Habits of Good Writers

Posted by Jill Van Wyke
Sept. 10, 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 there traits on this list that you wish were a habit of yours? How would they make your writing life easier/better?

Post your response by classtime Wednesday.



13 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. Numbers two, eight, 10, 13 and 14 describe me the most. I’m constantly rewriting my work to achieve perfection. At the same time, I try to squeeze in as much free-reading and movie-watching as I can.

    I really wish I was more adept at seeing stories everywhere. Sometimes, I’ll be able to sniff out a good story immediately. More often than not, it takes a bit of digging for me to realize where the stories are.

    If I improved my ability to locate stories, I would be able to crank out articles much faster.

  2. Jennifer Heartley

    Once in awhile I am the writer who completely gets immersed into a story and eventually I get to where I know too much about it and have a hard time editing out my bias.

    When I have a lot of homework from classes, and I take on an article for the TD, I am definitely the slow writer, but with reason.

    I wish I was a “walking dictionary” or rather a “walking AP style book”, then I would never have to worry about checking to see if I made a mistake anywhere.

    I never completely delete a story. I may start over when I have an extended deadline and I think the story needs it. But I never get rid of the other one, I keep records of past writing examples both good and bad.

    I never thought of the phrase, “make it sing”, but I wait to start typing until I feel like I have a good creative start.

    I always search for that “human side” of the news not only to make my readers more interested, but also to keep me interested so that the story is more fun to write.

    I do write to please myself and often expect my readers to see the story as something worth reading. And my editors often play the role of the reader in order to tell me what to expect from their natural reactions and how to make it better.

    I also like to try unconventional ways of writing, but i don’t do this often, because if you wear it out, it isn’t as unique and surprising when it succeeds.

    I am always spending all of my free time on movies and novels of any size, shape, and form.

    And yes, I know that I write too long, and I expect it when I have something published/edited and many parts of it are cut. I’m just disappointed when the part that was cut was a part I was especially proud of.

  3. I see several of my habits Clark and Fry’s list of habits of good writers, namely habits 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, and 14. After becoming a graduate student, I rewrite things all the time. I think I have become more of a perfectionist when I came back to school because I don’t remember putting this much effort into writing. I sometimes have problems with a quick first draft because I spend too much time tweaking what I have just written. When I edit my writing, I’m usually trusting my ears and feeling rather than my eyes because I imagine how it would look to someone else seeing it. That’s why I like to have my wife look over my writing. If she understands what I’m trying to say, than someone else will too. I believe it is far easier to cut something that’s long than to come up with new material, so I’m avid over-writer. Besides, anything worth saying should be worth saying completely, leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind. Lastly, I read as much as I can because I just love knowing things.

    There are a couple of traits I wish I exhibited more. I wish I saw stories easier. Sometimes, I get caught up in the process of finding my place to start, and I waste a bunch of time. I also think I waste a bunch of effort by not taking the time to organize. I sometimes do the same work twice when I didn’t have to do. On the flip side, I sometimes benefit when I see something from a different perspective by looking twice. Many times, the benefit is not worth the extra effort.

  4. 1. see stories everywhere. – When I am not on hiatus from burn out, I see stories often. If I am attending a public meeting, there is usually a story there waiting to be told. When I attend some of my education classes I may see a story in an inspirational teacher who is an integral part of turning around a school with an entire student body living near or below the poverty or another school with students so diverse that some live in mansions and others are brand new to this country and do not speak English, yet they all learn together as equals. Some stories I see appeal to a specific audience, though if it is done a certain way it can appeal to a wider audience. It is exciting when an untold story is brought to light to the general public, and people express their appreciation for your work.
    2. prefer their own ideas. This is usually true, but I am open to other ideas from others and then run with my own ideas of where the story should go.
    3. report voraciously
    4. agonize over leads. Maybe I should spend more time on this – I usually jump in with the story typing along with what is at the forefront of my mind, then rearrange and add on as needed. As one section is completed I think of other parts of the story and where they should fit in.
    5. immerse themselves in their story. If I don’t do this or can’t focus, then I usually end up feeling as if the story is not all that it could be.
    6. “bleed” rather than “speed.”
    7. take time to organize.
    8. rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I definitely do this unless it is a breaking news story with very little time before the deadline.
    9. trust their ears and feelings more than their eyes.
    10. love to tell stories. This is only in true in writing when I have the time to organize, research, write and rewrite. When I try to tell a story while speaking it just pales in comparison and I have trouble organizing all my thoughts and ramble off the subject.
    11. remember the reader. Yes, definitely, as I read what I have written I try to think of the reader and if the story flows and makes sense to someone who has not been doing the same research that I have.
    12. take chances – Hmmm, after reading this, I now have the justification to take more chances “My JMC70 class said I should take chances.”
    13. devour books and movies.- I was a former film student and love movies and how a great movie pulls together all the elements of language as well as visual elements and music and sound effects to tell a powerful, emotional story. I should spend more time reading books, though I do read articles often and enjoy reading and researching for writing stories.
    14. write too long — and they know it. Yup. I can keep it short if I have to, but unless I am told to cut it down or given a specific word count, then I try to be thorough and tell the whole story.
    15. guide the reader to the end. I think this goes along with number 11, if you are thinking of the reader, you are taking them on a journey and guiding them to the end is part of that journey.

  5. The traits listed by Clark and Fry that I most identify with are number 5 (immerse themselves in their story), number 9 (trust their ears and feelings more than their eyes), number 10 (love to tell stories), 13 (devour books and movies) 14 (write too long). I will say, when I am passionate about a story I’m writing, it makes me want to go out and experience whatever it is that I am writing about. I once wrote an article about marketing to Hispanic Americans for another class, and so I decided to start shopping at Mexican grocery stores for a few weeks just for fun so that I could get an idea of how they are being marketed to.

    I have always loved telling stories. I am one of those people that likes for people to know what’s going on with me and I like to know what’s going on in the lives of those I care about. My friends and family are always telling me that I talk too much about the same subject and I never let conversations die because I’m always asking questions and wanting to expand on what has already been said.

    If I am not in class, I am usually reading a book or watching movies with friends. When I write first drafts, I always always always write at least 200-500 words too many for my word count and end up having to cut out parts that I feel are extremely important (in my opinion).

    I definitely need to work on coming up with my own quality story ideas and being more confident with my own ideas over the ideas of others. I tend to look to other people for their opinions too much and I forget to try making my own decision first.

  6. Like an ancient automobile, my stories sputter to life, groaning, rumbling, and clanging en route to the desired word count. My writing “bleeds” rather than “speeds.” Painstakingly and sometimes tearfully, I obsessively write and rewrite, lest one word tarnish my entire story.

    Leads, especially, receive my utmost attention (and obsession). Usually, I write two leads and work on both, back-and-forth. When it’s time to select a lead, I tally each lead’s words; usually, but not always, I pick the shorter lead.

    Guiding readers from the story’s beginning to end is also key for me. I use transitions and repeat key words to direct my readers through the story’s body. If possible, I parallel my lead and ending to bring the story full circle.

    Careful organization also describes me. I arrange and rearrange my paragraphs, sentences, and words, monitoring my story’s organization from the reader’s perspective.

    Although I recently watched “Mean Girls,” I can’t claim movie buff status. I wish I habitually watched movies and read novels. Reading and watching others’ work is a critical part of developing my own writing style. Reading novels exposes me to writing styles both like and unlike my own, encouraging experimentation and even emulation.

    Experimentation, or taking chances, as Clark and Fry use, is another habit I wish I had. Often, I stick to trusty but predictable techniques, restricting inventiveness and improvement. Writers learn what works by learning what doesn’t work.

  7. Two and five sort of go together. When I find a feature that I am dying to write, I’ll think about the story constantly. I’ll go to bed thinking of possible leads, possible endings, possible ties to the leads and endings. I do immerse myself in those stories I find on my own. But when I am assigned a story, I don’t strive for that same creativity. I work more towards the editor’s story assignment expectations rather than challenging them with my own ideas.

    4. I’m obsessed with writing a good lead. This goes more for big features I’m working on. If I’m going to write something over 5,000 words, I sure as hell better convince the reader very early on that it’s worth finishing. I feel like leads are little windows into humanity. They should be as descriptive as possible; that’s why I love them.

    8. I’m iffy with this one, because I definitely always feel like the story could have been better as I cringe while reading it in print. But I don’t revise enough while I have the story at my fingertips. I like to write once thoroughly and then “tweak” it. But yet the more I read through large features I’ve written, the more I wish I could have changed this or that when I had the chance.

    This may not at first make sense, but I see 11 (remember the reader) and 12 (taking chances) going together. There can be two perspectives from an editor when reviewing my work: a, I fail the reader because no reader wants to read something five million words long. Or b, I challenge readers because I take a chance on them, hoping that they’ll be drawn into the story enough at an early stage so that they’ll read all the way through. My biggest fear is always that readers will be deterred by the length of my story, or that an editor will cut it to shreds. So I experiment with creativity to make the story more reader-friendly. People don’t like humdrum. This also goes along with guiding the reader to the end. I strive for creative, full-circle writing so that readers can make connections throughout the story to keep interest.

    10. I love to tell stories. That’s basically why I’m in this business.

    14. And lastly, I write too long–and I know it. To put this into perspective, on my last project, a fellow editor recommended I cut 7,000 words. There may or may not have been some disagreement. Or, a more concrete example: this blog post, as I have now realized. Sorry, readers.

  8. Like many other writers I am not always fully satisfied with my writing. I always feel like I’m challenging myself, but not in the right ways. In a way like I’m missing something about writing that I shouldn’t be. There are still a few of Clark and Fry’s habits though that I see in myself that are hard to dismiss. I can see 2, 4, 6, 7, 10 and 14.

    I am known for asking millions of questions, being over-the-top curious and wanting to reach out all on my own with my own ideas. Leads are like the death of me. I could rewrite a lead over 10 times and still want to criticize every bit of it. I can never seem to get it on pin-point like other writers can. I take to much time considering and reconsidering every last detail of my sentences and sentence structure. I feel as if it’s a competition between me and all the other amazing writers and I will never be as talented. That is part of the reason why organize is my one edgy aspect against other writers. I think way to much into the material, sometimes over-thinking it too. I am also known for going on and on with lists. I enjoy my comma’s as much as I enjoy my sushi and well people by now probably already know that sadly enough. My sentences are just like tool 7 of Writing Tools by Clark, but I don’t just fear them I hand them out like candy.

    I really hope to learn the inside scoop about writing to become a better one. By becoming a better writer, I would be able to be a more confident and successful writer. Sometimes I just need the extra “you’re doing this right Nicole,” to keep my spirit up and my writing in the correct direction.

  9. I can identify with the “agonize over leads” point. They’re the hardest part of a story, and I often have to take a step back, write the body and come back later.

    I am definitely obsessed with organization of stories. Creating a path of clarification and simplicity of understanding for the reader is one of the most important aspects of a story. I could take weeks to layout an outline and form for a story before I write it. Often, I spend more time on that then actually writing.

    When it’s a story that I’m actually interested in writing, I immerse myself in my stories. I’m usually selfish when writing; picking topics that I want to learn more about or I find confusing. When this is the case, I become very invested in gathering all the information I can and explaining it in a simple, understandable way.

    I don’t read as much as I should, I don’t rewrite as much as I could and I don’t note everything I observe. When getting back on the saddle after an extended period without writing, these are the flaws that I find most fatal to my writing process. It’s hard to catch up sometimes.

  10. I think that the characteristics that I have are those of numbers 1,2,4,5,10, 13, especially number one. I agree with the book that every where I go I feel like I find an idea for a story, especially driving around somewhere. Along with coming up with all of these ideas, I prefer them to using someone else’s ideas. When you come up with an idea for a story that I’m really excited or passionate about it’s my best work. When I’m using someone else’s idea and I feel like I’m pulling teeth because I’m writing about something I’m not extremely excited about. This leads me into number 5. I think that immersing myself into the story is one of the things that I do best. When I’m working on a story, I like to know every little possible thing about it. I end up thinking about it a lot and will do a ton of research to ensure that I’m as informed as possible. When I wrote a story about anorexia blogs last year, I spent all of my time that I usually spending perusing the internet looking through blogs and “thinspiration” boards. I felt like it made my story so much stronger in the end.

    What I wish I was better at: 12, 14. I feel like I’m still getting used to writing stories and I don’t take nearly as many chances as I should. I take chances in my topic and stray outside of something that I see myself typically doing but a lot of times in my writing I’ll write out something that’s a little bit more daring, delete it, and then go back to something average. I also really, really wish that I was 14. If I’m very excited about a topic I write too much but other than that I tend to be on the short side. I think it’s because I’m used to trying to get the shortest, most concise story possible with broadcast news that I haven’t fully gotten used to longer pieces.

  11. There are a handful of these traits that describe the way that I write. In general, it takes me a long time to get anything on the paper – whether that is for a news story or an essay. I spend huge amounts of time simply writing the first three sentences, and especially when it comes to writing leads, I struggle to ever be satisfied. While this is frustrating because of the amount of time it takes to finally get something decent, it also means that by the time I am finished with my story, I am pleased with my lead. But it takes a while to get there. Another habit I have, is that I rewrite my rewrites, which means a story that could take a few hours to write, often takes a few days. Lastly, I read a lot. I love to read. And I believe reading has and continues to strengthen both my news writing and my academic writing.

    The list includes many habits that I do not have and wish I did. First, I have difficulty locating good stories – I do not see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. I wish I did, because it would be a whole heck of a lot easier to be a reporter. I often tend to gravitate toward the same sort of story, and am much more scared to step out of my comfort zone and do something different. I am scared to take chances. In addition to struggling to find stories, I also struggle to tell the story. While I pride myself on my writing abilities in some settings, I have never considered myself a storyteller. I have a few friends who are simply incredible at telling stories. And that has never been me.

  12. One of the habits that really jumped out at me was number 6. I can agonize over a paper or article, second-guessing every word and rewriting sentences over and over as I go when I have tons of time to work on it. However, I seem to be able to get more done, and faster, when I am working against a deadline. It has gotten to the point where I wonder if it is not just more efficient to wait to write the piece still allowing enough time for editing, but not enough to over-analyze the entire piece.

    I suppose that over-analyzing is a sign that the writer cares about the piece, but in a busy college schedule, one may not always have the time to dedicate that a professional might. Being more decisive is something I am working on improving, although for now it seems I might need that added pressure of a looming deadline to make quick editing and writing decisions.

  13. When reading this chapter, the traits that I possess jumped right out to me. The ones that I don’t have, were a little bit harder to identify. I think that’s because often we focus on the positive traits that we have, and not always on the ones that we need to work on. That’s just how life goes.

    I definitely identify with 10, 11, and 13 the most. I love to tell stories, just ask my roommates and friends. So when I get a chance to write about a story/create a story, I am all over it. Also, when writing I tend to think a lot about the reader. If the paper is a more serious, critical analysis for one of my classes, I am thinking about the professor who will read it, and I also think about potential readers. When I write something not quite as serious, I still think about my readers. I want to create something that they can easily read, identify with, and something that will intrigue them. Naturally, I devour books and movies. More so books than movies. This summer I was reading four books at once, which was confusing, but somehow I managed it. I love the feeling of starting a new book, the excitement and intrigue to keep reading. I

    The traits that I need to develop more are 4,7 and 12. I often don’t spend enough time working on my leads. Personally, I want to get to the rest of the paper/story because that’s where I feel the most meat is. But in reality, If you don’t have a strong and meaty lead, no reader will want to continue on to read the rest of the piece.I also need to learn to take more time to organize my piece. Sometimes I get so flustered to just start it, that I don’t take the time to sit down and organize the entire direction of the piece. And finally, I don’t take enough chances. I do what makes me comfortable and I don’t take too many leaps. I hope that this is something that I can develop during my final year at Drake.

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