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Friday, December 7, 2012

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers

Image description: A fountain pen writing on lined paper.
There are like fifty articles with this title floating around the internet, so you might be wondering why we need one more.  To that I say, 1) what's one more?  2) None of them are by an anal retentive list maker like me. And 3) Most of the others look like they should be called "Some 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers" or "The First Seven Things I Could Think of That Vaguely Relate to Writing" or even "A Random Sampling of Seven Things I Stole From Another Article Called 'Fifty Things Writers Should Do.'"

These are the brass tacks. The bare bones. The pulsing core of effective writing habits. Not opinions, style guides, tricks, individual process, or the exaltation of a past generation's language and culture, but the things that all effective writers have in common throughout the ages and across the world. These are things that every effective writer swears by. The things they all have in common with such predictable ubiquity as to be almost universal.

The key here is effective writers, not any writers. Not anyone with one published novel and a few short stories who now mostly edits anthologies. Not anyone with just a blog (including that Chris guy, even though he signs my paychecks). Not CW program faculty who sell books chiefly to their students. The writers who are most prolific, most successful, most well-known ("literary" or "commercial"), most dedicated to their craft, most respected within their genre, and most competent in their prose.  What do these writers have in common? What habits make these writers effective?


1- Effective Writers Read This one probably didn't surprise you, but it might surprise you to know just how much effective writers read.  Effective writers read so much that it almost defies the credulity of most normals.  Other people who read "a lot" find their reading overwhelming. Effective writers are constantly reading  In checkout lines. Before appointments. At dinner. For hours a day they drink up other books like they are oxygen. But effective writers don't just read in a casual way like book addicts. They read with a conscious eye on an author's word choice. They read critically. They read...like a student watching a master. They read books they like over and over to glean their secrets. They read as if the authors of the past are their mentors--teaching them from across time and space the secrets of how to write. (Which in a very real way, they are.) They read across genres. They read things they find a little dry. They read classics. They read the back of shampoo bottles if there's no book in a bathroom. Effective writers read.

2- Effective Writers Stick to a Routine   "Write every day" seems to make a lot of people bristle, but it is some damned good advice for writers who want to enter the higher echelons of success. Ignore it at your peril. Effective writers establish a routine and stick with it on as regular a basis as they can. Within those routines there is an explosive rainbow of diversity. Stephen King writes ten pages a day. Ernest Hemingway wrote one. James Joyce wrote a few ponderously constructed sentences. The routine is also there to start the creative process, not as its end all. Joyce Carol Oates wakes up early to write, and sometimes only does it for 45 minutes before throwing in the towel and sometimes does it for eight hours before noticing she's hungry. J.K. Rowling says she sometimes writes for three hours and sometimes for eleven depending. Some stand. Some sit. Some lie down (Capote). Some have to move (Roth). Some will end in the middle of a sentence. Some must finish a section even if it takes hours longer than they planned. But all do their routine daily, many admitting abashedly that they even do some of their routine on "days off." Whether you call it an affectation or a fetish or simply habit all effective writers have in common that (whatever the process that works for them) they keep doing it over and over again, day in and day out.

3- Effective Writers Work Hard  Effective writers don't imagine they will get the "money for nothing and the chicks for free." They imagine they are going to work. Effective writers treat writing as a job and work very hard to be successful at that job. They do not sit and wait for the heavenly forces to move their pens or fingers, nor do they blame the "capricious muse" and abandon their desks if they don't feel like working. They grind through the tough parts in the same way someone would the non-awesome bits of a job they generally liked. They set goals (the kind they can control--not the kind they can't) and adopt projects, they work towards them, and when they fail or succeed, they then make new goals and projects and work towards them. They set themselves to a bite-sized chunk of work each day and tear into it. They put in hours a day--often even more than a full time job. Many talk about how their writing interferes with their family life in the same sort of way people in other careers do. They have pride in what they produce and don't content themselves with what is good enough. Effective writers are constantly talking about writing like it is an extremely difficult (if rewarding) job.

4- Effective Writers Revise Effective writers recognize that they are not geniuses who spin 26 letters into gold simply by applying their pen (or pixels) to the page. They know there is hard work between an idea and its effective execution. They know that that process is not magical, but comes from a continued effort of refinement over and over like sifting out the impurities when transforming crude oil into rocket fuel. This is far far more complicated than simply proofreading or fixing a couple of problems. Revision literally breaks down to mean "to see again" and it might mean everything changes. They know that their first draft will be terrible.  So terrible in fact that Anne Lamott calls it "Writing Shitty First Drafts." Effective writers often toss whole drafts and keep only tiny bits and pieces that make their way into what is practically new projects. There isn't a consensus on how much revision an effective writer should do--Stephen King does at least three major revisions in the course of writing a novel (and countless smaller clean ups) but Frank Conoroy says that the real magic happens around the 11th Draft. Regardless of the question of how much revision should take place, the idea that revision is basic and essential is something all effective writers have in common.

5- Effective Writers Compartmentalize  There are many aspects to and expressions of this and many writers do this differently, but all effective writers do it to some degree. They switch between "modes," both in their writing process and in their lives. They talk about a personality that deals with "the real world" almost as if they have a dissociative disorder (they do not actually, and it is an analogy not appropriation of a very real disease). They silence certain editorial voices when they are writing first drafts, and silence other "you can do no wrong" voices when they are revising. They waste time with calculating intention, and then suddenly turn around and declare they have wasted enough. They pull things apart to examine them in a way that is impossible to do with the gestalt. They are bombastic and nurturing of creative splats in one moment and in the next moment are cold and calculating about what within that splat might be good and what is absolute crap. They chase butterflies whimsically and lie with cats in sunbeams one moment and then brew a pot of tea and sit down to ten hours of non-stop work the next. They passionately embrace ideas (through characters) without ever accepting them (in reality). Through characters and empathy, they believe in things they do not believe in and accept things they find anathema. They love and adore the human condition while spending the vast majority of their effort trying to create a space where no human can bother them. Writers do this in many ways. One might describe exercises like imagining voices as mice and putting them into bottles. Others simply shift effortlessly between "real world mode" and "artist mode" like a Transformer (sans the "she-show-shoo-shaa-ship" sound that Transformers make). But the one thing that all effective writers have in common is that they compartmentalize constantly.

6- Effective Writers Prioritize Writing  This started as "effective writers sacrifice" but honestly some don't. Some effective writers simply make one small decision after another that prioritizes their writing and they don't ever really come to a moment of Herculean sacrifice. It doesn't happen all at once because it happens a little every day. But what all effective writers have in common is that their writing takes precedent over other things in their lives. If the choice is the night's writing or staying out an extra couple of hours (even with wonderful people), they say their farewells. They rarely have much of a social life. They often have "dumpy little writer bodies" as Betsy Learner says. They sometimes have no career beyond writing. Many rent rooms for years and teach as part time as they can or tend bar just a couple of nights a week to get the bills paid. They may have an estranged relationship with their families, or they may write and have a decent family relationship but literally almost nothing else. Many non-effective writers would find such prioritization anathema to their values. I'm not saying prioritizing writing is morally good--or is always a great decisions, and I'm certainly not saying these writers lead a well-balanced life. But they are the decisions that most (if not almost all) effective writers have in common. Highly effective writers prioritize their writing as paramount.

7- Effective Writers Risk  Effective writers take chances almost universally. They take them in their personal lives, prioritizing writing over other careers, sometimes to the detriment of their wallet. They take them in their fiction, putting things that people "have a problem with" into their stories. They take them in their prose, breaking a rule or convention of craft deliberately. They get our attention because they are willing to do things few others will dare. They are willing to try.

This means that effective writers also do something else as a result of all that risk. Effective writers fail. Call that one 7a if you want. Effective writers, with no exception ever, have stories of failure--even embarrassingly titanic failures. They fuck up. They go beyond themselves. They misjudge. They take flack. They get hate mail. They write something that no one gets--something that just isn't actually very good. They write sentences that need to be taken out back and shot. They swing and miss. They use up an advance and don't have a novel to show for it. They fail...a lot. But they also are not playing it safe, so when they succeed, it is not just one more thing-of-that-type. It's something different.

I was going to put number seven as "Effective writers persevere." It was between "persevere" and "risk." And I knew "The EIGHT Habits of Highly Effective Writers" wouldn't be as catchy. But then I realized that perseverance is just another kind of risk.  It's the risk that one will do all that work for nothing. It's the risk that you will never be recognized as a genius in your time or make big bucks or be solicited for your autograph. It's the risk that most people will say "This is just crap!" when they read your hard, hard work--which won't happen willingly. It's this risk that makes art so scary, and makes people talk about it more than actually do it and be pretentious. It's a risk that 9-5 jobs simply do not have, and makes them so seductive. (In those jobs you know exactly what your reward will be: X dollars for Y time.)  So file away as subset 7b that one kind of risk is perseverance. Effective writers persevere. They risk all their effort being for naught. Almost no effective writer does not have a story of how long it took before they were writing for a living and of how tough things were when they started out. Effective writers shrug off failure and keep going. They persevere for years, even decades. Effective writers risk never "making it."

And they do it simply for the love of writing.


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13 comments:

  1. This is like, the BEST writing advice I've ever seen. I need to make this mandatory reading for my students.

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    1. I like that idea. Just please make sure the URL is visible at the bottom of the print out. Some of my professors gave me things they'd printed off the net and I couldn't make out the URL to check it out myself and look at other things the author had written.

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  2. I concur. Every writer I've ever known who went on to make their living with it did all these things.

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  3. Nice. Seriously--nice.

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    1. Dear Mr. Breechen,
      Yes and no. Most of the professionals I know read constantly but don't read in the way or for the reasons you suggest - though they probably did when starting out. Every year I donate a couple hundred books to our library book sale because it was cheaper and quicker to buy them for research than travel to a good research library. I may have read a couple pages or a chapter in those books and I don't much care how well they're written. After four or five hours writing and a couple hours reading plus the obligatory friend's book, I haven't brains enough for good writing. I'll read "a couple chapters" of an unpublished novel from close kin or someone I owe money.

      Reading a good book is a special (and fairly rare) treat.

      I'd suggest an 8th habit. Effective writers may have started because they loved writing and may continue because they can't think of anything else to do but almost always they make (some) money from writing because if nothing else ,it's easier to do one job than two or three.

      Donald McCaig

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    2. Again I'm not talking about everyone who writes for a living. I'm talking about the MOST effective writers.

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  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  5. very nice said -- thanks a lot!

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  6. Greetings from Egypt.
    This article is just WONDERFUL and it really helped...like A LOT (Y) :D
    Your blog ROCKS (Y)

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  7. True. On all parts. I sometimes laugh when someone says that writing would be such an easy job, especially since my thoughts then go to those moments in the endless editing process, when you finally tear yourself away from the screen and realize your ankles are swollen from sitting still most of the day, and your stomach is litarally growling because you forgot to eat and your brain is just mush being battered with full HD movie theatre images in your head all day, and because you can't turn, twist, flip another sentence, let alone wonder where to go with your punctuation...Gawd, I love writing. Those are the good days! Hahaha

    Excellent piece, Chris. I'll send folks this way when I get a remark like that again. ;-)

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