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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31 responses to “Writers’ Idiosyncrasies

  1. I have several writing quirks…not all of which are good ones. I generally have to have a pretty decent outline written out in my head before I sit down. I do not like to literally write anything down, if anything that makes me more confused. I have to have a great opening sentence before anything else comes out, it is very important for me to have something that sounds reasonably smart, otherwise I will delete the whole thing and start over. I have to have some kind of music or noise…to distract the other part of my brain that isn’t involved in the writing and lastly, I prefer to write at like 2 or 3 in the morning, because then I can ensure no distractions.

    • I also have to like my first opening sentence, otherwise I feel I’m going in the wrong direction and I’ll have to rewrite later. However, I cannot write in the middle of the night. I have to get a good night sleep or else I cannot function or think clear enough to write anything that makes sense. I suppose if I were on deadline and knew I had to stay up to finish a story I could do it, but it would not be by choice!

  2. I, too, have noticed some of my own writing idiosyncrasies. I have to be in a comfortable, quiet place to be happiest while writing. It’s better if there is no one else around me at the time to eliminate some distractions. I’ve found that I am terrified of writing that first terrible draft, so I edit as I go along. I’ll rewrite each sentence a thousand times if necessary; I just can’t leave a sentence there that I don’t like and keep going. This can sometimes be counterproductive and more time consuming than it might be to just get all of my initial thoughts down at once instead. Sometimes I enjoy listening to music as I write, but I prefer it if it’s music I’ve never heard before so that it can act as background music. Otherwise, I’ll have the words to the songs running through my head, which distracts me from what I’m supposed to be writing.

  3. Depending on when my assignment is due I have different quirks. If I am writing a long 15 page essay, I need to write an intense outline. I write my outline over a few weeks of collecting research. I can write my outline anywhere at any time. I love a detailed outline because then I can just pop in my research as I write. It makes it easier to focus on my content when I don’t have to worry about my research. I also have my favorite place in the library where I like to write. Depending on my mood I can crank out a paper in a few hours sometimes I spend two hours on the intro alone. By giving myself a guide I am less likely to get off track. I like complete silence if I can but if not I listen to music without lyrics, like Vitamin String Quartet.

    • I ma jealous of your extensive outlines, if I try to do that I become too focused on the process of writing the outline and then don’t apply as much while actually writing the paper. It’s really important for me to be enthused about the work and making outline burns me out on my topic.

  4. Before I write a story, I think of what I want to say. So I always have a paper and pen handy for when a great sentence or thought comes to me. I need it to be quiet when I write. I also go through all of my audio recordings from the interview and type out their quotes along with the notes I took. Then I go back and highlight what I want to use. This is usually a long process and I only do it for stories I have time to work on, but it makes me feel comfortable seeing the quotes right in front of me.

    • Last night I transcribed a 45 minute interview. It was a worthwhile effort (even if it was time-consuming). But, I agree with it being much better to have the quotes right in front of you. I had to interview a few other people and having the quotes right in front was much easier to create new questions, instead of having to randomly going through the audio or asking redundant questions.

  5. When I’m sitting down to write a first draft, I need a spot that has a lot of space. I always have my notes spread out all over the place and having a large area to work on (usually anywhere but my dorm room) is good. I get too distracted in my room so I’ve found that the library or Mars is a good place to get things done. I always listen to music while I write, usually something mellow like Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons, or Fleet Foxes. The problem I have is doing things last minute and not having my quotes written out like Rebecca. I find myself flipping back between music and the audio, trying to find certain quotes. My goal is to start transcribing my interviews before I sit down and write drafts, which will make it a much easier process.

    • I always spread out my notes, to the point that I can begin losing track of single pieces of paper. Also, I didn’t realize until just now that I cannot write well in my room. And I am pleased to report that we listen to some of the same artists when we write. I agree that it would be beneficial to take the time and transcribe interviews, but of course, who has the time?

  6. I never really thought of my pre writing process as a writer’s idiosyncrasy. I am just now realizing that every time I write a story, I do the same thing. I have to wait until maybe the day or two before it’s due. For some reason, I can’t write something weeks before the deadline. To add to the rush, I can not sit down to write an article until everything else is done; my room has to be clean, I have to have showered and put on clean clothes and all of the little things I never do (vacuum, dishes, make my bed) must be finished. Neither of those are habits that are positive to my writing, but for some reason, knowing everything is done, allows me to spend as much time on it as possible. Once I do all of those ridiculous tasks, I can sit down to start writing, but I never start with the lead…that is always the last thing I do. I write the out everything, all of my quotes and background info, the last paragraph, everything. And I know that right then, it may look like crap, but once it’s all out of my brain, I feel much better about the editing phase.

  7. My main “writing quirk” would be that I have to be alone in a quiet area or I have a terrible time concentrating. I can’t have music playing or the television turned on or anything. I get distracted by everything that’s around me, so if there are people next to me conversing, I always find myself listening to them instead of writing. This quirk isn’t very productive because I would imagine that while working in an office, you would have to deal with other writers around you talking and doing their own research. It would be nice if I could learn to tune everything out myself instead of having to go someplace quiet. Another quirk is I tend to type all of the quotes and facts I want to use first. I try to put them in some sort of an outline, then write the content in-between. I think this quirk is productive because it’s something easy to do that helps put me on track, so I’m not lost while I’m writing. Other than those two things, there’s nothing else I do that I’ve noticed.

    And I haven’t been around many other writers while they are writing (since I like to be alone in quiet places), so I haven’t noticed anyone else’s quirks.

  8. I’m like Brianna in the sense that I can’t have any distractions.

    My RA once said she thinks there should be a medical condition called College-induced ADD (kind of like sports-induced asthma). If such a thing existed, I would definitely have it. When I have homework, or tests, or articles to write, I have extreme ADD. Even this post I’m writing right now is a distraction from an article I’m writing. I went to look up a statistic to use, next thing I know I’m on Facebook, twitter, and decided to check out the J70 site. (At least I’m getting homework done though, right?)

    If I listen to music I just end up accidentally writing song lyrics in the middle of quotes. However, I can’t have it completely silent, because then I dwell on how quiet it is and my mind wanders. So, to find a happy medium, I listen to piano music. I also have a yoga music station on Pandora which works, too. I can never write successfully in my own room either. I’m not sure what it is, (maybe that there are all sorts of other things for me to do in there) but I something about the environment is just not conducive to good writing.

    I guess for me the main quirk is I need a very specific environment, or I’ll never get anything done.

  9. In order for me to write, I have to be in a “writing mood”. I need to feel inspired and when I am, I just go. Of course, because of this, you can see how I do not like short deadlines and would fail miserably at newspaper writing. I like to zone out in my own world when I write and create a bubble that no one can break through. Because when I feel like I’m on a roll, nothing can’t stop me. I have to be alone because I like talking to myself and reading the lines over and over… and yet I still have this constant need to ask someone if something sounds good or right. Everything in the environment must also be clean. I have a problem with redecorating my room and organizing things when I want to distract myself. If the environment has nice lighting and a colorful and comfy space for me to RELAX and THINK, then I feel more confident in my writing and can more easily immerse myself into a story. Music and a snack is also nice sometimes, but can also be a distraction because the lyrics playing mix with the words I’m writing down or typing. I also must have multiple word documents open because I’ll write maybe 2 or 3 different leads so I separate those and continue separate stories from there. Then at the end I merge them all together and organize the structure in the best way possible.

    • I like being alone when I write too because when I get into the “writing mood” I have to just go. I can’t stop stop to talk to anyone or listen to anyone whose trying to talk to me. I also read my stories out loud a lot, so it’s better to be alone and in a quiet place. I do like listening to music when I write. It has to be the right music though, or else I can get too distracted by certain songs. I’d definitely agree that being in a comfy, colorful space when writing is way more relaxing and easier to write in too.

  10. Before I can start writing I have to watch at least part of a television show, even five minutes. I can come back to the story with fresh eyes. I also cannot read something someone else has written before I start writing. If I do, I tend to sound like the previously mentioned writer rather than myself. When writing I have to wear my headphones (not earbuds) and listen to music (something I like, but not something I know enough to sing along to). The actual writing part is always very stressful. Once I start writing something (anything) I can build momentum and workout the story. Most of my tics are productive, but getting that first ‘something’ down can be the equivalent of pulling out teeth.

    I’ve never been around another writer during their writing process. Whenever there is an article due for a class, we all seem to separate into our own corners to write.

    • I definitely agree with NOT reading something someone else has written before you start writing. I like to get ideas about the different ways a similar story topic has been written and I’ll think that reading others’ will help me to find a different way to go about it, but in fact, I think it just makes it more difficult to break away from that person’s version and voice of the story.

  11. I always have to start an essay or a story by physically writing out my ideas first. I have notebooks filled with pages and pages of scribbled, chaotic, and practically illegible notes, but I can’t start writing anything until I get all my ideas on paper. I will very liberally apply the term “outline” to these notes considering they usually make me more confused if anything. I just need to actually write it out to get my ideas flowing. On the negative side, I tend to want to reward myself after I get a certain amount written, by eating candy, making tea, walking around my room, going on facebook etc. However, as I progress my goals for writing become less and less substantial. “Oh hey, I just wrote a sentence, FACEBOOK TIME!”

    • I also take notes obsessively and illegibly. I collect pages and pages of descriptions and quotes and facts and drafts of leads, often fragments that popped into my head at a time when they were completely unhelpful. But then I go back and type all of my notes and reorganize them so that they have some sense of order. From there I go straight into developing a lead. But the organizational process takes the longest for me.

    • Like Kelsey, I also reward myself after I have gotten a certain amount written. Usually, this isn’t productive for me because I’ll check social media sites after only writing a couple of sentences. Maybe if I wrote my articles on paper first instead of using the computer I wouldn’t be inclined to frequently check Facebook, but trying to write on paper would be irritating and lead to thousands of scribbles.

      • I definitely do the reward system if I have to time. Sometimes I allow myself a youtube video or even a piece of candy. I love the reward system most of the time. Sometimes, like Brianna said, it can back fire. It is so easy to get distracted.

    • hahaha I love that you reward yourself for writing. I do that as well. Checking my email, refilling my water bottle, brushing my teeth, etc. have all been “rewards” at some point in time for me.

    • Elizabeth Robinson

      I agree very much! I always end up physically writing things before I start to write the story. Most times it’s about the story but sometimes it’s just a way of getting random thoughts down on paper. Along with the handwritten notes, I always have tons of windows and sticky notes open on my computer, often making it difficult with so many tabs and windows open, but on the other hand helping me out a bit because everything is just right there.

  12. I am one of those people who can’t go onto their second paragraph if I don’t have the “perfect lead.” (I usually go back and edit it, but I have to be at least 95% satisfied with my lead before I move on.) Before I even do that though, I have to deal with the quotes first. I go through all of my notes and highlight the best quotes. Then I organize those quotes into an order I like and type them up. Once that is done, I bullet point information from my research near the quotes that fit with them. That way I can later turn those bullet points into actual sentences and my quotes are already there to support them. Once I start my first draft I don’t like to stop until it’s done. I have a really hard time only writing a portion of a story and coming back later to finish it. After I’ve said everything I want to say, I go back, read it out loud and edit as I go.

    I also have to have coffee within arms reach at all times while I’m writing. I have a genius mix on my iTunes account that is perfect for writing, not too loud that I want to dance, but not too quiet that it makes me want to sleep.

  13. 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?

    I also agonize over a good lead before tearing into the rest of the story. However, my writing is more focused and organized if I have thoroughly discussed my ideas out loud first. My roommates are often victims of rambling attacks when I just cannot seem to straighten out an article or paper. These “conversations” usually consist of me telling a story and all of my different ideas on how to tell the story and ultimately deciding which one I like best. At this point, I doubt that they even listen anymore, knowing that I will come to my own conclusion soon enough. Then I settle down to write at my computer at my desk with sound-canceling headphones on. I listen to new music or instrumental music to avoid the urge to sing along.
    As long as my fragmented ramblings don’t disturb anyone I think that this can only be a productive method. It helps me to organize my thoughts in my head and sometimes I even come up with a few phrases that I use when I’m writing.
    A friend of mine from high school would ask me if her sentences “sounded good.” While I understand that she was just looking for some sense of reassurance, this slowed down her writing process and my own. And after about 15 minutes of constant questioning, I would start responding positively even if I thought it needed work.

  14. I have a few full-time idiosyncrasies and a couple that are only part-time. I don’t feel productive while working at home unless I’m wearing jeans. I’m great at relaxing in sweatpants, but that’s about it.
    I almost always have a decent first paragraph before moving to the rest of my writing. Getting the first paragraph done sets the feel and pace for the rest of the work.
    Sometimes I work better with music on, but it can’t be anything new or intriguing. Organization of my workspace also matters sometimes. There are times where I can sit down in a messy room and work straight through, but other times I have to clean my desk and lay out everything I’m working on. This is probably just an elaborate form of procrastination, but sometimes it feels like an important ritual.

  15. Like Professor Van Wyke, I start the writing process in my head. When I’m in an interview and hear something interested or intriguing I start writing the story off of that quote or fact. And I continue to sketch out the story in my head until I sit down at my notebook or computer. For the most part I’ve found that I don’t like to deviate from my original plan. Once I come up with a plan I like it takes a lot for me to change how I approach the story.

    I also have to have something else going on while I write. Usually its listening to music or watching TV. Sometimes it’s more detrimental than helpful but I like working on and off with a story. That way if I get stuck I don’t feel like a complete failure, I have a scapegoat.

  16. I cannot have silence. Silence drives me crazy and all I can think about is the absolute silence and how eerie it is. When I was an undergraduate at Drake I maybe went to the library 5 times, and mostly because it’s a convenient place for groups to meet. I prefer to have soft music going in the background to put my mind at ease. I write best and think best in a calm environment (but with some noise), so at home on the couch with Pandora playing in the other room or at a coffee shop where there’s quiet conversations all around you.

  17. Just as Erin stated above, I cannot write in silence. Whether its listening to music or having the TV on in the background, I need some sort of noise to work. I also simply sit and stare at the white blank page on my computer screen, letting the ideas marinate in my head. To others I probably look like a moron who has no idea what she is doing, but to me I’m taking my time to think of the proper way to begin the story. Sometimes I wish it did not take me so long to think of a way to begin a story, but since it does I try to use my slower pace to my advantage. As you said in this article, I believe these idiosyncrasies serve as a security blanket, as a way to assure ourselves that we can do this.

    • I also work best when I have some music playing in the background as I write. However, I also tend to want to stop whatever I’m doing and sing along to songs when they pop up on my shuffle. In order to remedy this situation, I have attempted a whole host of strategies: listening to classical music, songs in other languages, or listened to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” on repeat. Unfortunately, I usually end up figuring out the words anyway (I can sing in French, apparently) and still get too engaged in my music, and have to start back at square one.

  18. Like Sam and Erin, I can’t have silence, but I also can’t have much noise. The TV would be too much, but a fan or a clock ticking (oddly enough) are ok. I also can’t have my hair down. It all has to be up in a pony-tail or bun.

    I usually am “writing” the story in my head as I interview the person, so by the time I get home I have a general idea of what I want to write. However, I never right the lead right away. It usually comes to me at some point in the writing process, and I stick it in.

  19. Elizabeth Robinson

    I know I have little idiosyncrasies when it comes to my writing, but I never really give them a second thought until I’m forced to. When I’m getting ready to write a story, I try to craft the idea or even certain sentences that I want to include in the story in my head. I’ll think of these things while I’m walking, working out, in a class…pretty much anywhere other than when I’m actually sitting down to write. A smart person would be sure to write these thoughts down right when she thinks of them…well, I’m working on that part of it, but a lot of the time I just really try to remember. When it comes time to write, I almost always start with music on and then realize that it’s too distracting so I turn it off. But I pretty much do this every time. Again, you’d think I’d learn. Before I actually start typing out my story, I write in a notebook or on a piece of paper any thoughts I have about the story, key words that stand out, anything that comes to mind as I’m sitting down to write the story. Sometimes it’s related to the topic I’m preparing to write about, and other times it’s simply the random thoughts that are cluttering my mind. Regardless of what I write, it has to be handwritten. I’m one of those people who has to get the lead right before I can move on. I always want to start the story strong and once I can make it through that first challenge of writing the lead then it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there. While I’m writing, whenever I have to stop and think, or almost whenever I’m not typing, I start braiding my hair. It’s a pretty subconscious thing, because most times I don’t even realize I’m doing it until someone points it out (which has happened several times). Finally, as I’m writing, and especially when I’m done, I always have to read my story out loud a few times before I’m completely certain it’s ok. Even in public, I always read the story out loud.

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