Writers’ Idiosyncrasies

Posted by Jill Van Wyke

Maybe we should train all editors to be psychologists.

Writers are quirky. They have idiosyncrasies that can amuse or annoy – or both. They have hard-to-break habits in how they approach their writing. Sometimes those writing “tics” make them more productive; sometimes they can get in the way of “getting black down on white.”

In chapter 5 of “Coaching Writers,” Clark and Fry say that good editors tolerate and even encourage writers’ (beneficial) idiosyncrasies.

As you get to know writers and their peculiarities, you can find ways to reinforce the good habits and perhaps redirect some of the bad. I, for example, cannot sit down at a computer and just start writing. I have to “write” first in my head — a lot. No doubt I look like a muttering, mumbling fool as I carry on a dialogue with myself in the grocery aisle, at the gas pump, at a red light. This “conversation” can go on for days (if I’m not on deadline). Only after I’ve talked to myself for a long while can I sit down and start writing.

Often, of course, particularly at a newspaper, time doesn’t permit this self-conversational luxury. Instead I’m forced to sit down and get black-on-white while the clock ticks. A blank screen paralyzes me. To overcome that, I just start typing: “This is going to be a story about the merchants who own small businesses like ethnic groceries or video stores or clothing stores in what most of us consider the ‘bad’ part of town. …” Of course, it’s not a lead. It’s just a beginning to get me over the hump. Usually, as I get into telling the story, a real lead will occur to me and I can go back and re-do the top.

But other writers I know simply cannot go on to the second graf until the lead is perfect. They will spend 90 percent of their time on the lead, and 10 percent on the rest of the story. That would never work for me: I would never write a second graf.

Writing quirks abound. I’ve seen writers who can’t write until:

  • they take a smoke break on the loading dock.
  • they take a walk around the block.
  • they have a teary meltdown in the bathroom.
  • they crack open a Diet Pepsi and tear into a bag of candy corn.
  • they arrange everything “just so” on their desk, perfectly aligned.
  • they banter and joke with nearby co-workers until minutes before deadline, then dash off a story in a frenzied torrent of typing.
  • they color code all their notes.
  • they are holed up someplace quiet, with no distractions.
  • they have rock music cranked on their iPod.
  • they have a certain pen tucked behind their ear.
  • they clear their throat three times.

I prefer to write only after I have placed a red pen, a blue pen and a pencil on a yellow legal pad to the right of my keyboard. I have no idea why. I also need coffee, water or Diet Pepsi within easy reach. And chapstick. Again, no idea why.

To an observer, these mannerisms don’t make sense and can even seem counter-productive. But to the writer, they establish routine and provide comfort. Part of being an editor (psychologist?) is indulging these peculiarities (to a point), knowing they are a necessary part of the creative process.

Maybe we are not unlike little kids who need their security blanket or teddy bear to help give them the confidence to take on the world.

What writing idiosyncrasies do you have? Are they productive or counter-productive? Have you seen amusing, endearing or annoying “tics” in other writers? What purpose do you think they serve?

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20 responses to “Writers’ Idiosyncrasies

  1. My idiosyncrasies as a writer are not extremely weird or strange, but maybe they will come in time. When I sit down to write something, I have to have at least a general idea of what the lead will be. Without that, I can’t seem to get anywhere productive. I feel like the lead directs where the rest of the article go, which direction it will take. I’ll type and retype the lead numerous times, until I’m satisfied. Usually, I go back and change it anyway, but at the beginning, it have to be satisfied with it.

    When I write, I cannot have an outline. An outline boxes me in and straps me down; I feel like it takes away some of my creativity and freedom. In high school- when outlines were required – I would write the story, then go back and write the outline. They don’t help me, but are counterproductive to my work.

    These small idiosyncrasies I have as a writer are definitely productive, because I know they work for me and help to improve my writing.

    I have seen other writers have pretty odd idiosyncrasies though. Maybe they work for them, so who am I to judge. However, I have seen people who have to write the whole article by hand before they can touch a keyboard. I have also seen people who have to work in a specific place when writing, like outside or at home. The environment I think really does matter as a writer. If you’re not able to think clearly or concentrate, your writing is going to reflect that.

    • Christy Wittmer

      “When I write, I cannot have an outline. An outline boxes me in and straps me down; I feel like it takes away some of my creativity and freedom.”

      Agreed. In my case of writing fiction, I feel that if I write out what I want to happen, it takes away the element of surprise for me. By free-writing I am able to have my own little surprises along the way and it prevents me from writing myself into a corner. I’ve come to find that my best stories come when I have a thought (not an outline) and then I find myself taken in a completely different direction.

    • “In high school- when outlines were required – I would write the story, then go back and write the outline.” | And here I was thinking I was the only person who thought of doing that…

  2. I also must first begin writing in my head before I move on to paper (or the computer screen). Even if none of my original thoughts make it into the final story, I use the time spent thinking about the story in my head to make sense of what I’m writing and to create a focused angle. Sometimes I take too much time writing in my head and find myself scrambling to get all of the words down on paper, but usually the thinking helps me work faster. A second “tic” I have is that there cannot be a shred of clutter around me. The smallest amount of mess or seeing something misplaced distracts me so much that I can barely concentrate, and of course I have to get up and fix it, which inevitably wastes valuable time. Finally, unless I am alone while I’m writing I have to have a pair of headphones in my ears. Sometimes there isn’t even any music playing from them, it’s just oddly comforting to me.

    • Lindsay Dressen

      It’s funny that you say sometimes you never have music playing from your headphones because one time my playlist ran out, and I didn’t notice for 30 minutes. It is oddly comforting, also people know not to bother you if you have headphones on!

  3. Chelsey Teachout

    My writing process varies based on the type of piece I am putting together. For example, last semester I was required to put together a 20-page chapter for my novelist class. I scribbled notes everywhere, in my calendar, in my notebook, on Word documents, until I felt like I had a direction for my story.

    Taking notes is helpful, but the cleaning I felt I had to do before writing was not. I devoted one Saturday afternoon to work on my story, or at least a large chunk of it. Instead, I noticed that my room was in dire need of a deep clean. I left the computer screen, my notes, and my patience at the desk and set my mind to deep clean my room.

    This could either be considered as one of my own idiosyncrasies or as an overindulgence. Of course it’s productive for me to have a neat room so I can focus better on my work, but spending 4 hours cleaning is counter-productive. My idiosyncrasy helps clear my mind so that I can think about writing instead of how messy my room looks.

    The most noticeable writing idiosyncrasy in my novelist class was twitching. Un unnamed individual would often bite his lip then twitch it to the side when preparing to write. The more this guy concentrated, the more the twitch intensified.

    • I know many “must-clean-before-they-write” writers. If you saw my house or my office, you would know that, clearly, I am not among them.

  4. Idiosyncrasies are crucial to the writing/editing/creative process in whole. They allow us to unintentionally take our frustrations and obsessions out on something without being destructive. Whether we like it or not, we all fall into that writer’s rut sometimes, and I think idiosyncrasies help to subconsciously take our minds off of what’s in front of us, if only for a few seconds.

    I definitely have some weird writing “necessities”–some productive, others not so much. I have to be in the right “mood” to write. Personally, my favorite blog that I ever wrote for Drake Mag happened a month before it was due at Smokey Row fifteen minutes before I was going to head out. It’s kind of annoying, but I’ve learned that if I am in that “mood,” and I want to follow through with the story, I either need to write it, or get my idea completely written down and out of my head–no matter what I’m doing. My mom has heard me set down the phone in the middle of a conversation pertaining to my car and when it needs an oil change so that I can write down a story idea. She’s gotten used to it. I think that this is a good habit, but I wish I had the ability to go in and out of this mood at my own will. That’s the counterproductive part of it–when I’m close to a deadline, there is almost no chance of me being happy with my first draft.

    I have to be in a public, semi-noisy place to write, as well. It’s something about watching people, I think. It takes me mind off of the things I may obsess over alone in my dorm room and allows me to turn it into creative energy. I haven’t found any really “out there” habits, minus the fact that most of the time that I’m writing, I wear my giant wooden headphones to listen to music. That looks a little odd.

    I work with an editor who has to be chewing on a purple pen whenever she works. I’m not quite sure that she has noticed this, but I sure have. I’m just waiting for the day that the pen explodes. Then she’ll notice.

  5. Kelly Hendricks

    I have a lot of different quirks when I focus on something and they all change based on the type of writing I am doing. Like Chelsey, I have to have my room completely clean before I embark on a large writing assignment. Even if I go to the library, I have to have all my stuff perfectly laid out on the desk – and I even clean my backpack before I turn my computer on. I feel the cleaning can be compulsive but at the same time it seems pretty productive.

    Also, sometimes if I am writing something very important and it’s constantly on my mind, I keep a piece of paper and a pen by my bed because I’ll have random thoughts when I am just laying down relaxing and I’m always worried I’ll forget them if I don’t get them on paper quickly. I prefer complete quiet when I write which can sometimes be hard to find.

    Some interesting tics I have noticed are clicking/tapping pens, color-coding and twirling hair. None completely out of the ordinary although I am sure there are some people out there that have odd habits. But hey, whatever works for them! All idiosyncrasies seem to have the same purpose to me – get you in the mood and right mind set to get to work.

  6. I used to enjoy when one of my roommates was gearing up to write a paper. The whole apartment spotless and smelled of cleaning supplies, pumpkin bread was cooling on the kitchen table and Jack Johnson was playing on our docking station. The ritual never failed – every two weeks or so I would walk into the room and grab a piece of bread, thinking, “She’s writing again!”

    My writing quirks are less beneficial to those around me. I need silence – no music and no talking. I need a huge mug of coffee and an even bigger glass of water. I can’t be rushed. I can’t take a break in the middle. When I sit down to write, the whole entire first draft is going to be written.

    Idiosyncrasies are crucial to a writer putting in their best work. It sets the tone for the quality of the piece. If the writer is feeling confident and in control of the situation, they will channel it into what they are working on.

  7. As a writer I have noticed that there are many things I must do before, during, and after I sit down and write a paper. First things first I must always have an ice cold Coca-Cola at my desk with me. Not in the can but poured into my collectors addition Coca-Cola glass. I swear it kicks off the writing with more intensity and excitement than if I didn’t have the pop. Next, I must always have fresh popped Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn in the case that I need a crunch to jump start the thinking and writing process if I get writers block. My television must be off and I only prefer to listen to a mix of Matt Nathanson, Drake and The Beatles.

    Once this is all set up is when I can finally sit down, wearing the same PINK sweatshirt I have had for years and a pair of soccer shorts. Sitting at my computer, which is where I prefer to write rather than with pen and paper, I open Word and make sure that everything for the page is set so I do not have to mess with it later. I check the font, size, and margins three times before beginning to type. I notice that when I am thinking I like to tap my fingers against the computer keys, without typing, just to hear the sound and feel the keys. It settles me and my mind when trying to think about how to go about writing or telling the story. I usually get up three to five times just to walk around the apartment usually ending outside on the balcony to get some fresh air.

    I eventually find my way back to the computer screen where, toward the end of all my writings, I begin singing every word I write. I guess it makes me feel better about my writing to sing it, because I notice if I hate the way it sounds I need to rewrite it. I know I have some weird idiosyncrasies, but hey, don’t we all?

    • Well that’s a new one: singing every word you write. I thought I’d heard them all!

      But now that I think about it, singing it probably helps with rhythm and pacing, no?

  8. Lindsay Dressen

    I am another one guilty of writing in my head. My friends like to say, “Lindsay is dazing off again,” meaning I’m daydreaming or I’m thinking about my homework, which the majority of the time deals with writing in my head.

    Like Erika, I can’t write in my dorm room; there are too many distractions. If I am going to write I prefer to write at the library in a secluded booth, or with a desk facing the wall, which helps me stay in my “writing zone.” Before I can even open up a word document I need to have lotioned hands, and have had just put chapstick on my lips. I can not stand the feeling of dry hands or lips, it’s comparable to nails on a chalkboard for me. A full bottle of water sometimes accompanied by a Starbucks frappuccino are by the side of the computer. If I’m hungry, that will be an excuse to procrastinate, so having a full stomach before writing is a must.

    Now, I am able to open my word document. All the first necessities are covered. My final touch before starting to write is my playlist I listen to when I write consisting of a mixture of Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons, and Kings of Leon. Listening to music helps me zone out everything around me and focus on the story.

    Productive behavior means to increase productivity, and by doing everything I listed above increases my own productivity, so I would consider it productive. I realize my idiosyncrasies aren’t out of the norm, although some of them including the need for lotioned hands has actually made me put my homework off until I got lotion, because I couldn’t handle typing with such dry hands. I’m not crazy, right?

  9. Michael Rutledge

    I prepare to write a paper in much the same way Michael Phelps prepares to swim for an olympic gold. I start by stretching, and I mean really stretching, not just cracking your knuckles and twirling a pen in your hand. I then drink water, a LOT of water, probably an unhealthy amount of water for a human being to consume. I do this for two reasons. One, that “I have to pee feeling,” that comes in the next 30 minutes reminds me I am, indeed, still alive. Two, it gives me an excuse to stand up, move my legs and get some fresh blood pumping to my overworked brain.

    After steps one and two have been successfully completed I dive into the paper. I just start putting words on the page, there’s no brainstorming session, just writing. I find that a blank page that’s waiting patiently for your inspired manuscript is the biggest buzz-kill to actually writing. I’ll write for a solid 30 minutes until the “I have to pee feeling,” makes his much anticipated arrival, releasing me for a five minute break to the bathroom. I then sit back down, relax, and listen to exactly ONE song from my ipod. I don’t actually pick a song, I just put it on shuffle and let the itunes gods decide my fate. If they frown upon me I get “Sabotage” from the Beastie Boys and I’m back to writing in two 1/2 minutes, but if they so choose to grant me their favor I get “Free Bird” and I’m doing nothing productive for the next nine glorious minutes.

    Now, I walk a fine line here. Many a time I’ve given in to listening to “just one or two more songs” because I think I deserve it. Little do I realize, however, that “just one more song” starts me down the path to the Dark Side of the Force, sending me on a whirlwind tour of YouTube videos, txt messages and procrastination in general. I’ll wake up in a daze 45 minutes to six 1/2 hours later with the opening scene to Lion King memorized but not a single word written about how the sugar trade affected trans-atlantic slavery.
    On the opposite end though, I find that if I don’t get up and take a break every 30 minutes my writing degrades slowly into a ramshackle pile of words that is as coherent as an upended bowl of Alphabet Soup.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a five page paper on trans-atlantic slavery due in 16 hours and a liter of water that isn’t going to drink itself.

    • We underestimate the importance of taking a break and getting distance from our writing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve agonized for hours over a piece, given up, gone to sleep, woken up – and suddenly I know exactly what the piece needs and how to do it.

  10. Christy Wittmer

    Since this class is an elective for me, I will talk about my idios in relation to when I write my fanfictions. I absolutely HAVE to (and this can be said about when I write in general I would suppose) be distracted by something. I have ADD and so I can’t devote 100% concentration to most things. I usually have music on or in my ears. I can’t be distracted too much. And along with that, I have to be in a room without a lot of movement or commotion. Even if I have my buds in my ears, there can’t be a lot of motion beyond my screen. Another idio I can add is that I can no longer, it seems, write something out if I know it will be longer than a page. I love typing.

    A counter-productive idio is that I am a rather avid last-minute. It can be good because it seems I have honed it enough to always (knock on wood) hand in good work still, but I always hate myself because I know it could be better had I not waited. I think I have kicked the bad habit into my being because I can never seem to put anything on paper unless I have too.

  11. I am definitely one to work on deadlines. However, before I start there are a number of somewhat ridiculous things I have to do before I can sit down and start writing. First I have to find the perfect soundtrack for working/productivity. It’s usually something a little ethnic and something you would find hipsters blogging about. I also have to get coffee and I usually can’t get anything written until I write essential facts and quotations for the article written on index cards. It’s like a big adjustable outline that usually ends up taking up the entirety of my bedroom floor. I write best when I’m alone and usually after 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. There is usually less to distract me at night.

    Also, when it comes to article writing, I have to get the lead before I can move on to the rest of the article. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it usually has to be somewhat witty and interesting. I almost always change or tweak it at the end, but getting it on the page makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.

    My weirdest tic is probably the fact that I write best when I’m on the floor. I don’t know why, but desks intimidate me. I like to spread/sprawl out on the floor for some reason. It really helps me focus.

    My friend and roommate Mary Bess also has a few tics. We both get our best ideas in the shower and right before we go to sleep (but not together…). Because of this we tend to jot notes down on the nearest paper or in our iPhones. Not always together.

  12. I have terrible tics. My worst is complete procrastination that climaxes in a full-blown breakdown including tears and a frantic phone call to my parents. However, one habit that helps me that I learned from a favorite high school mentor is the power of the outline. I don’t use such a rigid structure as he originally taught me, but rather focus on what points I want to get across. Then writing everything out by hand first gives me this sense of power that I can’t get from writing a first draft on a computer screen. Something about that blinking cursor intimidates me too much.

  13. ryanthomasaustin

    I guess I’m pretty normal when it comes to when/where/how I prefer to write :shrug:. I prefer to write on my laptop, with my sound-canceling earbuds in and usually I’m listening to some soundtrack music (think Gladiator, Inception, etc.) as I start writing. I tend to skip the intro and go straight into the facts and the quotes. Most of my writing is centered around massive quotes, which is probably a flaw in my writing.

    I HATE when someone interrupts me when I’m writing, so I usually just write in my room, which is a single :win:. I prefer to take long breaks instead of shorter ones, so I usually get half my work done and then take a 2 hour break or so before I come back to it.

    Physically, I tend to tap my feet when I write and my music is usually pretty loud in my ears, which sometimes distracts other writers around me, hence the dorm writing. I also am not a very big fan of writing in a classroom with my classmates. It feels very public and open and I feel that writing is a more private experience, so I prefer not to write in that manner. None of the writing I’ve written during actual class time has ever been my best, so I usually just waste the time given to me to work in class by playing games online.

    I’ll also drink a lot of coffee when writing–probably 4-5 pots worth if I’m working on it for a few hours. I love coffee, but it has to be straight coffee–black, no sugar. No fancy drinks that end in “cino.”

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