Habits of Good Writers

Posted by Jill Van Wyke

Earlier, we discussed our writing idiosyncrasies. Now let’s switch to the 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? Which ones? Are their traits on this list that you wish were a habit of yours? How would they make your writing life easier/better?

Post your original response by 6 p.m. Sunday.

Then, return to this post to read/respond to your classmates’ responses by 6 p.m. Monday.


38 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. I recognize myself in a lot of these characteristics. I was surprised Clark and Fry found them to be qualities of strong writers though. Many of these traits that I possess are weird to other people. For example, I always write way too long. Always have. In high school, we had to write a 20-page paper. Everyone was distraught. My problem was that I had 25 pages. Writing too little is never a problem for me. It’s writing too much that’s the issue.

    I also recognize myself in agonizing over leads. As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes I feel like I can’t get to the rest of the story if my lead is not perfect. I also love to tell stories and devour books and movies.

    Other traits on this list are definitely not descriptive of me. I’m not good at taking time to organize. Once I sit down to write a story, I just want to crank it out. I feel like organizing is a waste of my time. I know that it will actually save me time in the future, but I still can’t get myself to do it. Maybe someday. This leads me to the next trait that I fail at: bleed rather than speed. I’m obviously more of a speeder than I am a bleeder. I am such a perfectionist that it’s hard for me to let myself write crap, even if it is just a draft. I know allowing myself to write the bad will help me discover the good. I need to practice this more often, as hard as it is for me.

    • I agonize over leads to but I have found that if I speak that part and go on with the rest of the story/article, a lead eventually comes to me on its own.

  2. A lot of these descriptions fit me. I definitely prefer my own ideas. I like to be creative and pursue my own ideas in order to make them into successful stories. Number 7 seems to be the one that I see myself in most though. Before every draft or outline, I need to get organized. I cannot focus if things are a mess or my mind is cluttered. I like everything together and my thoughts ready to be put on paper. One last trait I have is that I write too long and know it. Before an edit, I like to get every possible idea and sentence on the paper so there are options of what sounds good and what could go a different way. I always know with my first draft not everything in the article will stay, but it is easier for me to get everything in at first before cuts begin. One trait I wish I had was taking more chances. Sometimes I am a scared writer because I am nervous to try a new style or nervous that a story will sound dumb. If I didn’t write so timidly, I think I would have more of a variety of writing and better experience.

    • Most writers are scared writers — even those we consider “the best writers.” I love to read books on writing by writers, such as “Bird by Bird” by Ann Lamott and “On Writing” by Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King). Even those writers who make a nice living in the craft struggle with confidence and nerves. To write is to make ourselves vulnerable.

      That’s precisely why we, as editors, should keep in mind that line from “Coaching Writers” about assuring writers that “no evil consequences will flow from sharing work with you.”

  3. Many of these habits of a good writer also apply to me. I remember the reader (something I learned from many PR classes), I love to immerse myself in a story, and use my ears and feelings more than my eyes. I see stories everywhere.
    However, there are two habits of good writers that are things I need to work on. I need to work on re-writing my work, oftentimes I am so excited about the story that I don’t want to rewrite and agonize over every detail, I just want to get it on paper and share it. I am more about “speed” than “bleed”. I need to work on proofreading and tightening up my first draft, rather than rushing to share it.

    • I think we all fall into the trap of the “first-draft culture.” I sure do. We’re impatient and don’t see the value of drafting and revising, several times if necessary. We should probably do more of that in the j-school. What’s really gained from doing a story, turning it in, getting a grade, and moving on to the next story? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to work through a number of revisions of the same story?

    • I am more “speed than bleed” as well, I don’t necessarily think it is a bad trait to have though.

      • Christy Wittmer

        I think I’m more of a speeder if I know peer editing is on its way. If I am the only one that will read it, and this is rarely so, I am a bleeder.

  4. Lindsay Dressen

    There are many of these habits that fit me as a writer, and it was easy for me to see them after just finishing one of my drafts for Drake Mag. I agonize over leads. Normally, I will start with something to give me an idea of where I want to take the story and figure out what the tone is going to be. After writing the body I always seem to change it and re-write it (over and over). I am definitely one that writes too long, because I hate cutting things out. I know this is a problem, but it’s hard for me to cut things out because I become attached to my work. I think this won’t sound right without this following it, or this won’t sound right without this leading it and so on.

    I devour books and movies. More so movies, I am obsessed. If my roommates need a movie recommendation they usually come to me because normally I have seen what they are choosing between, or know of a movie they would like. I also love a good book that you can get lost in. At college I don’t have much time for leisure reading, but over breaks and in the summer I read a lot.

    Taking chances is something I just did in my English 92 class. We were told to write a short story up to 250 words that had a beginning, middle and end with a conflict showing strong imagery. I wrote something that was very dark. It was a raw look into someone’s life. I took a chance on my first paper in the class and am hoping it went well.

    • That English 92 assignment would terrify me into writer paralysis. Just the idea of it gives me heart palpitations. The short story is a true art, harder, I think, than the novel. Let us know the results!

      (P.S. Got any recommendations for movies that will satisfy two middle-aged parents, a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl?!)

      • Lindsay Dressen

        It was hard to write, especially because I felt as if when the story ended I had just begun when really it had to be the conclusion. It is a true art, like you said.

        Really depends on what you like! I am a huge suspense, thriller lover so my favorite movie at the moment is The Town, which you can get on DVD or at Redbox. It is rated R, so I guess it depends on what you let your kids watch!

      • Is that the one with Ben Affleck as the bank robber? That’s on my “must-watch-someday” list.

      • Meh, I though The Town was a little overrated, and I own it. Much better films out there–Inception.

        I hear ya on not having time to leisure read anymore. I haven’t read a book “for fun” in perhaps a year (?). College reading has sucked the fun out of leisure reading for me.

    • I’m in complete agreement with short stories being extremely difficult. I took a fiction writing course last year (I think it was English 93?) and it was the hardest writing class I’ve ever had. The teacher was awesome, and the assignments were all reasonable, but writing fiction is so difficult. It’s almost impossible for me to take myself out of a story and not write a narrative in situations like that. I’m so glad I took the course, though. It makes me constantly think about the plot in my writing. Almost all writing (including articles) needs a beginning, middle and end.

  5. 9. trust their ears and feelings more than their eyes.
    10. love to tell stories.
    12. take chances.
    13. devour books* and movies.

    Since I don’t write for newspapers or magazines and am taking this as an elective, I feel only a few of these related to me. Maybe my post will be different next time, and I find myself relating to more.
    Being a golfer, and a writer, I related most to number nine. I consider myself a feel good type of person. I don’t usually go by what I read or what the instructions of how something is done. I have a fondness for going with my “gut-feeling”. I like the aesthetics. In my writing I go with how the story makes me feel when I read it back or as I am writing it.
    All my friends could tell you I love stories. Breath ’em. I think I average about 50 a day or so. Maybe you can’t verify that, but I very much enjoy telling stories to entertain or make people laugh. I, myself, love to laugh too so why not.
    I like to take risks, even sometimes I don’t realize I am. When you hand something in, or say something, or do something, you are not entirely sure about, I feel that gives you the greatest chance to learn. If, say, the story you turned in on a chance turned out amazing, you can learn what your strengths were. If you fail horribly, hey it happens, you can see the mistakes and hopefully tweek them to work or learn to never use them again.
    The * I put on this was because I partially related to it. I enjoy movies to an extent, but I don’t like reading very much at ALL. The only things I read are mangas and my Bible. Which brings me to my next point…
    I wish I was good at:
    1. see stories everywhere.
    11. remember the reader.

    I actually just switched majors from B News to Radio/TV because I didn’t like reporting AT ALL. A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that I just don’t see stories as well as others. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have switched.
    When I write I often get so immersed in it I forget who I am writing it for. When I write stories for my readers online, they give me feedback. But sometimes I completely forget what they tell me and that can get you in trouble. In the print media world we aren’t really trying to write to please our readers, but we are writing to inform them. It wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind the way they like to get their information thought, and write to that at times.

    • “If you fail horribly, hey it happens, you can see the mistakes and hopefully tweek them to work or learn to never use them again.” I wish more of us had this attitude.

      Don Murray writes in “Coaching Writers”: All writing is experimental. We don’t know what works until we try it. Failure is normal and instructive. From failures, we see ways to achieve success.

    • Michael Rutledge

      Taking risks with your writing is a exhilarating feeling. I always know that if I’m really bold with a topic or my narration I’m either going to get an A or be asked to write it again. I feel like if you take a risk in your writing you gain so much more than if you just grind out something you didn’t really want to do.

      • Christy Wittmer

        Agreed. Taking risks can sometimes be the only way to learn about the things not mentioned. I give this analogy most students know:

        It’s like being in class and the professor asks “Does anyone have any questions?”

        Most of us do have questions, but we don’t want to be the only one!! But one day we get a rush of boldness to step out and just raise our hand. Turns out, everyone else had the question but didn’t want to look stupid. So you become their unsung hero!

  6. I definately agonize over my leads. I try to always look for the semi-funny, yet interesting first sentence. It’s never okay with me for my leads to be more than 20 words. Rick Tapscott is probably to blame for that. The problem with stressing over leads is that I tend to stare at my computer screen for the first ten minutes of any writing session. They say you should just start writing and then come back to the lead, but I’ve never bought into that philosophy. For me, the lead sets up the attitude of the story. If the “thesis” is the last thing you write, then how do you know what the rest of the story will focus on.

    • Interesting take on writing the lead. I always end up writing it at the end. I almost always skip to my first quote and work from there.

  7. I think out of all of these, the idea of “seeing stories everywhere” fits me perfectly. Although, if I’m at a brainstorming meeting, I can’t recall any of these ideas. Walking around campus, eating dinner, reading my friends’ comments on Facebook–All of these everyday things throw story ideas at me. I feel bad being the friend that is constantly saying, “Interview them!” or “That would be great for Drake Mag…” I can’t really help it. I’m also a devourer of books and movies. I purchased a Kindle a few weeks back, and I find it really hard to put down. I usually don’t, unless I’m working or in class (sometimes).

    I wish I were better at guiding the reader to the end. I get so caught up in telling the story, that I forget where I’m going with it. I don’t agonize over my leads, I agonize over my conclusions. I’ve also noticed lately that taking time to organize a story saves a lot of effort later in the writing process. I need to do this more often.

  8. I’m definitely one to prefer my own ideas. It’s my pet peeve when people “over-help” me. I love criticism and feedback, but I start to resent it when people put words in my mouth or on my page. I like to own my work, and I can’t feel that way if someone else came up with the words in my story.

    I also definitely “bleed” rather than “speed.” I agonize over everything in the story, including the lede. I can’t usually bring myself to just jot everything I need to cover down on the computer so I have to do this in a notebook. It feels less official that way. And if I “bleed” my words all over notecards they are much easier to physically organize.

    I also love to tell stories. That’s why I got into journalism. I love to get a sneak peek into other people’s lives and being allowed to share those stories with the world is pretty exciting.

    Lastly, I cannot get enough books or movies. I don’t have time for leisurely reading during school, but in my free time, it’s a different story. I love books that tell stories in a funny or interesting way. David Sedaris is my favorite. I prefer movies with complex story lines, although I enjoy a chick flick here and there. Wes Anderson is my favorite. I love the way he constructs his stories.

    I wish I could trust my feelings and ears more than my eyes. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get past the visuals. I’ve always been a visual learner, and I love telling stories visually. I also wish I wouldn’t be so hesitant to take chances. I’m so intimidated by a new Microsoft Word document. Writing notes in a notebook and getting my thoughts out that way has helped a little, but I still wish I could be a litte more brave when it comes to writing.

    • I cannot stand to have someone “over help” me either. I like to think that I can do it better than they can, usually, and when I’ve had the experiences where helpers were actually hurters I have a hard time letting those that can help, help.

      • Lindsay Dressen

        I agree with you both on the “over help.” I once had someone look over my paper for me to let me know if it flowed well, and to catch any grammar errors. I received an email back with “I think this would be a better conclusion to your paper.” The person had written a different ending paragraph for me. I felt hurt. I knew in their eyes they were trying to help, but it was definitely a situation of them trying to put themselves into my paper when I didn’t want it.

    • I also wish I could learn to take more chances in my writing. I think as I begin to take more writing classes (particularly magazine classes) I am slowly learning about the benefits of utilizing a variety of writing styles. Though this exposure is great, I really need to get over my fear of a blank Word document as well… it’s a HUGE waste of time.

    • It’s also frustrating when your work is edited by someone you know is a terrible writer, like in peer edits. If someone fixes things on my paper, it’s hard for me to take their criticism seriously if they’re writing is lacking.

      • Agreed Katie. That’s a pet peeve of mine too. Or if they throw in a poorly phrased suggestion that is hard to decipher.

        Also a reason why I hate peer edits in general. 🙂

  9. Chelsey Teachout

    I recognize myself in numbers 1, 2, 9, and 10. Stories are everywhere(2), and I find myself pulling them from stories my friends share. It’s like eavesdropping in person. I prefer my own ideas(9) because I know more about them–the detail is all laid out for me, and I don’t have to ask a bunch of questions about the idea or story. I trust my gut more than my eyes(9), and stories are too fun not to tell(10).

    There are traits that I wish I had to be a better reporter and writer like taking the time to organize a story. Many times I rely on the outline I have in my head to report and write a story. This is not effective because sometimes the order in my head is not as logical. When I start to write I realize that I need to re-organize my story and then starting over is messy. This is why I’m in J70, right?

    • I have the same issues with reorganization. It’s so annoying and time consuming to go back and reread and organize everything so that it makes sense. It takes more effort than actually writing the story sometimes. I wish I had some sort of article template permanently in my head, and that all of my story ideas automatically fell into said template.

  10. I, too, can see some of my own characteristics in the habits of good writers but I don’t really feel as if I’m a good writer. I really hate to rewrite. ANYTHING. I want to get it right the first time and that’s that. I’m the draft editor. I go through and while writing my draft I edit it along the way. I have had some professors tell me that rewriting is not something that good writers do. If they’re good they get it right the first time around. So, in that sense I’m pulled in two different directions. I understand the importance of rewriting and revising, but at the same time I don’t want to sit down and be over analytical of my writing because that is when I really make mistakes. Also, I’m a risk taker and I take those risks when it comes to my writing. And so far it has paid off way more than it has come back to slap me in the face.

    • “I have had some professors tell me that rewriting is not something that good writers do. If they’re good they get it right the first time around.”

      To which I can only say: “Are they SERIOUS?!” Tell them to name one good writer who doesn’t rewrite. I defy them. All good writers struggle. All good writers rewrite. All good writers wish they could write better.

      Would anybody expect a pianist to flawlessly play a Chopin etude the first time? Would anybody expect a figure skater to nail a triple axle on the first try? Of course not. I simply do not understand people who think good writing just happens. Like anything else, it takes practice, hard work, discipline.

      Sorry, you really hit on a peeve of mine!

  11. Michael Rutledge

    I’ve been a storyteller since the first day coherent syllables came out of my mouth. I remember in my younger years concocting elaborate tales of dragons, knights and time-traveling badgers to answer the simplest of my parents questions. Around the tender age of ten my mother asked me if I was the one to break a vase and I someone ended up blaming the whole event on an unforeseeable act of God of which I had no blame. My mom accused me of lying, I claimed that I was making the truth more interesting.

    In high school the pages of notebooks were filled with more doodles and witty one-liners than geometry equations. My fiction writing class senior year was like an oasis in the scorching sands of educational monotony. In my opinion there is no greater feeling in the world than telling a story that makes someone laugh. I don’t think people put enough value in the ability to make someone’s day a little more enjoyable.

    Where one person sees a ordinary event, I see a story. Add a few well placed adjectives and elaborate hand gestures to that event and it evolves into a tale worth retelling to a group of friends. Storytelling is an extension of the imagination, and the imagination is the backbone of any great writer… in my humble opinion of course.

    • I wish I could tell stories better. My thoughts come flying out of my head much faster than my mouth can find the words to describe them, so perhaps I should take some storytelling lessons from you!

  12. I definitely saw a few traits I believe I possess in this list. I do prefer my own ideas to a story “spoon-fed” to me by an editor. The fun part for me is investigating a story I came up with. If I didn’t think of it I quickly lose interest in the topic. I do also love to tell stories to my friends and family and I feel that I have an excellent sense of the “flow” needed for either an oral or written story.

    I also agonize over my leads. I remember in my last journalism class I rewrote a lead five minutes before the story was due. I was reading over the article one last time and decided that my lead sucked, so I changed it. I also tend to write too much, and I definitely know it. However, I think it’s better to write too much rather than two little. A writer can always cut down a story by taking out some redundant words or phrases or shortening quotes. It’s much harder to make an 800-word story out of a 600-word story.

    That being said, I don’t know if I consider myself a good writer. I think I can write an essay or article and make it presentable, but I have doubts that I’m really a good writer. I think an exceptional writer writes stories that makes the reader go “wow!” At this point, I don’t think I’ve written an article yet that gets that kind of response out of a reader.

  13. I notice many of these qualities in myself as a writer. I definitely prefer to write about my own ideas as compared to other people’s ideas. Having the opportunity to write about things of my choosing guarantees that I will have a passion for the topic. Also, if I am simply handed a story by an editor it usually end in bad reporting and an overall lack of focus in my story.

    I also AGONIZE over my leads. I find it very difficult to write a story without a lead because usually that is what helps me set the tone of the entire piece. I know I waste far too much time perfecting my lead from the get-go, and that it is definitely a habit I should work on tweaking a bit, but it’s a very difficult thing to stop.

    Along with agonizing over my lead, I spend great amounts of time organizing my story. I read through my notes and interviews at least three times before I begin to write, and this is usually what saves me much needed time after wasting so much of it on the lead. Luckily, I am a very organized person in many aspects of my life, so I find it enjoyable to organize information for my stories.

    Last, I definitely write too much… on everything. A lot of times I’ll complete a “rough” first draft (though, let’s be honest I usually spend too much time perfecting everything other than the lead as I write as well), and once that draft is finished I go in and delete bits and pieces of extra information that I decide readers don’t really need or want to know. Right now I’m working on allowing people to see that first draft before I go in and cut parts because I’m sure I take for granted information that my readers might not actually know (which is proof that I do NOT always write with my readers in mind).

    • I tend to perfect my rough drafts and I always end up having to cut out a lot, and I mean a lot!

    • I find that when I write I also include a lot of unnecessary information. It’s hard for me to distinguish the line between informative and too much. I want readers to know everything, even when they don’t want to.

      Looking over my notes before writing is also a great idea. I usually do this, but only once, then just search them for what I’m looking for. However, I guess reading them numerous times could be a sort of “macro-edit” session, to get yourself familiar with the information and visualize the organization of the article. I always try to type my notes out too and place the information into categories.

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