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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38 responses to “Writers’ Idiosyncrasies

  1. When I write a paper or a long article, I have to write it out longhand on a yellow legal pad before I type it up. For some reason, this method helps me write more quickly than if I sit in front of a computer screen. I end up typing what I’ve written anyway, so my method is a bit counterproductive in that respect.

    I tend to gravitate toward the library when I write. All the columns and articles I’ve written for the TD have all been produced in Cowles. I like a lot of open space when I’m working. Getting out of my room to write seems productive to me. It’s nice to have a bit of fresh air before I sit down to work.

    The only “tic” I’ve seen in fellow writers is procrastination. Many writers I know wait until the night before an assignment is due to get it done. I’ve heard that method produces their best results.

    • Emily, your comment about fresh air rings true for me. Before I write a story, I often take a brief, aimless walk around campus to clear my mind. I, too, leave my room to write. The change in scenery refreshes me, and I typically vary my writing locations.

    • Truman Capote wrote in longhand. And then did a complete revision in longhand. Only then would he type. So you’re in illustrious company!

    • Emily, my stepdaughter also writes everything in longhand. I think she likes how it looks on the page. Maybe, you do as well.

      I don’t think copying your longhand is necessarily counterproductive. When you are transferring the written to typing, you’re thinking about your writing again. I’m sure you don’t make a straight copy from one to the other because you probably see some things you want to changes. You’re seeing what works and what doesn’t. It becomes an editing step. If it works for you and you get your work done in time, there is nothing that anyone should say about it.

    • Writing things down beforehand always seems to work best for me as well. I can’t craft great sentences on a computer screen; it’s too stark. If I write down thoughts and phrases before heading to a computer, I can tweak them when I actually begin to write.

  2. Jennifer Heartley

    To Emily, that’s true. I can agree that waiting until the last minute makes the writing better. If there is a deadline, I get nervous and try to write the article ahead of time to stay on task. If I do that, however, I’m sitting in front of a blank word document for at least an hour. Then if I write something and take a break to do something else, there is time in between my story and my flow of words doesn’t sound as nice.

    If I wait until the last minute, I have to write it all at once, because it’s due for the deadline. Then I get more creative ideas and there are no breaks in the middle of my story. It sounds much better at the end.

    To original post, I often try to think of an idea before i sit down at a computer screen. But when I do think of that idea, I immediately go to the computer so I don’t forget what my idea was. Then the story just seems to write itself.

    This is especially true when I’m writing creatively. I’ve often sat down at a computer without any start or outline of any kind except for a vague idea and walked away within an hour with a full and complete story that I can be proud of. Each time, someone will say, “You just wrote that? In like, an hour?” But part of the reason I was able to do that was because of the very vague idea I had to begin with when I sat down at the computer.

    • Jennifer, I agree that creative writing is much easier to crank out than a more structured piece. When you write creatively, you don’t have to worry about citing sources or inserting quotes. Fact checking is often on the back burner with creative writing, which alleviates a lot of the pressure.

    • Jennifer, I have to agree with you. Sometimes, I need a deadline to get my writing self into gear. That stress starts to produce some adrenaline, and that helps focus my mind. This could be one of the reasons that many people write better with deadlines. The stress actually makes you focus on the task instead of giving into the distractions.

      Unfortunately, I like to have time to edit too. Now, I create artificial deadlines for myself, so I can be focused and have time to let the writing sit before I start to edit. I like to have it both ways.

    • Jennifer, I agree with your comment about staring at a blank word document for an hour. When I allot time for writing in advance, I obsessively (and unhurriedly) edit sentences one by one, wasting time. When I’m working under deadline, though, I write freely. Often, I prefer the stories I wrote under deadline.

      Deadlines, in my opinion, are the cure for writer’s block. When I assign time to write in advance, negativity creeps into my thoughts, discouraging me and ultimately inhibiting my writing. Under deadline, however, I focus only on my writing, my editor’s desired word count, and the clock ticking nearby. Deadline pressure, in turn, blocks negative thoughts, improving my time management and even my stories.

    • There is no way I can write a decent story more than a night before it’s due. I can make outlines and scribble out thoughts and phrases and ideas, but if I write something on a computer more than 12 hours before, it just gets deleted anyway.

    • Jennifer, I can relate to a lot of what you said about sitting at a blank document when you try to work ahead. Somehow even I try to work ahead I always think I can add something more or better later on. I admire your ability to finish a story in an hour. Usually, if there is any research involved, I could not crank out a story in an hour. I agree that sometimes too many breaks can make the writing clunky, though sometimes if I am stuck on a certain part, like an opening or a closing, a break can give me a fresh perspective.

  3. During my childhood, a trip to the furniture store promised one thing: “spinny” chairs. Today, my rotating chair attraction endures as a writing idiosyncrasy. If I’m lacking inspiration while working in the Times-Delphic office, I set my laptop aside and spin myself dizzy. Dizziness via “spinny” chair never takes long, so my habit doesn’t waste too much time. I now understand why Mom always forbade buying rotating furniture for our home.

    On a more productive note, when I write, I have to have a full water bottle nearby. Water prevents headaches, and I believe hydrated writers write better.

    I know writers who can’t work without a specific album or playlist playing, but I prefer a quiet writing environment. Writing in a noiseless setting curbs distractions, increasing my productivity.

    When I write a story, I have to write and perfect the lead before writing anything else, which is counterproductive. Often, I spend a bulk of my time crafting my lead, leaving too little time for the body and ending.

    A fellow Times-Delphic editor cannot work without wearing her favorite headband; she often calls friends to deliver it when she forgets.

    Writing idiosyncrasies create routine, and in an industry in which change is the only constant, structure is comforting.

  4. Taylor, I can relate to your need for a noiseless environment when writing. I can’t tolerate any sort of noise when I’m working on homework. Soft music and whispers send me retreating toward a less distracting area. When all of those outside distractions are nonexistent, I am forced to buckle down and write whatever it is that I’m working on.

    Also, I found the anecdote about the editor with the headband obsession quite amusing. I’d be interested to see what happens to the TD if her headband goes missing.

  5. Stumbled on this: Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors. http://www.flavorwire.com/193101/weird-writing-habits-of-famous-authors?all=1

    • Clearly, I need to either drink more, or I need a few more quirks to become a famous writer. Maybe, I just try both? 😉

    • Haha, I love the Hemingway quote about writing a lot of terrible pages before having one decent one. Professors are always saying to write as often as you can to get better and I think it shows that even the best writers have to deal with that.

  6. My environment is key to how I function. When I’m doing anything on the computer or reading, I must have music playing. It doesn’t matter what type of music; I just need something. It drives my wife and stepdaughter crazy because I don’t really like to wear headphones either and my music tends to impede other activities in the house.

    I also tend to spread my paperwork and books around me in a cocoon of ideas. Sometimes, my cocoon spans multiple rooms throughout the room, much to my wife’s chagrin. I tend to write at home because I can’t find another place that puts up with my environmental needs. Since I tend to take over my house, I would say most of these tics are counter-productive to my family.

    As for other writers, I notice a lot of people procrastinate because they need the pressure of a deadline. My wife sometimes writes things two or three times just for the fun of it. Then she’ll mine a draft for one idea and toss the rest. She aims to have that prefect idea that will make her point in one shot. My stepdaughter writes everything in longhand and doesn’t like using a computer for writing. Her writing is actually very pretty, and I like she likes how it looks on the page. Her writing becomes a symbol of her aesthetics.

    • Jeff, I have to many friends that inhabit the same ways you do and I’m quite jealous that you guys can actually focus with the bus of noise in the background. I get completely sidetracked with any kind of words speaking/singing in my ears! Your daughter must be a journalist or writer in the makings by the sound of it! Good for her too, she has someone to look up to and follow with great passion.

    • Jeff, I can relate to having all your paperwork scattered nearby. I saw a piece on “CBS Sunday Morning” one time where they showed the reporters’ desks, and they were all messy and filled with books and paperwork, so you’re in good company.

  7. Reading everyone else’s posts, I realize that I haven’t paid any close attention to any “quirks” that I have. But maybe it’s only because I don’t notice their quirkiness.

    For one, I’m that person who cannot move on to the next graf before finishing the lede. I must write in chronological order. Unless I’m undertaking a massive feature, I rarely ever, probably never, organize beforehand. I just have at it. Maybe that’s bad. Usually, though, I have the lead in my head already because I keep an eye out for lead ideas while reporting. That’s always helpful. But it’s when I haven’t thought of any lead ideas that I end up staring at a blinking cursor for much too long.

    I base the flow of my article on the quotes I’ve gathered. I highlight quotes in my notebook that I think are worthy of including, and part of the reason why I always write so long is because I have this obsession with fitting all of the quotes I like somewhere into the story. I’m in the process of ridding myself of that issue. Little steps.

    When attempting to be creative, I can’t handle any background noise. Standard news article? Fine. But if it’s a feature, I need silence.

    I don’t know any writers with quirks nearly as interesting as needing a lucky headband. Too funny!

  8. Thinking back on the writing I’ve done in the past year or so, the only thing I can think of that I’ve kept in common is the time of day I’m writing: the morning. I have this idea implanted in me that my brain functioning is highly dependent on how tired it is, so naturally, it would ‘make sense’ for me to not write at night when it’s on the decline, but in the morning when things are ‘fresh.’

    It hardly makes sense, but is entirely necessary to my writing. I think it’s a stabilization thing–feeling balanced and ‘centered’ yields a reflective tone in the writing. Nothing else seems to matter–background noise, coffee/no coffee, even people or no people–as long as it’s done before noon.

  9. Oh boy, here we go! I can’t believe some people can barely list anything but a handful.
    1)To concentrate & complete a solid piece of work I must be focused/in a quiet & peaceful area
    2)Depends on the assignment but some music is to be played (quietly)
    3)My working space must be organized (not cluttered, but scattered appropriate to my standards)
    4)A source of water/hydration in the corner of my working area
    5)technology near — I like to check the time randomly
    6)sticky note/tablet with a to do list in order of how to proceed with tasks
    7)to get quality work done, no people around/no food in front of me

    Everyone has there own quirks to accomplishing what needs to get done. I personally just think that is the way of life and why we are so unique and different from one another. Some people like to jam and others don’t. Some like to snack and others don’t. I personally enjoy the fact that my habits may be quite different from others, but does that all really matter? Doesn’t the outcome or finished product make all that weirdness in everyone’s habit’s all worth the unique differences? The end product, that’s what matters. The end.

  10. I first must make sure that my hands are washed, and if they dry out I have hand lotion near by. I don’t like to write or type with dirty hands. It doesn’t matter if I have washed them 10 minutes ago, if I need to start writing, I go wash my hands again. Weird, right?

    I also make sure to take a lot of breaks. I’ve heard its good to take small breaks every 15 minutes. I either check Twitter, refill my water or coffee, send a quick text, or wash my hands again. I don’t think that this is counterproductive, because I feel that you just need a break after a little while. It helps clear your head and you may think of something while your taking a sip of water that you wouldn’t have thought of before while staring at the screen.

    I also talk to myself quite a bit when working. Usually I keep it quiet enough that I don’t get too many weird glances from people. I think it is helpful to verbal say what you’re trying to write to see how it sounds out loud.

    • That’s really funny about you washing your hands before you write. Very sanitary and funny. I’ve seen a lot of people talking to themselves while they write and I feel like it’s actually a great habit to have since you’re always supposed to read what you write aloud to make sure it sounds good.

    • Cecily, I talk to myself ALL the time when I write. I usually don’t write in public places for that very reason. Reading work aloud does help me, too, and sometimes I talk myself through the writing process and through transitioning. Definitely helpful!

  11. When I’m going to get started writing an article, I have to make about five different outlines. I used to just make them on my computer and have it be my basic ideas written down with me going back deleting and adding more. I also make lists in my phone of ideas that I come up with while I’m thinking about the article for days at a time.
    Recently, I’ve picked up the habit of turning my ideas and outlines into typography. When I have an idea, I get out all of my colorful pens and my yellow legal pad and start writing everything in different fonts and colors with a lot of decorations. I’m thinking it has something to do with my love of Pinterest and all of the typography on there. I do the same thing with my to-do lists and don’t want to start doing anything on my list until it’s cute and colorful.
    I also have to move around a lot when I’m working on things. If I’m working on a long paper, I’ll relocate to about five or six different spots in the library. I don’t take a break or get coffee or talk to anyone, I just get up and move to a new seat. I guess it’s just nice to have a different place to think.

    • You have given me some things to think about! I like the idea of moving around while writing – and avoiding the typical distractions of long breaks for food or social time. That movement would make for a quick break that would still allow you enough time to get your blood flowing, and give you a rest from the writing at hand. I think I am going to try this sometime!

  12. I tweeted a picture almost a year ago (thanks, Timehop) of a little space in my old room in GK entitled “where the journalistic magic happens.” It was the space between my bed and wardrobe, approximately 2 feet wide, filled with blankets, a pillow, my trusty laptop, a box of Berry Berry Kix and a small lamp. For every assignment I had to write that semester, this was the only place I could ever get anything done. I was trapped, which was probably the main reason I was there, because otherwise I would hop around the room or visit a friend upstairs or watch Glee or something else equally as unproductive. It was a sweet space of writing heaven.

    Thinking back on this, I can identify a few musts for my writing to happen:
    1. Complete and absolute quiet. I will passive-aggressively imagine hitting you in the head if you so much as sneeze. No music, no talking, no chip eating, nothing.
    2. If there is ever music playing, it has to be Christmas music. That way, I get excited, and I know all the words and tunes, so I’m not distracted.
    3. Food, because I need something to crunch on that isn’t the end of a pencil. Freshman 15 was gained solely from writing assignments.
    4. Blankets/pillows. I can’t sit at a desk or a couch or in a car without having something on or covering my lap. We’ll call it the Linus syndrome.

    • FOOD. Such an essential part of my life. I agree, my college 15 has come directly out of homework assignments – especially the ones that require extensive writing. The food keeps you awake, keeps you going, and also, gives you a reason to justify taking a break! Additionally, I also like to have a blanket or pillow covering my lap. Maybe it’s an unconscious desire to cover up the 15 big ones I’ve gained these last three years….

  13. Kerri, I love the idea of your journalism niche. Before undertaking a story, sometimes I also need that feeling of being “all set” with my snacks, a blanket, a clean surface. It minimizes any urges to leave my “writing post.” But I have absolutely no idea how you handle listening to Christmas music while writing. For me, the urge to want to sing along and know all the words is THE distraction of all distractions.

  14. I’m not sure if I have any consistent idiosyncrasies. But I definitely know how to procrastinate (are indulging in these idiosyncrasies a form of procrastination?). Before I can write, I often need to have written a concise list of all the things I need to do. Usually I’ll have some coffee nearby. Food, too, is an essential aspect of my completing work. But mostly, I think I procrastinate until I just can’t afford to procrastinate any longer. I need a good chunk of time to work, a quiet environment far away from any beds I can crash on, and nourishment to keep me awake and productive. If I have these three needs met, I am then able to proceed.

    In general then, I do think these idiosyncrasies are a form of procrastination. They need to occur or be met in order for a writer to proceed, and they are just another step in the writer’s preparation toward being ready to write.

  15. My writing patterns have changed depending on my schedule. I used to always write at night when my kids were in bed, but now I tend to write more in the early morning after I have had some sleep. It depends when I can find the time.
    As a deadline approaches, it forces the writers block to subside as the words find their way onto the page. Sometimes the story itself dictates the circumstances. Some stories just come easier than others. While an approaching deadline forces the words onto the page, it can leave me wishing for more time for self editing.
    My writing patterns have changed as the technology has changed. At one time I wrote on legal pad or notebook paper, then typed onto the desktop computer. Later I preferred writing on the desktop. Now, I write almost exclusively on my laptop, which I can take with me almost anywhere I can find a power source. Lately, I’ve accomplished a lot at my favorite table at Smoky Row. I think the act of writing somehow lends itself to procrastination, but maybe that’s just me.

  16. I feel that my main quick or idiosyncrasy is definitely procrastination. I don’t know why this is, but it seems that I waste so much more time if I start work on an article very far in advance of when it’s due. I also feel that what I write is actually worse than what I would write while under pressure.

    This habit has, of course, led to some frustrating and sleepless nights, trying to revise a feature piece before it’s due the next morning. Maybe this is an idiosyncrasy that would be more functional and useful if changed slightly, but not removed from how I work.

  17. I tend to procrastinate until the night before or even hours before a deadline to write. It is easier for me to buckle down and focus if I am under pressure. I also write more effectively on a computer than free hand because I really dislike my handwriting.

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