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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10 responses to “Writers’ Idiosyncrasies

  1. I have a few idiosyncrasies that I do before I can sit down and write. I have to have all of my notes and interviews organized. I usually write down in a notebook what I want the order of things to be before I ever actually write something. I basically map out the whole story. It makes me feel like writing the story isn’t as scary now that I have everything planned out. Things almost always change once I start writing, but it just makes me feel better. I always have to write a lead before I go on and do anything else. It definitely doesn’t have to be a good one because I always end up changing it anyway, but it helps me get started. I also have to be listening to music. It can’t be very loud otherwise I would get distracted and I usually listen to Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall.” I have no idea why. It’s the perfect writing/studying album. I think for the most part my idiosyncrasies are productive. Music helps me focus and block out distractions around me and for me organizing my thoughts helps me figure out what I’m trying to accomplish.

    I know a lot of people that stress out about being in a completely quiet place to be able to write something. I understand wanting it to be quiet when you work, but I have to have a little background noise or else the silence would distract me. I personally find it annoying when people wait until last minute to write something even though I know a lot of people do it. It’s just annoying to me because I am clearly very organized and I can’t write if I feel the pressure of a deadline that is hours away. I can understand, however, why people do wait until the very end to write something. It forces them to sit down and put words down. They don’t have any time to waste anymore and it probably ends up being very productive for them.

  2. When I am working on a piece, I also have difficulty putting words on the page without spending a good amount of time contemplating possible versions of the article beforehand. I usually run or exercise while I consider my approach to the article and I can tell if I am having a difficult time deciding on a good approach when I am running faster than usual.

    When I think I have spent a sufficient amount of time mulling my article, I sit down to write. I go through my notes and highlight what I think are the most important facts that I might like to use in my article.

    My biggest set back comes once I start writing. I get very uncomfortable working on articles and sitting for a long period of time. I start by moving to a different coach or chair. Occasionally I think and write standing up. When worse comes to worse I chew gum to reduce some of my anxiety. It always seems the closer the deadline the harder it is to write in a ‘normal’ environment.

    In general I do not do anything exceptionally odd but I have developed a bit of a routine to meet me deadline and keep my sanity.

  3. I am a well known procrastinator both among my family and my friends. Because of this, I will try to put everything off to the last minute, and by then I’ll be to the point of throwing everything down without much thought about where it’s going. I’ve come up with a little trick for myself, which is to pretend I have a deadline for that night to get something done before it’s actually due. I work the best under stress, and am able to get most of my thoughts down on paper in a readable way.

    The night before I start writing, I also try to start thinking through new leads and how I would want to word something. I get my biggest inspiration by thinking about important pieces I have to write and usually come up with something witty or inspiring for a lead that I never would have thought of if I was simply sitting in front of my computer looking at a blank word document.

    Other than that I don’t have some weird tick or action I have to do to get the creative juices flowing. I do know of many writers, however, that have certain things they do before they start writing, including my roommate. Before any big paper is due, she has to have ingested at least two bottles of chocolate milk and a strawberry fruit rope. No idea why, but if she’s writing chances are she’s already consumed those food items. I think it’s as important for her to do these things as pretending like I have a deadline is for me, in that you’ve produced wonderful work by doing those things beforehand that it’s sure to work a second time as well.

  4. Like Taylor, I also tend to procrastinate and then write under pressure. I usually make sure that I have all my reporting and quotes typed out. Then, I organize all the information in the order I want to convey it. By this point, it’s usually pretty late at night, so I get my gum, put in my headphones and type away. Once I’m in this locked-in zone, I’ll get the piece done straight though. I don’t usually stop for breaks, but will feed off adrenaline to keep going until I’m done. Although this is definitely not the most sensible approach to take, I do feel that my procrastination process is ultimately productive. I feed off the nervous energy of deadlines and late night writing sessions.

    Unlike Professor Van Wyke, I have to have my perfect lead before I can write the rest of a story. I’ll spend a long time searching for the right opening phrase, re-organizing words, changing up punctuation and reading out loud to make sure I feel good about the lead. Once this is settled, I can plow through the rest of the story and come back to re-read again out-loud to catch any mistakes. Although I may get some odd stares while repeatedly mumbling at my computer, hearing the combination of words and phrases helps me ensure that I’m communicating clearly and that the piece flows smoothly.

    On the other hand, I have known a few writers who had some more quirky writing idiosyncrasies. For instance, another intern I work with will take a break every five minutes while writing a story. But my ultimate favorite writing quirk was a high school colleague who had a pump-up song she played every time before she started writing. Once the computer screen was up, she would put on some AC/DC, do a little fist-pumping dance, and start slamming on the keyboard. Although I laughed at first, I soon realized all writers are fairly strange and we just have to do whatever works.

  5. AC/DC pump-ups, Pink Floyd, strawberry fruit rope — nothing surprises me anymore. I’ve heard of lucky headbands, clean hands and hand lotion, color-coded pens, Berry Berry Kix, Christmas music, showering, a made bed, brushing teeth, open windows, hair in a bun, and so on. Hey, whatever works.

  6. I am another one of those writers who needs a lead before I can write anything else. As far as the rest of the story goes, I will write in any order until the whole story has been written and then go back and put it in order. As long as the lead gets written first, I can write everything else out of order.

    Once I start something, it consumes my thoughts until I finish it. I will work on it for hours straight and if I don’t finish it, it will be the first thing I come back to, even if I have other things that should be done first. However, I am not as bad as a friend I have who will shut the world out completely for hours on end in order to finish a paper.

    I have to have my water bottle with me while I am writing anything. I go through so much water while I am writing. Sometimes I don’t even realize I am doing it. I honestly think I picked the quirk up from a friend since she has to have water all the time as well, and we do homework together every day.

    As far as music goes, it depends on what I am working on, but usually I have to stick with soundtracks and other instrumental-only music.

  7. When I’m sitting down to write a story I always do a rough, and I mean rough, draft first. I don’t type it, I just sit down, and all but make scribbles on paper about what stood out the most to me about the interviews etc. I know this is the most chaotic manner of collecting my thoughts, but I hate typing before I have my key stand out points down on paper.

    Also, I hate writing without music. I think the music is usually more of a distraction than an attention focuser. I just hate quiet, it stresses me out.

    However, the oddest idiosyncrasy I participate in is the paragraph finished chair spin. Whenever a spin chair is available, and I actively seek them out, after every paragraph I complete I give myself a little victory spin. Arms in the air, feet off the ground, goofy smile on face — the whole nine yards.

  8. Well, I feel a lot better about myself now that I know I’m not the only one who does weird things before and while working on a story. I also have a routine that helps me get my stories done.

    First of all, I’m a procrastinator, but I like procrastinating because I feel better during crunch time. There’s something about feeling pressured that makes me try harder. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I work this way in everything I do. In fact, most if not all of my best work was done right before the deadline. Yes, it’s annoying for the people I work with, but I only feel motivated when I know that there will be consequences.

    While I’m procrastinating, I work on developing an outline, creating a source list for fact-checking, I type my quotes, and I also work on finding my lead or at least brainstorming ideas for my lead. So yes, I don’t actually start writing until right before my deadline.

    Since I procrastinate, I don’t have time for distractions. This means that I ignore everything and everyone until I’m done. I prefer to be alone in a quiet place where I can get comfortable. I like to wear yoga pants, have my hair completely out of my face, and I usually bury myself in blankets. When I say comfortable, I mean comfortable. While I’m typing away, I’ll also move around–a lot. I’ll sit for a while, but I eventually end up lying on my tummy.

    Professor Van Wyke is right about training editors to be psychologists–or maybe we should just hire psychologists. We need one or the other because it’s important to understand the way writers work. I’m not bothered by other writer’s tics, because I recognize that I have my own and as long as we get our stories done well, than who cares if we have some interesting behaviors. Now, if these idiosyncrasies are affecting others or the writer’s work is not meeting the standards, than the writer should seek ways to change or improve his or her tendencies.

  9. I have so many idiosyncrasies. I always, always have to be chewing gum and drinking a red bull. I can’t focus otherwise. This goes for my designing. And I absolutely can’t write with someone staring over my shoulder (even if that is just in my head).

    These are annoying mainly when I’m expected to just write something up in the middle of a class. If I do it is without a doubt not anywhere near what it could be. Nonetheless, the gum and red bull quirk help me focus. I get into a zone if I have both.

    Another thing, that I have seen a majority of writers do at some point, is bullet point or list out the topics they will be discussing on with pen and paper before typing it up. I know it helps me create a train of thought that I can build around while typing. In this sense I think these tics help that person get into their groove. Find what they want to say. It’s a physical manifestation of the tip-of-tongue phenomenon, as a psychological perspective, to the writing process.

  10. How To Make It To 'Ever After'

    I’m the type of person that has to have everything clean. And I mean everything. The desk has to be wiped down, all my clothes put away, jewlery neatly put in a box, bed made, and of course the carpet vacuumed. Then a candle lit, some sort of drink or snack and wearing yoga pants. I absolutely can not write in jeans or skirt or shorts.

    I feel as though this may be some what counter-productive because this takes some time to set everything up but I truly do feel better when everything is clean. Once that’s all done I just start typing, just word vomit all over the page until I have nothing left to say. Then I go back and try to make sense of it.

    A super annoying “tic” a writer had in my first journalism class was the curse of a leg that couldn’t stay still. His leg would shake so much under the table it caused the table to move and a slight rattling noise. Did he seem to care? Not at all. He did it every time- so much the class started betting on it. My teacher ended up sending him to a desk in the back because it became a disruption.

    I think you worded it perfectly, it’s kind of like a security blanket that we had when we were little. These weird habits we have when we write make us feel more comfortable with the piece and has become such a ritual that it almost feels wrong not to do them.

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