Habits of Good Writers

In chapter 4 of “Coaching Writers,” Clark and Fry identify 15 habits of many strong writers. Strong writers:

1. see stories everywhere.
2. prefer their own ideas.
3. report voraciously
4. agonize over leads.
5. immerse themselves in their story.
6. “bleed” rather than “speed.”
7. take time to organize.
8. rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
9. trust their ears and feelings more than their eyes.
10. love to tell stories.
11. remember the reader.
12. take chances.
13. devour books and movies.
14. write too long — and they know it.
15. guide the reader to the end.

Carefully reread Clark and Fry’s descriptions of these habits. Do you recognize yourself in any of them? Have you had the good fortune to work with an editor who knew how to support those habits?

Do you recognize these traits in any of the writers with whom you work? What can you do as an editor to support such writers?

Posted by Jill Van Wyke, Sept. 11, 2008

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11 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. As I looked over these habits, I did notice that there are several that I would say I practice and enjoy doing quite a bit. When I was on the paper at my high school, I loved to immerse myself in stories. I thought that there was noting better than just taking that pad of paper and the trusty pen and looking for a good story. One of my first big stories came my junior year when I was assigned to the school’s fall play. I ended up going to play rehearsal several times and I also found myself at the juggling clinic one night to learn what the performers would have to it. Sitting in on script work and character development was great and made for good quotes. I took some risks as well in high school. I did a column called stall talk and hallway hype. I’m sure you can guess what the former was about. The latter was me cruising for leads in the hallway and putting mini-stories together. Aside from that, I’m a big movie fan and I do enjoy a good book. Seeing the dynamics of good characters in various situations made me want to look for what I liked in movies and books, in school.

    I like how the book included examples of editors giving books to writers and just encouraging the writer to tell their story in their own words without even writing it. In that sense, I think it takes on the movie sequence technique, but to me, it’s great to see editors embrace either a quirk or a passion and turn it in to something positive for the writer. In that sense, I think everyone benefits.

  2. There are definitely ways I could become a stronger writer from this list. I love good stories and could read until my eyes bleed, but I’m still not great at finding stories. I don’t feel bad about taking my time though. Looking for stories isn’t a race, and good writers and editors know that. I can relate almost anything back to This American Life, and today I am reminded of a quotation from the TAL host, my idol, the delightful Ira Glass. He talked in an interview last year about things he wished someone had told him when he was 20 years old, thinking about going into creative work. He said, “Nobody ever tells you that you’re going to spend half your time just looking for an idea for something to make your work about, and that if you don’t have an idea, that’s normal, and that if you’re spending half your time just looking for a subject for your stories or for your songs or for your movies, that’s normal and you have to view the looking for the subject as your job. Like that’s actually a job. And the way you do that is you sort of immerse yourself in ideas, you immerse yourself in books, in music, in things that are interesting to you, you look in the paper, you look at, ‘What is the part of the story, just, what do I want to know more about? What’s talking to me?’ Follow that, and that will lead you to something you want to make work about.”

    (You can watch the whole thing at http://www.bordersmedia.com/shows/live01/glass.asp)

    On writing too long: I was copy editor on my yearbook, and I had many writers who wrote too long. It was my pleasure to be the ruthless one who cut, cut, cut and re-word until everything fit. I think that’s helped me be able to recognize when my own writing is too long, and I love the process of paring down a story to the essentials. Kellye Crocker had us write a story and then cut it in half, and my second story was much more impressive for its clarity and brevity. When there’s a word count, I usually ignore it until the end, but then I really enjoy trimming a story (as hard as it can be sometimes).

    P.S. Can we get a period on number 3?

  3. Clark and Fry state that, “Good editors…allow writers to turn story assignments into their own ideas, often brainstorming with them.” I like the idea of an editor being a brainstorming partner – I feel most inspired and energized when I can bounce ideas off another living, breathing human being. That’s probably why I constantly call my older journalist cousin when I’m in a writing bind.

    Looking over these examples on writer/editor relationships, I sometimes wonder if they could be real, because they sound like something out of a movie. From the small amount of experience I’ve had, I can never imagine my editor coming to me and offering coffee or lemon cough drops to induce or reward my writing.

    I just want to say, I thoroughly enjoy how Clark and Fry set up chapter four; the flip-flop of “good writers” and “good editors” makes the chapter flow so well amidst all the tips and quips.

    Personally, I love to set up a scene. I love to write what I’m thinking; I want to mirror gonzo journalism, made popular by Hunter S. Thompson, which is defined here by good ol’ Wikipedia:

    “Gonzo journalism tends to favor style over accuracy and often uses personal experiences and emotions to provide context for the topic or event being covered. It disregards the ‘polished’ edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for the gritty factor. Use of quotations, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and even profanity is common. The use of Gonzo journalism portends that journalism can be truthful without striving for objectivity and is loosely equivalent to an editorial.”

    And lastly, Maggie Malam’s P.S. made me giggle out loud in the library.

  4. When reading about these traits, I considered the different types of writing I’ve done and how different traits show up for each one. When I’m writing woodworking articles (for my internship), for instance, I certainly don’t trust my ears & feelings, take chances, prefer my own ideas or immerse myself in my stories. But when working on stories for DrakeMag or class, I definitely do. I think the difference is whether I’m writing about something I’m passionate about.

    Some writing traits always apply, though. I agonize over leads, take time to organize, rewrite a lot and keep the readers in mind.

    I haven’t necessarily observed these traits in the writers and editors I’ve worked with, but I haven’t often watched them work. What is apparent, though, is that writers love to tell stories and talk about the subjects they write about.

    From the perspective of an editor, I think it’s important to encourage these qualities in writers. They’re generally positive… as long as the writer doesn’t miss deadlines or love their ideas so much that they disregard input.

  5. I love this list. I think these are things all writers should aspire to (because, seriously, we’re not all this good). I think one quality that I’ve improved recently is remembering the reader—but I think this has happened because of my work on DrakeMag and through my internships. As a writer, it’s sometimes hard to remember the reader when you’re working so hard to please your editor. But once you’re in the editor’s shoes, you realize that everything you write should be done with the reader’s best interests at heart. I truly believe that if all writers made the reader their number one concern when writing—and not being super clever and witty—editors would have less work to do.

    I’ve worked with writers who were many of these things, but what stands out the most are those writers who trust their gut on stories. Once the story is assigned, the writer is the one living the story, not the editor. The writer researches and interviews and knows the ins and outs, and it is quite possible that they stumble upon something valuable the editor may not know about. Writers who trust their gut will see this idea through, and I think that is the mark of a great writer. As an editor, the best support you can give a writer in this situation is the chance to share his or her ideas.

  6. I definitely see myself in some of the traits Clark and Fry mentioned in Chapter Four. I always agonize over my lead because every teacher and editor I have ever had emphasizes the power of the lead. The lead is what makes or breaks a story. Someone could write a fantastic piece but if the lead is bad, no one is ever going to read it. I also take time to organize and rewrite all of my pieces over and over again. Clark and Fry mentioned some writers will sometimes scrap a piece altogether to start over fresh. I have asbolutely done this. Once I start writing something, more and more things come to mind and my “piece” turns into a jumble of different ideas. When this happens I get out everything I can think of on one document and then start completely fresh in another one, using the old piece as reference. I also devour books and movies. Ever since I was young, reading has always been something I have enjoyed . My Mom is a reading teacher so she was constantly bringing home new books for me to read.

    I can’t say I have ever had an editor like the one they describe because I haven’t had enough experience with them. However, I have just started taking a class with Professor Inman and so far he has been a great editor. He is genuinely curious about why we wrote things the way we did and is great at dissecting and putting a piece back together. So I would have to say he is the closest I have ever had to the editor Clark and Fry describe.

    I haven’t worked closely enough with any other writers to be able describe their styles and compare them to the points Clark and Fry point out.

  7. I love how this list doesn’t just focus on grammatical errors, leads, mechanics and many more ‘technical’ things. Instead, I like how it addresses the issue of passion for writing and looking for stories everywhere at anytime of the day.

    I especially enjoy #10 and #13. I find myself too often focusing on the mechanics and structure of my writing (which are all very important) but I sometimes forget why I loved to write in the first place. This list reminded me to write, read, love to tell stories and find these stories in everyday life.

    Like Elizabeth said, I personally have not had enough experience with editors to have a true opinion on whether or not this list applied to their values. However, I do hope that I find myself in this list when it comes to remembering the passion for writing and to not get TOO lost in the technical aspect of writing and reporting.

  8. I, too, love this chapter and its flow from editor to writer and back again. Looking at the list of things good writers do, I only wish I could fulfill all of the items. Sadly, life (read: school) generally gets in the way of my being the writer I want to be all of the time. I feel a compelling desire to just write and scoop up all the freelance work I can get my hands on, if for nothing else than being a “working writer.” I have story ideas bursting out of my ears, but do I have the time to query the proper publications? No. I love to read and have a list of “must read right now” books about 17 long, but do I have time to read? No. I’m lucky to keep up on my reading for classes. Ugh. When I am working on a story, I do collect information voraciously. Just today, after an interview with a guy who talked WAY (sorry Van Wyke, couldn’t be helped) too fast, I went out and bought a digital recorder. If you don’t have one, get one. It’s sweet. It will be perfect for keeping track of ideas and information I’ve read or heard when I can’t (or shouldn’t) write.

    I am guilty of spending a great deal of time on my lead. I hadn’t noticed until it was brought up in class a couple of times, but I am one of those crazies that can’t move on until I feel like the lead is perfect. Of course, when I’m done writing and begin editing I usually realize my lead sucks so I work on it more.

    I do at all costs avoid turning in a story late. I think it’s disrespectful to the editor and everyone else waiting for copy to be able to do their jobs. Okay, I realize in the magazine business deadlines aren’t so tight sometimes and stories might sit around without being looked at for awhile, but I don’t ever want to be “that one chick that doesn’t meet her deadlines.”

    Just as I want to do all the things a good writer should do, I hope someday I’ll do all the things a good editor should do. I want to foster writer creativity and self-confidence. I want to never be too busy to ask questions and offer encouraging advice to a struggling writer. I want to not be the editor who changes a writer’s copy to reference deer jerky when it’s totally inappropriate just because I can. I want to be the editor that writers cross their fingers or give their right arm to get a chance to work with. I hope I will one day soon get the chance to spend my days working toward that kind of perfection.

  9. I laughed as I read some of these traits because I saw myself in them. These traits are what my family calls annoying. I look for story ideas everywhere and when I find one I don’t think about anything else until I have written something about it. I don’t answer my phone, I zone out to music and I write until the story is done. I also have an organized system to my writing and ideas and cannot function without it. I rewrite my story several times before I am satisfied or finished with it if that ever happens. I love books and movies. I also cannot seem to ever stay within a word limit. I tend to go over the word limit when I write because I want to include all of the information or the story.

    I have worked with editors who have been very supportive of my reporting habits. One employer that I had would send me out on a walk to organize my ideas in my head. It helped because when I would get back I would be able to put my ideas down on the page. I have also worked with people who are constantly discussing different books and movies. It adds to the culture of the workplace.

  10. One other brief update. I went to a conference for travel writers or would-be travel writers over the weekend in Boulder, CO. It was awesome. I put a post on my blog just saying that I will be putting some great stuff on soon that I learned at the conference.

    And, I got to meet Chris Keyes, the editor at Outside. That guy is a freaking genius. And he is so incredibly nice. The story of how he’s gotten where he is today is moving and awe-inspiring. If you aren’t familiar with him, he’s only like 33-ish years old and he has been in his position at Outside for two years. Outside has been in existence since 1977 and Chris is only the 4th editor. No one leaves that place because it’s such an awesome magazine to work for.

    So, that was a bit of a tangent. Sorry. The point is: I have a ton of great info and some information that reiterates things we’ve been talking about in class. And, I’ll get it on my blog soon.

  11. I’ve been always told that good reporters should have a nose for news: they’re always sniffing out places where stories possibly live. While reading that list, I realized that there’s a lot of characteristics that reflect my daily habits. I love to read (esp. current events) and I love to listen and tell stories all the time. I would be absolutely bored if I had to spend my day alone, without any news, without any people to talk to.

    I completely agree with Maari that I love how that list just doesn’t focus on grammar! As we all know, there’s way more to being a good writer than knowing where a comma goes.

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