Habits of Good Writers

Posted by Jill Van Wyke
Jan. 26, 2012

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 before Tuesday morning. 

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34 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. As I reread over Clark and Fry’s descriptions of these habits, I realized that I constantly agonize over leads and rewrite but it is my love of telling stories that is my strongest habit. Even though Clark and Fry consider agonizing over leads to be a good habit of a strong writer, I sometimes wish I did not agonize over them so much that way the middle and endings of my articles would be much better. If I agonized over the rest of my stories as much as I do the lead, the editor would probably have a much easier time reading through my story. One of the good habits of a strong writer I so desperately wish I had was taking chances. As Clark and Fry describe in the chapter, writers who take chances do not mind failing because they see it as a learning opportunity and test of their creativity. If I took more chances, I bet my writing would be much stronger and maybe even more memorable. I have been attempting to take more chances in my writing however, I am not at a point where I do it without fear.

    • That idea of “writers anxiety” has come into play in multiple people’s posts. I agree, leads are scary. I wonder how many people can say they have agonized so much over a lead that the rest of their writing has suffered. I would bet that a majority of our class would relate to that question. I also the idea of taking risks is a lot easier said then done. It takes a lot of courage and confidence in your writing to take a risk. That is where good, supportive editors play an important role. A good editor can challenge you in a positive way to take risks, while at the same time be there to help you if you fail.

  2. Clark and Fry’s habits’ are very relatable whether you are a writer, editor, or otherwise. Telling stories and devouring books and movies are traits that non-writers can have, but when thinking about how it effects a writer, I see how important reading is. I love to read, but never thought to, “collect story ideas and forms from other genres,” (41). As an avid reader, I never read with the mindset of a writer; I always try to keep my writer’s brain out and my reader’s brain in. Clark and Fry also said that good writers usually write too much, and I know that I do that in fear of losing something important. They make it clear that a good editor needs to be able to read their writers. Because overwriting is common, as a future editor, being able to help writers cut stories down, will be a very necessary trait. After reading and re-reading the chapter, I have concluded that in order to be a good editor, you must have a relationship with the writer that allows you to see their intent.

    As a writer, I think that I need to work on many of Clark and Fry’s habits. Seeing the world in story form, immersing myself in the story, bleeding rather than speeding, rewrite and rewrite, and taking chances are all things that I think will make my life as a writer easier. Before reading chapter 4, I never realized all of the breakdowns that Clark and Fry describe. I saw writing a story as something reporters and writers just do, but now I understand that it is more serious than that. As cheesy as it sounds, it almost seems like you have to become one with your story in order to produce a good story. Thinking about the reader during the writing process is something else that I think is very important. All in all, these 15 habits should be in every writers’ journalistic DNA.

  3. I definitely see numbers 2, 3, 8, 12, 13, and 14 in myself. When it comes to my writing, I am very protective and anxious. I agonize over leads like nobody’s business, but at the same time I don’t really like help, which is why I rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. I often want my work to be the most exciting and creative out there, which is why I see 12: “take chances,” a lot in my writing. Number 13 describes me to a tee, I love any movie or book that you can get in front of me, even if it’s a disaster, then that would be why I would love it. I truly enjoy trying to figure what worked and didn’t work for the audience. And 14, of course.

    I wish that I would do more of 1, 3, and 11. I want to have a numerous amount of ideas handy, just in case, but sometimes I think I am too complacent with the world around me. I always get anxious when I have to report for a story, so I know that I need to do a better job with that. Remembering the reader is hard for me, because sometimes I get so wrapped up in a story. I need to make sure that my writing appeals to my audience and not just me, as the writer.

    • I do the exact same thing! Looks like we get a little too wrapped up in our writing, Ashton. I think that it sounds like you (and me both) become so immersed in what we are trying to create that we forget that part of the reason we write is for other people to read! Since my writing is such a part of me, its hard to separate myself from it and not be so selfish about changes.

  4. I see traits 3, 5, 10 and 13 in myself. The main reason I chose journalism is because I like to tell stories. I find it exciting to know all of the details on a subject and be able to share the information. Unfortunately, when I learn so much about a story/subject I end up being sick of it. Then I agonize over how to tell people the story, bleed rather speed. This makes me the writer that works until the story has been ripped out of my hands. Trait 13 is the reason for every time management problem I have ever had. I become obsessed with hearing the story.

    I long for more of traits 4, 7, 8 and 14. The weakest part of any story I write is the lead. I leave the lead until after the article is written and end up tossing something on that is not worthy of the effort I put into the story. It is difficult for me to do rewrites. After the first or second draft I feel I have nothing left to give to the story. I believe I never make word count because I lack organization. I have lots of information and detail but do not plan out the story enough to reach/go over word count.

    • Sarah, I’m curious as to why you leave the lead for the end? Is it a trick a teacher taught you once? Or did you just start doing that one day and it stuck with you? It sounds like there’s a lot of us who struggle with the lead and maybe we should try leaving it for the end, because then we have our whole story and the lead may come more naturally…? I’m going to try that!

    • I tend to leave the lead for the end as well. I waste too much time on it at the beginning, so I generally right a crappy intro and then work on it later. I think maybe it works best because you’ve written all your thoughts. You know what the story is about and therefore it’s easier to draw someone in.

    • I also understand leaving the lead until the end. I usually have at least a general, one sentence idea of my lead, but often the wording doesn’t hit you until much later. Until then, I tend to first write papers in a series of fragments and lists that summarize my knowledge on the topic. These sentence fragments, if worth pursuing, are expanded or combined into paragraphs and then reorganized as things start to fall together. While this rough draft method makes my writing process a little longer, more time allocated towards planning an article can prevent a lot of time spent writing and reorganizing.”

  5. I recognize myself in numbers 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, 13, and 14 the most. I like to find as much information as I can for a story because I’m always worried that I’m leaving something important out that my readers would want to know. This usually leads me to writing stories too long because I want to fit all of the information I have into the article. I also find myself organizing all of my information before I write the story because it helps me stay on track. I want to create the best story I can, so I’m constantly rewriting my articles to find the best organization and flow, along with devouring books and movies for inspiration.

    But I wish I possessed the traits “see stories everywhere” and “love to tell stories” the most. At my previous college, I took a journalism class where we had to come up with and write articles for the school newspaper. The toughest part of that for me was coming up with story ideas. I always thought everything I came up with was “dumb” or “not good enough.” If I had the ability to see stories where ever I went, it would have made my writing a lot easier because I wouldn’t have been agonizing over ideas as much as I did. I also wish I had the trait “love to tell stories” because I believe it would help me become less shy and more creative when communicating with other people.

  6. Madeline Lumley

    I can recognize myself in numbers 2, 5, 6, 9, and 13. I have always preferred my own ideas for stories because I feel like I then have a more genuine interest and dedication to writing them, and that usually means the story will turn out better. Number 5 is one of the habits I can relate to most. It seems like whenever I am assigned a story or a paper, it is always on my mind. I am constantly working out syntax and ideas in my head as I go about my day. I relate to 6 because of my hatred of early drafts, but I can also write quickly when necessary. Trusting my ears and feelings over my eyes is something I’ve always done, but never really thought about. It comes naturally to me to read sections of my writing aloud to make sure it flows well and that the rhythm of the piece works. Number 13 is another habit I recognize in myself because of my love for reading and watching movies, and then talking about them with my peers. In the book, it says, “They love words, names, and lists” (41). Those are a few of my favorite things.

    I think I could use all of these habits more, but two that really stuck out to me were numbers 3 and 4. I know the importance of the lead, but I tend to focus more on the effect of the piece as a whole rather than just that first sentence. While the piece as a whole is important, I know I need to spend more time on the lead to catch the attention of the reader and get them to actually read my writing. Maybe it’s because I can sometimes be shy, but interviewing people and gathering information (reporting voraciously) always makes me nervous. I know I need to get over that, and soon, to be more successful with my writing.

    • I always get nervous when setting up the interview. Once the interview has started I can make it. But just making the initial contact is something I struggle with. I never want to make a bad first impression.

    • I have the same problems occasionally neglecting the lead to a story. Generally, I already find the story interesting and sometimes forget that I have to actually draw readers in with that first paragraph. I’ve tried to help this problem by thinking about my leads as similar to pilot episodes of TV shows. If the pilot is dull or boring, the viewer is not likely to give it a second chance unless they have a strong interest in the program’s subject matter. It may be a weak comparison, but it gets me to remember that people have to get a good first impression to stick around, and see a story (or show) through to the end.

  7. I definitely relate to number 4. Leads are honestly my worst nightmare. People always say the lead is the most important part of a story, because if you fail that, no one will keep reading. I will rewrite my lead at least 10 times for a story (and still hate it). That leads me to number 8. I rewrite several times before I consider a story “finished.” These habits could be beneficial, because I’m always searching for ways to improve, but at the same time, all the revising and changing can be a waste of time that could be used reporting, or editing other aspects of the story.

    Some habits I wish I had (but don’t) are numbers 2, 7, and 12. I tend to lack the confidence writers need to be successful. With that in mind, I hate my own ideas. Generally I’d rather just have someone assign a story I’ve had no involvement with. I also tend to jump right into a story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it would be helpful to sit down and organize my thoughts first. Lastly, I don’t take risks. Ever. I get along fine following the rules, but again, sometimes pushing limits could produce something new and exciting, and potentially my best work.

    • Elizabeth Robinson

      I agree with you about not necessarily liking your own ideas. That’s something that I struggle with as well. I have to come up with story ideas for the Times Delphic every week and I always question the stories I come up with. I really want to be able to find the unique angle or interesting story that’s not such a boring piece, but I feel like I struggle with that. As far as rushing into your stories, I feel like I’m kind of opposite. When it comes to writing a story I try to do as much research as I can before my interviews, carefully craft my interview questions, do the interview, transcribe, write, etc. But by the time I get to the writing it seems like I’ve been working on the story forever! I think it’s good that I’m taking my time to make sure I do a good job on the story, but at the same time I need to learn to be more efficient and prompt with my writing.

  8. While reading chapter 4, I was constantly underlining paragraphs and phrases thinking to myself, “I’m not the only one who does that. I love it.” From the list above, I perform all of those listed, some more than others.

    There’s one that I do quite often. It’s “rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.” This happens to me so often, that writing a story that should only take a few hours, turns into a full day’s work. It’s not a bad thing that ideas come to me and that a certain phrase or wording sounds better than the first. Apparently, that’s a good thing.

    Another item that isn’t mentioned on the list is that once the story is complete and submitted, I always feel that it’s not done correctly or that it could have been better. I will see the story in print and think, I should change this. Then I find myself editing my own printed story and keeping it for future reference. I’m just glad I’m not the only one that does this!

  9. I find it comforting that Clark and Fry consider agonizing over leads to be a positive journalistic trait. I think I might over-agonize though. After doing all of my reporting, organizing my thoughts (number seven!) and outlining my ideas, I’ll sit down to write the story. The problem, though, is that I can’t write any of the story until I’m in love with my lead. I’ll rewrite it until I’m satisfied, which usually takes way more time than I would like. I agree with Samantha when she says she wishes she would agonize just as much over the middle and end of her stories. I think that’s definitely something I need to do in order to make my stories have a bigger impact on the readers. If I took the same amount of time to rewrite and rewrite the middle of my stories, I think they would be much stronger. Just like number 15 says, I need to better guide my reader to the end. I also want to get better at immersing myself in a story and reporting voraciously (number three and five). If I’m really interested in the idea, it’s much easier for me to really get into it and report further. It’s the ideas that don’t thrill me that I have a problem getting excited about. I know in the journalism world you don’t always get to pick and choose the stories that you write. That is why I want to start learning how to really immerse myself in any story that I’m reporting on, that way the writing can be much smoother and probably make my life as a writer easier in general.

    • I also found it comforting that Clark and Fry consider agonizing over leads to be a positive trait in journalists. I had always thought this trait, as well as rewriting and writing too long, to be a negative that meant I wasn’t as good of a writer as other journalists who rarely agonize or rewrite because they love what they did the first time. I still wish I had the skill to create a great lead on the first try, but it’s good to know that my agonizing/rewriting/too long stories are actually positive traits that help me to write the best story I can.

  10. While I was reading I could definitely see myself partaking in the majority of these habits. However, I saw myself most in numbers 5, 10, 12 and 13. Devouring books and movies is probably my most obsessive trait, I am totally in love with books and movies, and I am not ashamed to admit it. I completely agree that reading good writing and critically responding to art makes one a better thinker, which usually translates into better writing. The downside of my obsession to books and movies is that I am a complete and utter snob. I have very little tolerance for bad writing and bad acting and bad directing… which makes it hard for me to make my writing more accessible to the masses. We talk about eliminating all hurtles for our readers, and I know sometimes I put them in my writing. As an English major my writing can be slightly self-indulgent at times, I’ll admit it. I have been so conditioned to look past the little things and focus on bigger themes within writing, that I tend to value stylistic choices over grammatical rules (I know, I know how terrible of me)! I need to remember that I am writing for a mass audience, and not exclusively my more literary peers.

  11. As a writer, I am most likely to connect with numbers 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13 and 14. When brainstorming ideas with others, I tend to stick with my own story ideas. I feel that I write better when I actually want to write about that topic or person. I love, love, love watching movies and reading books, which I think, leads me to favor introductions that include anecdotes or lots of detailed and colorful description and scene setting. I am very harsh on my writing and I force myself to try every idea that I have and that ends in lots and lots of rewrites. I’ll read every sentence, every word over and over again until it sounds perfect. I’ll admit that after I finish a first draft and am not feeling confident about it, that I’ll completely start over from scratch. This can be a problem but it can also be a good thing. I know that it’s very time consuming to do and as the deadline draws near, there’s a lot more pressure. I do not like writing under pressure. Some say it’s when they write their best, but I just freak out on myself and both my work and work ethic suffer.

    I wish that I were better at guiding the reader to the end. In magazines though, I’ve learned that they don’t always have to have a conclusion and can just end nicely with a quote. I also think taking chances in writing about different topics then what I am used to would help me to become a better writer overall. But, one of my biggest, most effective qualities I have in this creative industry is how much of a perfectionist I am. I think that will take me far in this field and in my work.

  12. I can see these points as part of my writing traits (1,4,5,6,10,13). I’m naturally interested in reading books, magazines and seeing movies. I love to tell stories, and I believe ‘everyone has a story’ as corny as that sounds. I’ve learned this year to immerse myself in the story. Completing a feature story in J91 has helped to throw myself into the subject I’m reporting on. At times, this can be a hindrance to habit 11: ‘remembering the reader.’ Our professor told us we become ‘experts’ writing our specific pieces. She asked me, “If someone at Walmart picked this off the shelf would they know what Spotify is?” I hadn’t actually explained what Spotify did and I assumed the reader did too. Habit 3 is something I want to work on this semester. Reporting is one of the first steps to a good story. Better organization can lead to planning out good interviews—thus leading to a good story.

  13. There are definitely recognize myself in several of Fry and Clark’s habits. I think the one that best describes me is that I “love to tell stories.” I can remember my very first article that I was assigned as an intern — it was about a painter named Robert Christy who had a really unique style of painting. Anyway, we met at a coffee shop, and spent about two hours talking, him telling me all these stories about traveling and why he painted something someway. It was really incredible, because he was so proud of his work, and loved being able to share his stories with me. It was so much fun for me to get to go back to the office and get to re-tell all his stories with my words.
    I also know that I write too long. I’ll get assignments for 500 words, and end up submitting 700 because I don’t know what to cut.

    • I think that this is a great representation of how telling stories really matters to you, I like the personal touch and I’m impressed that you have have such a great experience interviewing someone. Generally, I get so nervous and lurch through the interview as fast as possible so that I can get it over with.

      • I think it’s really easy to get overwhelmed during interviews. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be quick on my feet and think of questions off the top of my head. It’s those people with great stories who love to tell them that make our job as journalists a lot easier. I think in general people love to tell stories, but we have to do some digging to get to that one story. Us, as journalists, have to ask questions and do our reporting in order to find that one story of theirs that’s going to make our story stand out.

    • That sounds like a great reporting experience. What I love about journalism is sitting down with people and listening. For many people (and myself), it’s nerve-wracking to start up conversations, but it leads to great stories. Similarly for one story, I met a man at the east village bazaar who made art out of junk and he awesome stories.

  14. Clark and Fry mention many quality traits for writers to possess. I can relate the most to agonizing over the lead. Some stories can take me hours to start just because I’m debating and rewriting the lead. I want to be sure to grab the readers attention and get them excited to read my story. I also love to tell stories and devour in novels and movies. When possible, I like to paint a picture for the reader so they can visualize what I am explaining to them. I try to add details to describe the scene, similar to the story that started chapter 4, but I definitely have room for improvement! I do enjoy reading and watching movies. I like to stay caught up on pop culture and listen to others’ stories.

    When writing, I know I have much room for improvement. I would like to be able to see stories everywhere more easily. Sometimes I tend to not think about this, or have difficulty relating certain topics to each other. I also need to trust my ears and feelings more than my eyes, as well as take chances. When reading or editing my own story, my eyes see the mechanics and length. By trusting my ears and feelings I can improve the flow of my stories. I also feel I am pretty conservative when I write; though, I’m not exactly sure how to take more chances when writing? Perhaps with the lead, story angle or maybe a controversial topic?

    • I think one of the best ways to immerse yourself and to take a chance in a story is to add emotion. This can not be done as easily for newspaper writers as it is for magazine writers as far as voice and personality go in an article. But whatever the medium, quotes are always a great way to add emotion and in fact, can be the strongest parts of an article. Of course, readers still enjoy the colorful and detailed descriptions and relatable anecdotes, so keep those things up!

  15. I think every writer, whether journalistically, scholarly or creatively can relate to Fry’s points. Personally I find that I prefer my own ideas and am very protective of my work. In high school, if I came up with a story idea I wanted to write it because I felt I was the only one who could do it the way I envisioned the story turning out. The same goes for how I write stories. Even if I know they can be improved there is a part of me that doesn’t want to change it because it is my work.

    I also see myself in numbers 10, 11, 13 and 14. I have always, since I was a little kid, loved telling stories. I would watch my mom’s favorite show when she wasn’t home just so I could retell it to her and give a review of that week’s episode. I also devour books and movies. There have been many times where a movie I have seen spark a question that, in my opinion, would make a good journalistic article (I don’t think I ever wrote one though). Also, a big problem of mine which I found in J91 was I tend to write too long. Once I find information or quotes I like I find it very hard to cut them out and not include them in the finished product.

    I wish I was better at immersing myself in a story and taking chances. I think if I did my writing would be much stronger and more appealing to the readers. Readers want to be able to feel like they are sitting in that court room with Stuart Dim not reading his account of what happened.

    • I think you brought up a really good point – that the reader wants to feel like they were actually there and involved in the story, rather than reading someone else’s account. This is something that I recognize right away when I’m reading someone else’s articles, and it is definitely something that I need to work on.

  16. I see a little bit of myself in almost all of the habits listed above but 4 or 5 of them stuck out. I certainly “devour books and movies” and remember always doing so. I’m always searching for the next book or movie that will really get me thinking or really speak to me.
    I also immerse myself in all of my stories. This bleeds over into some other habits as well. I immerse myself in my stories because I love telling stories. I try to capture and maintain the readers attention and constantly consider the reader because I know what it feels like to be told a great story, and so always attempt to emulate that feeling.
    I could be better at seeing story ideas in everything. I’m a very “live in the moment” type of person and try to focus on what’s going on, not on what I could do later. I could also take a few more chances in my writing.
    The habit that least applied to me was number 8: “rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.” I always go through my writings at least twice, but I could certainly do more to make each piece of writing “perfect.” I have a hard time with numerous revisions because I feel, at times, that I am tampering too much with something I may have had right all along. It all comes down to finding the delicate balance between over-thinking a problem and ignoring it completely.

  17. I feel like I relate to number 8 “Good writers rewrite their rewrites”. My blog post for this class is due tomorrow and I have rewritten it 3 times already. I sit there and read my opening paragraph over and over again and it’s never right. I have been struggling with the tone of my writing. I haven’t had to write creatively, in my own voice, for a long time. Every time I try and write about my topic I sound like I am starting a 15 page research paper. I can’t settle on anything. I think it is funny that the book says “writing anxiety is real” (Fry 40) because I am experiencing it now. Additionally, from a broadcasters perspective, my “writing anxiety” amplifies. I hate watching my own packages just like a reporter hates reading their own story in a paper

    I feel like a place where I can improve my writing is in the lead. I struggled a lot in J54 because I had never reported ever. (Which may make you wonder how on earth I’m in this class) I scrutinize over my lead and I can never seem to get it right. It is never concise enough. I always try and write like it is an attention grabber in an English essay. I want to improve on my journalistic writing as much as I can from this class.

  18. Elizabeth Robinson

    Reading the characteristics stated in Chapter 4 regarding what good writers are honestly made me really happy. I thought about all the qualities good journalists and good writers possess and how I so badly want to embody these qualities. There were some that seemed to apply to my personality and tendencies and others that didn’t seem to fit so much, but perhaps will someday. First of all, when I’m working on a story I tend to fully immerse myself in it. I constantly try to think about the right words that I could use to portray an image, the right lead to grab the reader’s attention and especially the angle that will be the most unique. When I’m finally able to sit and write my story I can never just write it, I speak it. Just like the book states, I trust my ears and my feelings more than my eyes. I always read paragraphs out loud after I’ve written them and speak the words I’m writing as I type them out. It’s something I didn’t really notice that I do, but after reading this chapter and thinking about my own personal habits as a writer I realized I do have little nit-picky things that I do as I write. One thing I really wish I was better at is finding stories everywhere I go. That is the first trait that is listed: Good writers see the world in a story form. Coming up with story ideas is a struggle for me and is something that I am trying to work on. Once I get a good idea, it’s easy for me to run with it, but coming up with that initial idea is a quality that needs to be worked on.

  19. I could definitely recognize myself in:
    3. Report voraciously
    I enjoy the chase of information almost as much as the writing process. I love researching and do so in great depth. When taking notes, I write everything, often inconsequential things that later do not make sense.
    6. “Bleed rather than “Speed”
    I am unable to blaze through an article from start to finish, often all of my ideas splurge out onto the sheet of paper. This causes my rough drafts to be unorganized, unfocused and much much too long, but from there I can cut and reorganize in an effective manner.
    7. Take time to organize
    8. Rewrite and Rewrite and rewrite
    I love the rhythm of language, so if a sentence does not seem to flow as well as others I will agonize over it, changing it time and time again. Then that same sentence is relocated, reworded again, deleted, recovered and eventually finalized. If I ever reach a point in which I have mangled a paragraph beyond all recognition, it is rewritten. But after a paragraph is written in a satisfactory way they hardly change other than relocation.
    10. I love to tell stories.
    I crave the attention that a good story brings. This means that I tend to dedicate myself to an enjoyable, relevant story, but struggle with the more boring job descriptions.

    I should really make more of an effort to pursue “11. Remember the reader.” I love to tell stories, so I tend to tell them for my own benefit. However, a writer’s job is to portray a message to the reader, a mission that, when wrapped up in an engaging story, tends to escape me.

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