten a callback from Blue Man Group

Above all, Goldberg’s six rules help create honesty on the page, which – as writers – is what we have to offer. While I was listening to that podcast, I was inspired to process two things through poetry. I didn’t cross out or worry about the spelling until much later. I didn’t get logical; I lost control and let my hand keep moving until it had gotten out all it could that day. They are on the next two pages. I hope you enjoy them, but if you don’t, that’s fine too. I love them because they’re honest. And that’s all that matters.

How will you implement Natalie Goldberg’s rules for writing in your next project? Sound off in the comments below!

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