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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39 responses to “Writers’ Idiosyncrasies

  1. My idiosyncrasies abound, but my writing idiosyncrasies in particular are surprisingly few. I think I have to pull my laptop closer to me and get the right angle on my screen before I can write. It makes sense though because my computer is usually pushed to the back of my desk to make room for other homework materials. When it comes to thinking of ideas, I usually have to wait for inspiration to strike. Yes, it happens to me regardless of what Edgar Allen Poe asserted. I mull things over in my head for as long as possible and then one of my internal tangents will lead me to a great, or at least decent, idea. It also helps me to look around my room, the apartment, Drake’s campus for things to spark inspiration. My processes take place in my head mostly, so I prefer to be in a quieter area, especially when I finally get to writing. Most times, I have many thoughts at once, and if someone or something interrupts me while I’m writing, I am likely to forget my idea or phrasing. Forgetting a great sentence or idea is one of the most frustrating, and unfortunately most common, things that happens to me. My writing idiosyncrasies are mostly productive, or at least up to a point. I always make deadline, so I do not have the problem of rushing to get things done once an idea strikes. Also, assignments are completed quickly once I realize my idea. I haven’t observed many “tics” in other writers. The only one I have witnessed on multiple occasions is the one that drives me insane: procrastination. People writing papers at the last minute aggravates me to no end. I should understand that some people just write better under pressure, but I can’t help getting annoyed. To me, writing is an involved process that requires care and thought. When I see someone pulling something together at the last minute, I have the preconception that they did not put their best work into it. Logically, I know that isn’t fair to think, but psychologically, I am a structured person who wants things done well as soon as possible. I’m sure these last minute writers go through a longer process of what I do; they think for as long possible, and the time crunch motivates them to write something wonderful. Even as a psychology minor, it can be difficult to accept or understand the quarks of others.

    • I confess: I’m one of those procrastinators (at least sometimes). Nothing crystallizes my thinking quite like a looming deadline.

  2. I completely agree that one of the most frustrating things while writing is being interrupted. It is inevitable that I will happen to be on the most important part of the story where I just happen to think of something clever to say. Then just as quick as I get the idea my roommates will just come in with what they think is the most imporant story at that time, and it’s gone. Forever lost and forgotten, and I know I have no chance in getting it back. Writer problems suck.

    • I concur. Interruptions are absolutely frustrating and inevitable. I’ve been spending more and more time in Cowles to avoid the roomate interruption issue altogether. Plus, they have Macs, which makes me happy.

    • I wrestle with interruptions, too. Getting my mind back to where it was when I was interrupted is a huge challenge for me. I often let one minor interruption mushroom into a larger, longer one. After an interruption, instead of going back to writing, I’ll check email, Facebook, Twitter. Or I’ll go see what Blachford or Inman is up to. It’s a form of procrastination, I think.

  3. I’ll be the first one to admitt my writing habits are weird, and I’m sure my roommates would second it. I love writing, and when I write I want to make sure I’m having fun with it.
    In order for me to begin writing I MUST have two Pilot G-2 07 pens. One on each side of me. It has to be specifically that type of pen because I like the way it writes. It has just enough juice in the pen where it writes smooth yet doesnt smear. Next, I make sure I have a water bottle and a bag of chex mix. The orginal chex mix of course. I make sure that I can only take a bite once I’ve written three sentences. Only then will it be okay for me to eat more. Postive note is that if I’m hungry, I’ll write faster. The third, and most important, is the fun part. I HAVE to listen to the Missy Higgins Pandora station. It is a must, and there will never be any exceptions to it. The playlist of songs always put me in a good mood, and literally have nothing to complain about. So, moral of listening to Missy…nothing to complain about means that I have absolutely no excuses not to write my best and complete it on time.
    To be honest, I’ve never really noticed anyone else having weird or obnoxious habits, but thats probably because my habits are so specific and take to much concentration and time to complete to notice any other people.
    These habits really are a great tool for me and I’m sure many other people. Just the thought of knowing the last time I did these idiosyncrasies I wrote something that I liked. It makes me feel as though I’m going to write something good again. It’s way more of a comfort feeling rather than an actual process for me.

  4. I don’t have a lot of obvious idiosyncrasies, like special pens or study snacks (although, a cup of Mars Café’s extra bold coffee doesn’t hurt), but I’m really big on atmosphere. I need to have ambient sound – I can’t work without it. Low conversation, cars on the street, music piping through my headphones, or even a T.V. I have a friend who can only study in complete silence, and we used to sequester ourselves in those little white study rooms in Cowles Library. It was completely the wrong setting for me.

    I hated it; I only studied there a couple times. I hated the white walls, I hated the silence and the stuffiness. But it’s so interesting because that’s really the only place she studies well, and I do so much better in a café or outside. When I can hear myself think too much, it’s almost like my own thoughts get away from me. I’ll think “Oh. That white wall could use some decoration. Maybe I’ll make a collage of postcards from my trip to Europe and put it up there. Maybe I’ll hang some pictures up.” My concentration is completely blown. On that note, it’s also important for me to have an organized and aesthetically pleasing space to study in. My desk is tidy and full of books, picture frames and the occasional tea cup. Like Katie mentioned, I like having things to look at for inspiration.

    I do most of my writing on my computer, but I do sometimes get distracted by my Apple Mail, internet, etc. Thankfully, I discovered this fascinating word processor called Omm Writer (http://www.ommwriter.com/) that uses a full-screen viewer to keep those distractions at bay. I love using it – if I have a deadline coming up or an important essay to finish, I turn on Omm Writer. (I especially like the fun keyboard sounds.)

    I think it’s almost necessary to be at least forgiving of writers’ idiosyncrasies. Everybody has one, whether it’s clicking a pen (annoying, but I’m guilty), drinking ten cups of coffee, or listening to heavy metal. I agree, though, that these idiosyncrasies can be detrimental if they interfere with the quality of the work or with other people’s work. I, for one, hope I can find an editor who will appreciate my need to decorate my workspace…I promise my work is better for it.

    • Ooh, I’ll have to try out Ommwriter. Thanks for mentioning that!

    • I’ve also tried and disliked the study rooms in Cowles. I’m not much of a library person when it comes to studying. My friend swears by these rooms, but I too just ended up staring at the white walls. The utter silence was so distracting! Maybe it’s the fact that she has to do a lot of reading/memorizing for her science major, but I just cannot write in those rooms!

  5. Since I began writing in college a few years ago, I’ve developed several writing idiosyncrasies that have proved conducive, if not absolutely essential, to my current writing process.
    Initially, I spend about a half an hour pacing back and forth, drinking coffee and mumbling and grumbling to myself about the content of the story-to-be before sitting down in front of my laptop. Then I have to have a mental outline of the story in place before I write a single word. I begin writing only after I’ve gotten everything in place: my laptop, black coffee, a bottle of water, pen and notebook (which I rarely use; I have no idea why I need them), and last but certainly not least, chapstick. I turn off all other forms of electronic media: TVs, music, etc. I tend to be more focused without noisy distractions.
    All the previous writing idiosyncrasies seem to be productive in my case, but I do spend entirely too much time reading and rereading what I’ve written. It’s almost a compulsive tic: I write a sentence or paragraph, read it to myself, and continue writing. Then I start from the top, essentially rereading the entire piece after every new sentence or paragraph. Granted, I do catch grammatical errors and misspellings by reading the piece over and over…and over. But I spend a lot—and I mean a lot—of valuable time emphatically going over the piece.
    I’ve witnessed rather amusing writing tics in other writers, namely binge-eating and chain-smoking. These idiosyncrasies seemed to be quite productive regarding the writing aspect…but conducive to one’s—not so much.

    • What is it with the Chapstick?! Last semester at a meeting of Think’s executive staff, seven of us were sitting around a table wrestling with a particularly difficult problem that had arisen. Suddenly, all at once, we all reached into our pockets or bags and uncapped various lip balms. We all broke up laughing. What an odd security blanket.

    • I also find it difficult to concentrate with noise distractions. It’s difficult to find a place (an the motivation to get there) quiet enough to focus, but not too silent that it could be considered eerie.

  6. I have a few writing idiosyncrasies that I can think of, and for the most part they don’t get in the way. Every once in a while one of my roommates will point out how distracting I am, but usually they handle it just fine.

    First of all, I have to spread myself out. We have a huge futon in our room that has a foot rest that folds out from underneath. I like to open that portion of the futon up or sit outside on a giant blanket and spread everything out. I have to have my interview notes opened with a pencil and blue pen beside them, a water bottle and/or Dr. Pepper, and my computer. I sit with my legs crossed and my computer right in front of me with my notebook to the left and my water bottle and writing utensils to the right. Occasionally I’ll have a light snack, but only if I’m starving! Otherwise, food acts as a motivator to get the piece done quickly.

    The writing is when it really starts to get weird. I’m very different from most of my colleagues in that when I write a) I don’t look at the computer and b) I don’t write in order. I follow my notes from top to bottom completely. Usually I’ll begin with a lead and then write a paragraph from my first set of notes. After that paragraph I decide where the next one needs to go and place my cursor accordingly, crossing out my notes as I go. I’m constantly jumping between different parts of the page. If I get distracted….it’s all over! I must finish the piece in one sitting, I can’t just pick up where I left off.

    I may need to work on my idiosyncrasies for the real world. I doubt they’ll have a big futon for me to comfortably spread out in the newsroom. Perhaps I can just sit on the floor of my cubicle though.

    • You know those big study tables at Cowles past the coffee shop? Not big enough for me. I need my own area code when I’m settling down for serious work and serious writing.

    • I find it interesting that you don’t write in order. How do you keep everything flowing together? Or do you go back later and add transitions? From the way you describe it, it might be something worth trying.

    • I also need to spread out. Otherwise I just get frustrated having to shuffle through my notes. Everything has be organized.

  7. I guess I’ve never really noticed my idiosyncrasies. I usually need some sort of music playing in the background to keep my energy up. If i’m writing anything by hand, I need to have a blue pen (a black one will suffice, but it’s just not the same). I also usually have a thermos of coffee and a bottle of water on my desk. If the desk is messy, I cannot write (and will not write) until it is clean. The one that really kills me though, is that I check my email inbox before I start my story and reply to all of my emails no matter what, then once I’m halfway through the story, I check my inbox again. That kills the most time. Mine aren’t horribly counterproductive, but they can get in the way sometimes.

    It’s always interesting to see other people’s idiosyncrasies – and they usually come out when stress is at it’s highest. One of my colleagues last year couldn’t start a story until she had meditated for five minutes and did some jumping jacks. This didn’t really help when breaking news happened, but it was her way of coping with stress. Another colleague would not talk to anyone in the newsroom until everything was perfect. Neither of those habits annoyed me – in fact, those habits fit the writers perfectly.

    These ‘tics’ prove to be good under stressful situations in the newsroom. They are how our writers cope, and how we as writers cope with certain situations. But, once they border on obsessive-compulsive habits, that is when we need to worry.

  8. Immediately following an interview, I must head to my computer and type my notes. To me, this is a way to reorganize my thoughts and recall any additional information that I neglected to write down. This habit is productive in the sense that I’m recalling additional information, but also counter productive because I’m taking up extra time that I could be using to write the article. When it comes time to write, I must be away from distractions and noise. I get annoyed with crunching, ticking and tapping sounds, so moving to a quite area helps me to focus.

    I have seen writers that must chew ice while writing. This is extremely annoying from the perspective of a co-worker who is trying to focus.

    As a whole, I think idiosyncrasies are a way to trick the mind into focusing. Similar to quirks that athletes have (dribble three times before a free throw, re-tie your left shoe before the 4×100 race), writers get it in their head that these quirks are necessary to their success. In reality, a writer can produce the same quality work with or without Diet Coke, but they don’t want to take any chances. I don’t believe these idiosyncrasies hinder the work of a writer (well, except for the ones who wait until the last possible minute to start). As long as each piece is written, the idiosyncrasies aid in production.

    • I don’t think typing your notes right away is counterproductive. It sounds like a really good idea and an extra step that a good writer would take. I completely agree with you about the noise level. If things get too loud around me, I get distracted, which makes me panicky if I only have a short time to write. I’m glad there aren’t any ice-chewers around when I write. That would be annoying even if I weren’t trying to focus. But you’re right; writers develop habits and rituals that make them feel comfortable. Despite the fact that they could perform well without these habits, denying their idiosyncrasies would only distract them. So I guess editors have no choice but to indulge writers. That or find them some serious counseling.

    • An ice-chewing co-worker would be a dead co-worker.

      Like Katie, I don’t think typing up notes is necessarily a time-waster. Doing a full transcript might be (especially if you have the recording to refer back to). But good writers do sit down immediately to at least write the scene. Say, for example, you’re profiling a band and observe a rehearsal. You should immediately sit down and write what you saw, heard, smelled; dialogue you overheard; impressions; observations. You don’t know how you’ll use it in the final story; you might not use it at all. But then writing the first draft becomes an exercise in assembling vignettes instead of starting from scratch.

    • I’m glad to hear you think the note-typing is productive. Sometimes it feels as though I’m falling behind, yet, my interview-handwriting isn’t legible so I am mostly relying on memory.

  9. Emily - Drake University

    I don’t think I have many strict writing idiosyncrasies. I prefer to have a cafe mocha at my side, but this preference is not limited to times when I am writing. I need something going on around me when I work. It can be music on my headphones, quiet conversation in a coffee shop, E! News at low volume on the television, whatever. I just cannot work in complete silence or isolation. Hopefully, my idiosyncrasies aren’t habits that would hinder other’s productivity or annoy an editor.

    I often find I’m one of those lead obsessors. It’s hard for me to simply sit down and begin; I can if I have to, but I always feel more satisfied with my work if I get a good lead down first. I usually start my story on a legal pad. Something about the old fashioned pen-and-paper writing makes my thoughts flow more productively than staring at a blank screen and blinking cursor. Once I’ve gotten my big points down on paper, I type it up and more or change the order. It’s easier to fiddle with a story when you can copy and paste a sentence here, delete a paragraph there, etc.

    I have yet to encounter a writer with any very unusual idiosyncrasies. I agree that writers are not the only ones to have these superstitions about their process. I can see it being a problem if an editor realizes that their writer COULD write the story whether or not they had a Diet Coke and rock music and started demanding the writer shift from their habits. Otherwise, I think editors know that everyone has their idiosyncrasies and they will let the writers do what they need to do.

    • I agree with the little noises and distractions that have to be going on around me while I write. The whole point of writing to me is to describe the human nature, and I don’t know how I could possible have inspiration without some kind of people watching around me. I do not ever write down anything on paper, but I think that I might try that for my next article and see where it leads me!

  10. I’ve noticed over the past year that I have a few writing idiosyncrasies. I have to rewrite my interview notes to make them more organized. I will either type or write them out. I’ve even been known to color code all of my notes according to the graph order. I have to have an outline before I can write. I spend the bulk of my time outlining my article compared to actually writing it. I basically write it roughly in the outline. This is a habit I picked up in high school. If I just sit down to write from a blank screen, I will never get anything done.

    Like Lauren, I have to have my space organized. I don’t usually write at my desk, because it is too crowded with my laptop and printer. I prefer a large space, such as my bed or sitting on the floor. I prefer to write with some noise but nothing too loud or quiet. Having headphones in totally distracts me. When I sit down I have my notes to my left and my AP Stylebook and a water bottle to my right. I also usually braid my bangs back if they’re not already pulled back so they don’t fall in my face while I’m writing.

    Overall I don’t think my writing idiosyncrasies are counterproductive. For the most part they are simple things that are worth doing compared to the stress I would feel writing without them. Everyone has their own habits that help them feel more comfortable and focused. I’ve never noticed unusual writing idiosyncrasies of other writers, but that could be because I’ve never been around many while they are actually writing.

    • I’m an outliner, too. Well, “outlining” might be too formal a word for what I do. I “chunk.” I jot down the main topics I want to cover in the story, and the details that fit under each chunk. Then I number the chunks in the order I think they should appear in the story. I, too, abhor the blank screen and blinking cursor.

    • I like the way you define your idiosyncrasies as “simply things worth doing”. I will try to look at mine that way too.

  11. I don’t really have that crazy of habits when writing, except for having some control over the setting of which it takes place. The room needs to be naturally lit…artificial light doesn’t work well for me. Also, there needs to be some noise around, but not enough that it is distracting. For example, having the tv on incredibly low, so I can hear that it’s on. However, it can’t be on loud enough for me to make out any dialogue or else it becomes a distraction. Other than this, I can write anywhere. I don’t need any specific items either, however, coffee always helps, but this is true in regards to any task.
    As far as others habits while writing, I have seen some interesting ones. My sister, for example, has an interesting habit that creeps me out whenever I see it. Something always has to be in her mouth while she is writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pen, cucumber, finger, something—it is the most strange thing to see, I think. My sister’s husband, who compliments her strange habits well, has one, too. He absolutely cannot write if he is in a room alone. He has to go to a library, coffee house, bar, somewhere. He isn’t distracted by noise, but can’t be alone. I asked him about this, and he said that if he is alone his mind will start wondering thinking that there are other things he could be doing. However, when he is around other people, he doesn’t think that way.

  12. My most annoying writing idiosyncrasy is that I don’t like to write unless I’m on a short deadline. I’ll do an interview, but if the story isn’t due until the next evening, I’ll wait until then to revisit my notes and write the story. If I sit down to write, but the story isn’t due for another two days, I’ll experience writer’s block and be unable to produce anything of quality. However, if I’m always waiting until deadline, I may become panicky while trying to compose my story quickly.

    The good thing about this particular idiosyncrasy is that I don’t linger on one part of the article for too long. If I’m having trouble forming a lede, I jump right into the bulk of the article. When I think I’ve included everything of importance from my interviews and research, I go back to add in the lede and edit the rest of the story. I’m a huge procrastinator, but a quick writer.

    When it comes to what I must have around me when I write an article, I must have all my notes from my interviews open and all tabs open to any research I found. I also need it quiet, which may mean jutting to the library for a half an hour if my roommates are being loud. If I have a large quantity of notes, I may highlight what I want to include in my story. This takes extra time during preparation, but helps make sure I won’t leave something important out of the story.

    I think it’s important for writers to realize their idiosyncrasies and put them to good use. Use them to help your writing process, not damage it.

  13. I have a couple of idiosyncrasies when it comes to writing. The first one is that I’m most productive when I’m alone. If people are around, I get annoyed by the noises they make, their talking to me, or just knowing that they’re around. I also function best when it’s quiet, aside from some sort of static noise–a fan, the AC, a muted TV. Something else I need to do is organize myself completely before I write. I will print out every document I could possibly use and spread them around my work space. If I’m writing on paper, I require a blue pen. (I have two specific kinds of pens that I use: one is from a local bank at home, the other is a uni-ball Signo 207. Nothing else.) If I’m typing a story on my laptop, I’ll have a few windows open. I’ll get distracted by the Internet, but I usually get some sort of inspiration there, as well, so there’s some merit in aimlessly perusing the web. The last idiosyncrasy (and possibly the most strange) is that I like to be either sitting up straight in a sturdy chair (it can’t recline, wobble, or bend back)…or be reclined and comfortable, either lying down in bed or sprawled out on a couch. Again, this is weird. I’m not sure why, but I guess I’m most productive when I’m comfortable.

    These idiosyncrasies aren’t too damaging. However, if I’m in an office setting and expected to write, I can’t exactly bring my La-Z-Boy in, set up camp in my cubicle, and write. So I may have to work on that one.

    • I see absolutely no problem with bringing a La-Z-Boy into your office! That seems odd to me that you go from one extreme to the other as far as your positioning (straight back chair or spread out on a bed. Odd, but I could see how being spread out on the bed would help with the organization of all the documents you insist on printing out before you start your writing.

  14. I only have two idiosyncrasies when it comes to writing. The first is that I have to have music playing or something happening around me. I hate when I have to write in silence because I run out of these to write about. I like to watch other people because they put thoughts into my head that are often relevant, or remind me of a certain verb or adjective. The second is that I cannot be interrupted while I start. If that happens, the piece will be trash. Once I am interrupted for the first time, I almost never get back on track. Once I sit down to write anything, whether it be a blog response, research paper or article, I have to finish it without interruption. I have a lot of thoughts that I feel the need to get out, and if my train of thoughts gets muddled in any way, it is hard for me to remember everything that I wanted to say. It may seem contradictive considering music or people watching are both forms of distraction, but they do not hinder me. I don’t see them as a way of confusing me, I see them as a way to help me say what I need to say and finally finish whatever I am writing.

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