Habits of Good Writers

Posted by Jill Van Wyke
Aug. 29, 2011

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. Tuesday. 

Then, return to this post to read/respond to your classmates’ responses Tuesday night.  

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26 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. After reading about the habits of good writers, I am relieved to see that I do possess some. As a writer, I prefer my own ideas. Being the originator of an idea makes it so much easier to shape the idea’s path and think outside the box. When I have an idea, it takes off in 10,000 different directions that I can work with later. If someone else comes up with the idea, it is harder to manipulate because I don’t want to stray too much and risk messing up the main idea. I definitely agonize over leads and write way too long. I feel like I can’t move on if my lead is lacking. The lead is one of the most creative parts of the story and, therefore, my favorite. But once I get on a roll (like right now), watch out! I am an extremely wordy person because I want the reader to get as much information out of my work as possible. I want to cover all of my bases. I face the problem of writing too much far more than I face the problem of not making it to the page or word limit. In every situation including writing, I feel rather than a judge. Once I have a topic, suddenly everything relates to that topic. I also ponder my stories for a long time, trying to get the sound and emotion of it right as opposed to the layout. And my biggest success as a good writer is being an insatiable reader and movie watcher. I can’t resist delving into the interpretations and underlying themes of a good book… or a book in general. The same goes for movies. I do wish I could write faster and remember quotes better. Though I may try to write down all of the god quotations of a speech, I find myself forgetting a speaker’s wording or fumbling over abbreviations. I also shy from taking chances. I love doing things right, and I think that can limit me sometimes. Because I haven’t been writing reports as long as I’ve been writing critical theory or fiction, I am not as comfortable with experimenting in my reporting as I am with experimenting in my English papers. This timid behavior will most likely pass once I have written more journalistic work though.

  2. After reading this list, and after reading the chapters, I do see many of these qualities in myself. I have to admit, I was a little surprised that some of them were considered “good” qualities, like “4. Agonize Over Leads.” I do agonize over my leads, although not as much as I once did when I first started writing articles. Sometimes, though, I will sit in front of my computer for a significant amount of time and stare at it. Eventually I’ll get up and leave it, do something else, and then come back to agonize some more.

    Ultimately, I’ve learned that agonizing can be both a blessing and a curse. It can improve my lead in the long run, but it can also take a toll on my sanity. In J54 I learned a valuable technique for writing leads: write the rest of the article, and then go back to the beginning to work on the lead. I do this sometimes, and I often find something in the rest of the story that inspires a more interesting lead.

    I also make a point of remembering the reader when I write. As a Magazines and English double major, I’ve heard multiple debates in English courses on the subject of “Who do we write for?” A lot of independent writers – like those who like to write fiction or poetry – advocate writing for themselves. And I agree, partially, that this style does have a place; it’s just not in magazine or journalistic writing. I make sure to take time to come at my piece as a reader. I’ll leave it overnight if I can, read it out loud, and try to mentally detach myself from my work. While this is an inherently flawed goal (I don’t know if it’s possible to detach myself from my own writing) it definitely helps improve the clarity and relevancy of my article.

    This list also highlights one of my dirty secrets: I don’t love taking chances. I am a very sensible, feet-on-the-ground sort of person by nature, and it’s hard for me to move away from that. Obviously this has presented challenges for me as a journalist, and, thankfully, I’ve overcome a lot of my original fears. I think it’s something that will always be with me; I plan on continuing to step over these boundaries via interviews, frequent writing and creative story ideas.

  3. I see myself in several of these habits. I realized last semester in J54 that I tend to get stuck on leads and spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to perfect them. It took me a while to realize that writing most of the article and then going back to the lead worked a lot better. I am also what you could call an “extreme organizer.” I make extensive outlines before I even begin to think about writing. Without one, I am paralyzed in terms of what to say. I have to have it written out first according to main points. I’m also a huge reader. I’m the obsessive type that can’t put a good book down until it’s finished.

    The habit I really wish I could be better at is taking chances. I’m envious of those willing to go all out. I like to play it safe and not take risks. It’s something I continue to work on. Taking chances is what makes great reporting and stories. I also wish I could be better at rewriting. Once I write something out I find it difficult to think of alternatives. This is a crucial skill to great reporting. The more you ponder it and make revisions, the greater impact it can have on the reader.

  4. Being that I am a journalism major, it is obviously apparent that I love words, writing, and reading. I find it fun to read other stories, blurbs, blogs, books, movies or just random words. Not only is it easy, but highly entertaining to find stories out of everyday occurrences. Before I begin writing, I find it extremely hard to start if I’m not 100% organized. I like to know the order of each main point and idea that I plan to get across. After wrestling with the lead, I always find it in my story’s best interest to save that for the end. And of course, after I complete my story I go back and vigorously judge, rewrite, criticize, and rewrite my story again.
    Some habits that could use work are things like taking chances. It’s difficult for me to take a risk with writing, and then sit and wait with the fear of getting it back with RED PEN everywhere. I need to learn to trust my ears and feelings more than being so critical with how it looks or how I think it should look. Rather than just writing my story, I could be more proactive if I chose to really put myself in the story. Engaging myself more in the story than I have in the past may also help my writing shorten up. I have a tendency to use fillers that don’t necessarily make the story better.

    • I know what you mean by fearing the red pen! It’s hard to subject articles to feedback after working so hard on them. It becomes personal. But it shows that you care about your work and making sure it’s your best. That’s an awesome quality to have and will help you succeed as a journalist!

    • I am the same! I usually leave myself out of the story writing process when I should be be in the midst of all of it getting as many of the intimate details as possible. I also think that if one is more involved in the story of the article and not just the writing that the writing process will be more enjoyable and mean more in the end. This is something I need to work on in the future.

  5. I believe that all reporters at some point in their life exhibit all of these, but just not all at the same time.

    Recognizing myself in these traits was easy for some, but for others, well, I just wasn’t there. There are many times last year where I would come up with my own story ideas and pitch them to my editor, and now, I’m using that to create stories for my reporters, and I let them know that they can let me know if they have any ideas of their own.

    I have spent many a sleepless nights thinking up leads to stories, because without one, I don’t know how to focus my story and feel as though I cannot guide the readers through the story.

    The trait that I exhibit the most, would be immersing myself in a story. Once upon a TD Relays Edition, I spent a week researching embezzlement and fraud laws. I slept with my reporter’s notebook and anxiously awaited a call from a deputy on the DSM police force. That story was a whirlwind for me. I wanted that story to be the best one I had written all year, and I rewrote that piece daily. I’m constantly doing that with a lot of my stories, which is a strong point I have, but it can get a little out of control.

    One habit I wish I had was taking more chances with my stories. For whatever lame reason, I am still worried about how my stories will be perceived by the public. I’m working on being more creative with my stories, but it’s going to take awhile. Once I get there, my stories will have more life to them and perhaps even show more of my voice – which, in turn will allow more readers to be interested in my stories.

    • I applaud you for how much commitment you had with your TD story. That just shows how passionate you are towards journalism. And I believe that if you can get that passionate about your Relays story, you are more than ready to take risks with yours writing! The readers will be able to tell how much effort you put into your stories, and I’m sure they will love reading it just as much as you loved writing it. We all know that it’s more fun to read a story when you can tell the writer was excited to write it.

      • I agree completely. It’s easy to tell when a good writer is passionate about their story assignment, and it definitely translates to the readers.

  6. I delight in the process of writing: the brainstorming, the outlines, the agonizing leads…even the rewrites and rewrites and rewrites. I revel in creating sentence structure and painting a picture with my own words. Quite simply I enjoy the process.
    Indeed, I exemplify some of the habits discussed in the reading, especially the storytelling bit. I love to tell stories, and that translates into my writing. The ability to recount events in a clear and informative manner is essential to good news writing, and that, I’ll admit, I do quite well. I tend to set aside valuable time to organize, outline and clarify the information before the writing process begins. If one has everything in order before sitting down to write, the story should write itself. And I spend quite a bit of time crafting the perfect ending to stories as well. The lead is important, however, the reader is left with the last sentence of any story. A good ending will always make a great impression.
    The one trait I could work on is seeing news stories everywhere. I know it’s just a state of mind, and that good journalists can carve a story idea out of a concrete wall. But I’ll get there. It’s just a matter of time and practice. The more time one spends in a newsroom, the more one sees opportunities for news stories all around. It’s all conscious identification. Once one is conscious of such opportunities, one is able to identify possible story ideas, and focus on the more important stuff…Like writing agonizing leads.

  7. After reading these qualities and the description of each, I can say that there are a few of the qualities that I do very well, and on the same hand some that I could use a lot of work at doing better. As I am working on becoming an English teacher, I feel that storytelling is something that I do well. This translates into my writing, I believe. However, the downside to this is that my writing at times comes off as too conversational. I also, admit to writing too long, loving books and movies and taking chances when it comes to my writing. These last qualities are things that my friends and peers have all pointed out to me, too, and thus I have accepted them as parts of me.

    As far as the negatives go, I am not very good at seeing stories everywhere. As I have not taken many journalism classes, and journalism is not in the back of my mind on a consistent basis, this is a writing quality that I do not have. It is something I can easily start to work on, even though it will take time to change. Along the same lines, I also have a tendency to write just for personal pleasure, and and thus don’t often think about my readers. This is something I must change immediately.

    If I were to work on these more, my writing would be much more versatile. I, right now, am most comfortable in a few types of writing, but not in many. I feel that working on these qualities would not only help with my journalistic writing, but in many other types and aspects as well.

  8. The traits that best describe me are definitely “prefer their own ideas” and “write too long and know it”. These are definitely good qualities, but they can also become negative if you don’t learn how to set them aside.
    As writers in general, I believe we all like the ability to pick our own topics, though we may sometimes wish someone would just give us a topic to get over our creative block. I have never liked to be told what topic to write about unless it was a general prompt that I had plenty of room to maneuver within. However, this trait can definitely become an obstacle when I have to write a story that I don’t want to write about, as with that comes resentment and I struggle to put forth my best work on topics that do not interest me.
    Most writers that I know, myself included, tend to have an idea of how long their piece should be but then go and write pages more than expected. This is good in that we are not struggling due to lack of facts or reporting, but can also mean that the story is probably not as concise and tight as we want it to be, resulting in tedious and often heart-wrenching editing.
    On the other hand, I wish I had the ability to see stories around me, though I have found that that comes with experience the more I write and brainstorm ideas. I also struggle with guiding the reader, as what makes sense to me may not make sense to the general public in terms of organization and structure. I often have to have somebody else read it to make sure they can follow the story from beginning to end, as I find I am too emotionally involved to edit my work 100%.

    • I completely agree with your using the writing too much as a positive, that can easily become a negative. I too, also, can relate to not enjoying writing when it is assigned with too specific of a prompt. I am not sure exactly your reasons for it, but I feel that when I have to write something with too specific of prompts, that the writing is much less beneficial for me personally.

    • Writing lengthy stories is one of those traits that is fantastic to see in writers. I know personally, I’d rather have a writer give me a story with a lot of depth, detail and facts, than a writer who gives me a story that is very basic and has a lot of work can be done. They both have their strong points, but writing longer pieces definitely helps from my stand point.

  9. At this point in my career, I’d say I exhibit at least half of these traits, whether they were learned or instinctual. However, I know that I have a lot of work to do on the qualities I possess, as well learn the rest, before I’m a practicing editor in the industry.

    Many of them come naturally for me: I’m obsessed with pop culture and am constantly reading blogs, magazines, newspapers, and books, as well as watching TV and movies. Doing so sparks inspiration in me, aside from informing me. (And everyone knows reading makes for better writers.)

    When I start writing, I’m anal about everything. I’m completely set in my ways and can’t accomplish a thing until I have all my thoughts are organized. Then nothing gets done until I have the perfect lede—that’s definitely what takes me the longest in writing a story. Once I’ve got my lede, though, I’m usually good to go. When I have a good topic, I’m not done writing until it’s perfect because I get so invested in sharing something I genuinely care about. Something I need to work on with this is using the same energy on topics for which I care less. By the time I’m done with a piece, I’m usually at least 100 words over the word count—this is usually because I have so much information I want to share. Thankfully, editors help with this and see what’s important enough to print.

    I would say the biggest problem I have now is remembering the reader. I hope it’s not just me, but right now, I’m scrambling to get as many clips as possible and am doing the writing mostly for my benefit, when—as we always talk about—the reader is the only one that matters. This class is reinforcing that.

    • Jeff, you’re not the only one who has issues remembering the reader. I do it too. Getting the elusive new clip is always in the back of my mind and the reader is somewhere else to me. Sometimes, I feel like the focus is put on gaining experience instead of reaching out to the readers. With that being said, that is a reason why we’re all in the class, and it’ll help us all in the end.

      • I have trouble forgetting the reader, too. I tend to just retell the story as it appeared to me instead of making it seem like the reader will really be there, but Lauren’s right! This class will surely help in that department!

  10. Emily - Drake University

    I definitely see the first five of these traits in myself. I’ll struggle and struggle with a lead because I know that once I feel it is ready, the rest of the story will just flow. Overwriting is another familiar deal, and I always know I’m doing it. Often, I even do it purposefully so that I have more to choose from when cutting my story down later. This may be the ‘editor’ in me.

    Like the rest, I love to read. I read books (when I have time), magazines and blogs. I watch television (quality, questionable) and movies. I tend to find inspiration in these places without having gone looking. I prefer to write stories I come up with or stories that I choose. I feel these turn out better because I am more invested in them.

    Remembering the reader is something I need to work on. It’s not yet ingrained into my brain during the writing process. Like Jeff said above, I am usually writing to add clips to my portfolio. Gaining experience has been a major motivation. I realize this is something I need to work on in order to improve my writing.

  11. I love reporting. I love meeting new people; I love learning about them; and I love sharing what I have learned. I am a voracious reporter. I enjoy immersing myself in my current reporting assignment. I like to research as much about the topic or person as possible, before meeting with them and while writing the story. Additionally, I will fervently tell anyone who will listen about what I’m currently writing.

    When it comes to story production, I am awful at revising. I often write my whole article in one sitting and may not revisit it before sending it to my editor. I need to work on rewriting my articles, rather than simply trusting my first, and often only, draft. With more revising, I think, would come more original leads and endings, another area of my writing which I believe could use some work.

    • Good for you and your reporting skills. I’m still learning to ask the right questions and getting people to stick around until I have good quotes. And I completely understand about revising pieces. I find that it’s difficult to edit my own work. Going back after spending so much time trying to make an article perfect the first time seems so tiring. I always know what I meant to say when I write things too, making it hard to see any poor wording. I can definitely relate to your struggle.

  12. Before I start writing, whatever the subject may be, I have to evoke some emotion. I have to feel something before I can start writing. I have to care about that particular subject. If there’s no passion in me (the writer) then that passion won’t be translated to the reader.

    I am the kind of writer that will have to get my own thoughts organized before I begin and then get the lead right which I spend most of my time on so that the rest of my story will flow perfectly. Some of the traits that I would love to have is to take more chances. I always have the tendency to stay safe in my own backyard and am not adventurous enough to get out there which is not going to help me to be a successful journalist that I want to be.

    So, I want to take baby steps to get rid of the fear about approaching people and getting them to give me what I need for a story. I believe if I am determined and fearless, I can get what I want and produce a great story.

  13. Organization is a strong point for me. After an interview, I return to my desk to organize my notes and thoughts. This helps me to review the previous conversation and recall any points I didn’t have time to write down. I also rewrite my words, or feel the need to rewrite my words because I know a different phrase will make the point more succinct. I enjoy reading a variety of materials and making lists (as noted in the book). This circles back to my need for organization to recall conversation points.

    There are a variety of points in the list above that I know I can improve on. I wish I was able to see stories everywhere. Not only would it make brainstorm sessions easier, but it would provide a new perspective on life. In terms of writing the story, I want to take more chances with the lede or subject. The fear of failure and possibility of a lower grade are what stops me at this point. I understand I need to give in and try something new. It will happen eventually when the story calls for it.

  14. Unfortunately, the only habit I think I possess is wanting to produce the best article in the “newspaper” every day. It’s not that I am not capable of the other habits, I have just find it exhausting. Especially while in college, students receive so much feedback on one piece that it is difficult to figure out what to concentrate on. Instead I find myself trying to fix everything in one draft, therefore only improving a little bit on everything instead of trying to tackle one skill, one at a time. I love the idea of rewriting paragraphs and even starting from scratch, but I often find myself blowing that idea off because of how much work it is. I think I need an editor that is going to light a fire under me and encourage me in a way that makes me want to strive and dig deeper for the story. I like the idea in, “Coaching Writers” of how the editor and writer need to have a relationship as opposed to a boss-employee discussions. In this way, I think that I will be able to improve on the other habits and become a better writer.

    • I also think that, while I love to tell stories, I find it hard to put these stories on paper in the same way that I explain them to others. I think that is my best quality, however, and look forward on improving that.

  15. I love words and I see stories everywhere, immersing myself around every corner, but that doesn’t mean I do the best job of “bleeding rather than speeding” unfortunately. I tend to write stories very fast, blowing through them and only later rechecking them for errors both in spelling and grammar and in content. It’s hard for me to agonize over the leads and to organize the story carefully. I tend to write stories in a way that feels comfortable to me in terms of reading them aloud. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the best way to write a story. I feel as though sometimes I’m writing the story merely through my ears instead of through my other senses and in that way, the reader will never feel like they are really there. I really need to work on making sure the reader is “present” as much as I am in the finished product.

  16. Number one on the list is by far the one that struck a chord with me. I became a journalism major because I grew up feeling that everything around me and everyone I met was a potential story.

    My dad would tell me that he loved reading articles and books about little things with big stories. If every story published was about the economy, politics and hard news, we would never hear the voices of real people.

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