Habits of Good Writers

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 6 p.m. Sunday. Then, return to the blog discussion before class time Monday morning to read your colleagues’ posts and respond/comment on them.

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30 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. I’m a fervid writer. I began devouring books (#13) and passionately crafting stories the moment I ditched my diapers and discovered words. I dig deep into the nitty-gritty details and impact of my writing pieces, so I’ve got the “bleed” rather than “speed” on lock (#6). When I write, the story consumes me, and I find myself wandering through days with sentence structures on my mind (#5). I prefer my own homegrown ideas (#2), and I genuinely adore the art of storytelling (#10), especially when characters are equally passionate for their tales (I once interviewed a student about a heart-wrenching study experience in Africa, and we both cried). My favorite part of reporting is compiling my research and anecdotes and crafting them into a structure (#7); it’s an addicting puzzle. I always overwrite (#14), then face the agonizing trial of removing pieces to satisfy a word count.

    I wish I was equally fascinated with the rewrite, rewrite, rewrites (#8), and I’d benefit more by taking greater writing risks (#12). The infamous lead is not my strong suit (#4), and my reporting often lacks vital thoroughness (#3). But I adore writing, and I hope to strengthen my weaknesses and improve my role as storyteller.

  2. The importance of a good lead has been hammered into my head for as long as I can remember. It is your one chance to draw the reader in and make them read more. When I finally come up with a lead that I am proud of I want to scream it from the rooftops. In ch. 4 of “Coaching Writers” it describes how a writer could rewrite a story dozens of times before they finally get it right. With so much effort going into the lead, many times the middle or end is lagging behind. It is important for the editor to, “recognize that writers may not devote the same kind of critical attention to other party of their pieces.” At times I will feel fully confident in my lead but I know the rest of the story needs a lot more work.

    “Good writers rewrite their rewrites.” This is an area that I need to improve in. I remember a time after putting hours of work into a story I knew it was not going to make the cut. Instead of starting over I settled for a mediocre story when it could have been much better. Rewriting is an important part of the writing process, that I need to invest more time in.

    • I understand having trouble rewriting your rewrites. Sometimes I get frustrated with stories and do not want to deal with them anymore. Editing can often take the magic away from a story and recovering to rewrite it is difficult.

    • I know what you mean by rewriting stories. I know I put “rewrite their rewrites” as a good thing for me, but I did state that sometimes I satisfy for an average story. I either usually don’t have time to think it through or I don’t know how to “finish” the story. I still need to work on that by finding more time to finish my story and draw inspiration from editors who I talk to. Anyway, so you are not the only one who needs to work on it.

  3. I found myself to be “middle of the road” for most of these categories, mostly because I rely too much on my natural ability instead of thoroughness. However, there are some of these qualities I exemplify. I definitely prefer my own ideas, I love books and movies and I enjoy telling a good story. So yeah, the ones that don’t actually involve writing. The traits I wish I had would definitely be organization and rewriting. Even very simple structural organization could make my writing way easier, not to mention quicker. The rewriting is something I just need to take the time to do. It’s proven daily that rewriting makes the story better, but I still only settle to only make minor changes. It’s something that can bridge the gap from good writing to great writing.

    • I definitely feel similarly. I only connected strongly to a handful of these traits. Does that make me a weak writer? I don’t think so. It just means that I recognize my own strengths, and put my effort elsewhere. I don’t think we all have to agree with an article every time, and we can even bring new things to light that we feel it is missing. While these qualities are those of great writers, I don’t think they are necessary in each and every case. You can still be a good writer without enjoying writing, correct?

    • “I rely too much on my natural ability instead of thoroughness”- I feel like you described my feelings perfectly. I feel like I rely on writing as a talent rather than a skill, when it should be both. I also know that being thorough with my work is necessary to improve as a writer rather than simply maintaining a certain level.

  4. I have always had a passion for (10) loving to tell stories, growing up I remember sitting at the dinner table telling family stories. Im know for always having my nose stuck in a book and quoting movies like my life depended on it (13). I know that when I get really into a story I’m covering I immerse myself so deep into the coverage that I almost become a member of the event myself (5). My biggest struggle with writing my feature stories and even in JMC54 was length (14). I always try to cover a story from a more human interest side.

    The writing habits I’m going to try to look into is (4) agonizing over leads. Personally I HATE writing my leads and will wait till my story is all finished to create a lead. The only leads I can do are the lengthy descriptive leads. I want to start trying to (7) take time to organize so that I don’t feel like I have to sit down and write the whole story now… thats why I think I get a lot of writers block.

    • I can totally relate to you on your issues with leads. I wait to write them till the very end as well, but apparently a story becomes much easier to write when you start with a strong so I want to work on that.

  5. I can certainly relate to some of the habits Clark and Fry identify. I most definitely agonize over leads. I take my sweet time crafting them over and over again until I get them just right. I take pride in a good lead and spend so much time on them because I want to captivate readers right off the bat. Often times I’m guilty of writing too long. I watch the word count rise and when I reach the cut-off number imposed by my editors I still feel like I’ve got a lot to go. When I wrap things up and have to start slashing words, it’s painful. Clark and Fry said, “writers want to ‘make it sing.’” That makes sense to me. When I work I trust my ears over my eyes and I strive to write stories with good rhythm.
    While I like to think I’m good at telling stories, that’s probably something I could use work on. In writing classes we’re told time and time again to get the 5 W’s in the piece, but it’s true that the strongest writers’ primary goal is to tell stories. My work would be better if I could balance the information with anecdotes and narrative bits. Readers appreciate that too. That’s Clark and Fry’s next point: good writers remember the reader. I get so caught up in writing for myself that I don’t always keep the reader in mind. Good writers “treasure the reader and want to reward and protect and inform them.” One thing I’ve really got to get better at though is reading other good writers. I find myself making excuses not to read when I have spare time. I love to read and I’ve got to get in the habit of making time for it everyday. My own work will benefit by exploring the work of stronger writers.

    • I forget to think about the reader sometimes as well. It is so easy to get wrapped up in writing for yourself and you forget who you are writing for. I used to read every night before bed and now with a busy schedule it is easy to neglect reading. It is so important to read, and I need to make more time for it as well.

  6. One habit that I could confidently say I have is that no matter what the topic, I always immerse myself into a story. I have yet to work on a story that was painful to write and didn’t spark some sort of interest in me. The only problem with that is that sometimes I get a little too involved in the story and forget about what is of the upmost importance – the readers.

    This is an issue I have always struggled with. When I know every single detail about the story I am working on, it is hard for me to write to someone who has no knowledge about the topic whatsoever. What makes it even harder is when I get asked to put every thing I know into a specific word count. Its difficult for me to figure out what information is more important and what information my readers will value the most.

    I have been trying to work on this for a while and what I have found that has helped me the most is I start by putting everything I know on paper, regardless of the word count. I then read what I have thoroughly before I start from scratch again and try and condense the information I have. Its not uncommon for me to have to do a third rewrite to patch up the loose ends. For me, rewriting is key, but it can get a little frustrating as Sarah said.

    What I really want to work on more than anything is getting into the habit of reading good writing everyday. I want to make more time for it during the school year because I feel like reading inspires the mind more than anything else. The only way to learn from other strong writers is to read their work and observe the tactics they use to make their stories incredible.

    • Faith, I feel the same way. Sometimes it is hard to remind myself to step back from the story because I know the topic and reported on it. I do this a lot where I assume the reader knows what I am talking about and then when I come back to the story later, I realize it might not make sense to someone who didn’t do the reporting. Also, I get immersed in every project in school, try to make it worthwhile and not just complete it.

      • I think that is great though Morgan. It says something about a person who allows themselves to get lost in something, but the key is to find the right balance.

  7. I definitely see myself in number 4. I constantly agonize over the lead, and often write it multiple ways to see what works. I am never completely satisfied with the “best” lead that I write. I also see myself in number 9. My stories often come back with a few, or a lot of, grammatical errors. I am so concerned with how the story reads and what it sounds like, that I often overlook the way it looks on the page. I without a doubt see myself in number 13. I can’t remember a time in my life when i wasn’t obsessing over a book or movie. I was always the kid reading books for fun, which my classmates never really understood, but I just loved the stories so much. Finally I see myself in number 10. The main reason I wanted to become a journalist was to tell stories; stories that people wouldn’t hear about otherwise, stories that would interest people and stories that could make a difference if readers only knew about them.
    I absolutely wish that I would organize my stories better. I spend so much time worrying if the flow is right and if the organization logically makes sense. I tend to avoid organization until the end of the process because I agonize over it so much.

  8. I see myself taking on several of these habits as I work through stories. First and foremost, I agonize over every lead. I struggle to think of a story that the lead came easy to me, one where I didn’t aggressively scribble over countless numbers of attempts before the “right” one came to me. I often see stories as I go about my everyday life. I often see an event and ponder creative ways I could go about reporting it in a news story. Organization has always been stressed to me as important in writing, news and essay form, so I often take time between rewrites considering several ways to organize a story to best suit the focus and information I have. I almost always write too long and I love telling stories, which often go way too long as well. Lastly, I love movies and a good read. I take any chance I get to sit down and watch a movie, of any genre.

    I found several other traits I wish I embodied more when writing. I immerse myself in my stories, but then often forget how the reader would want to see the story. I begin writing how I would want it to be read, and fail to take in account certain pieces or styles that appeal to the reader more. I don’t take nearly enough chances and often default to the obvious pieces of information that make up the news story, when there may be a interesting stat or quote that the reader would enjoy reading. Taking more chances in writing will help me step out of my comfort zone and ultimately make my writing unique to myself.

    • I always forget about the reader as well. Since their response isn’t immediate–unless it’s on the Internet, or in person–I forget about meeting their needs and writing to educate them about a topic I have spent time looking into. I think it is something I will have to remember in the future.

    • “I often see an event and ponder creative ways I could go about reporting it in a news story.” I think that’s incredibly cool, Colton, and I think that means you’re really succeeding as a writer. When someone sees the world through the lens of a reporter, everything becomes a story. That’s a neat, and useful, perspective to possess. When I’m in the middle of a big writing project, I tend to do the same, but I wish I could make a bigger habit of seeing events for their storytelling or newsworthy potential.

  9. I saw myself right away in the traits described in the chapter. The first characteristic—seeing stories everywhere—describes me perfectly. I’ve been known to interrupt a conversation to say, “I want to write about that!” Just as a photographer views the world from behind a camera, I view the world in story ideas. I tend to prefer my own ideas, too—once I have an ideas, I want to see it fleshed out. Remembering the reader and guiding them through the story is another strength of mine. My loyalty is always to the reader—not the editor—when writing.

    I think the areas that I most struggle with have to do with reporting. I think I find more excitement in writing, so researching can sometimes seem like a chore to me. I definitely need to improve in my ability to immerse myself in a story.

    • I have the same issue in reporting. I love writing the story and get so excited to start writing, so when it comes to gathering information I look over key questions or points I want to find out about. Getting excited about the entire process will definitely be a key to better reporting.

  10. I recognize myself in 6,7,8, and 13. For “speed rather than bleed” (6), I have high standards for myself when I am writing. When I have plenty of time, I always want it to be perfect the first time, but it always seem to be inadequate. However, when it is approaching the deadline, I dash to the finish and be done with it and be satisfied. In this situation, I feel like hurrying is a bad thing, because I am a bit satisfied but I know that I didn’t do my best in my opinion. Now for organizing material (7), when I am writing my stories, I have to make sure the quotes, paragraphs, sentences and words are in the right place; otherwise, I won’t feel satisfied with a messy story. I usually do that by editing my story and thinking about it – “Should I put that here or there?” When I do get it organized, I usually am satisfied or needing to change a few things. For the rewrite the rewrites (8), the experience is similar to “speed rather than bleed.” I am never satisfied with my story until I rewrite it a bunch of times. I don’t think I am ever completely satisfied though, because I know my story won’t be perfect in the editor’s eyes. There has been a few times when I have been satisfied with my story when I have rewrote it a million times, but that is usually when I have plenty of time to rewrite it. Moving on to the last one (13)… I LOVE to read! Reading is one of my favorite hobby when I am not busy. I mostly absorb reading knowledge and spit it out in my creative writing work though. I have read more than several books to inspire me to write my short story (which got me a scholarship). I try to apply to my stories, articles, etc., but it doesn’t work as well as in creative writing. Nevertheless, I am trying.

    I wish that I had a storehouse of ideas. I am not a person who has a head full of ideas. If I do have ideas, I usually write stories on the same topic but with different stories. That said, I’m not the kind of person who comes up with a random topic for a story; I usually draw a topic from my own interests. If I had a storehouse of ideas, I wouldn’t have to struggle to come up with a topic if my editor doesn’t want me to go on the same topic. Also I wish that I would immerse myself into the story. I just think about how I should organize it and just do it. Basically I just want it over with quickly as possible. I don’t talk about the story to anyone, because I just feel like I should do it myself. If I would talk to someone about my story, they would give me a different perspective and maybe that will lead to me immersing into the story and making a more satisfying story for me.

  11. To me this entire chapter reminded me of how busy my mind is all the time. I notice details about stories and situations that others care not to notice. I will say, it’s raining, and others say well, duh. I notice the way rain changes people’s moods, outfits and my favorite song about snow comes to mind.
    I like telling stories and my friends know it. There’s nothing worse then when someone tells the story wrong or without emphasis in the right place. Writers are motivated, innovative and curious about the world. I think I am well rounded and have been told this before, but it’s because of my curiosity and desire to learn about something I cannot relate to or find interesting.
    I find myself never being satisfied with my final draft. Whenever I turn something in, I feel it’s unfinished. Something can always be rethought, reworded, or completely scratched. Sometimes I wish I was interested in math because there is only one solution, but that seems too concrete for me.

    • Morgan, I think it’s interesting that you crave writing about everything, even things you don’t completely relate to–that would turn a lot of people off and steer them away from writing about that particular topic. In fact, I have been known to steer clear of something I don’t completely identify with, so it’s refreshing to hear about people that thrive in those situations.
      Also, I completely agree with your point about math–at times it seems like it would be simpler than the field we have chosen, but what fun would that be?

  12. I recognized a few of Clark and Fry’s habits of good writers in myself. Once I have begun to report a story, it dominates my thoughts. As the authors put it, I “immerse’ myself in the story. When trying to fall asleep, I write and rewrite the lead in my head. During a boring class last semester I often failed at restraining myself from working on my current story.
    I also fall in love with all the information I have gather. Every fact is so interesting that I want the reader to know them all. However, this means my stories are way too long.
    The one trait I wish I had is guiding my readers to the end of the story. Writing long-winded stories means that my writers often jump ship in the middle. I need to find good editors that will help distribute the information in a way to engage readers all the way through. Long stories are a hurdle that my readers have to overcome and it needs to be removed.

    • Sarah, it’s good that you recognize your over-writing issue and that it can be a hurdle for readers. It can be tough to cut bits of information from a story to make it shorter. What always helps me is to make bullet points and look over everything I’ve got. I assess what information is crucial to share with readers and if it’s not totally necessary or doesn’t add something wonderful to my piece, I cut it. The way I see it is: what the readers don’t know they don’t know, won’t hurt them.

  13. This chapter will definitely stick with me because I identify with so many of these things to work on. It fascinates me how the more great news stories I read, the better I become at seeing stories everywhere I go. It’s absolutely crucial to have a mind that works in this way (#1).

    I have always had a problem with rewriting–in my mind, I write the first draft the best I can, so what would I possibly want to change in subsequent drafts? This is something I have been working on (from middle school all the way through college) that I will always continue to work on–it’s definitely gotten easier as I have had better editors and coaches (#8).

    Numbers 11 and 14 go hand in hand–it is so easy to lose focus and write too long when you are writing for yourself or for your editor. If I focus on myself throughout the writing process and only consider what my base knowledge is, what I want to know, and how I would feel about what I’m writing, I often write too long and lose the focus that would be necessary to convey the message to readers (#11, #14).

    It is imperative to take chances when writing–how else do stories make it? If writers tried to publish the same styles of stories and the same boring content without amping up the reporting and writing, journalism would become stagnant (#12).

    I tell myself that I “devour books and movies” but really, I watch a lot of movies (when I have time) and read when I go home for a weekend. It’s hard for college students to fit in reading and analyzing other people’s work, but it is absolutely crucial–like listening to a great pianist when you are trying to learn basic piano (#13).

    • You make a good point about journalism becoming stagnant if it weren’t for taking chances. If we writers didn’t shake things up every now and then, the traditional story format would get stale. It’s so important to take risks in writing because it challenges you to think outside of the box and it can be a real treat for your readers. Some of the best writing wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for writers taking chances.

  14. I have to say, if these are the only qualifications for a good writer, then I only make the grade by about 50 percent. I’ve recognized this since my time in J54, which is why I’ve decided to pursue editing and marketing of magazines over reporting and writing. At first, I thought some of my fellow students might see this as a cop-out—an excuse for not wanting to put in the time and effort to report, research, and give birth to a story-child. To this, I say it takes a strong writer to be an editor, but not all writers make strong editors. I realized that my strengths were in communicating with writers, ensuring quality editing, and researching marketing material for publications. I see the “big picture” of the magazine more I enjoy the interviewing, writing, and crafting process of a specific story.

    The other reason I know this is a valid stance for still being a good writer is that I have experience behind me in all of the same aspects every writer does. I have “bled” a story. I have rewritten a story over and over. I have lost sleep over finding that perfect lead. But, quite honestly, I got tired of it after just a year in internships and writing classes. So while I pursue my own strengths from the other side of the table, I haven’t lost an ounce of respect for the writers who craft the stories I edit. In fact, I respect them more because they entrust me with editing their work. I still love to write shorter, service-oriented pieces, blogs, and lifestyle stories. But, no, I don’t devour books and movies. I devour online magazines and music. I don’t write too long. I outline carefully and instruct a reader in essential, easy-to-read detail. But, then again, I don’t agree that you need these things to be the strongest writer, and I think other things (such as my own strengths) are good for writers to have, too.

  15. I love to tell stories–I love the laughter I get from an audience at the end, and through telling the same stories over and over, I’ve practiced them enough to illicit the most laughter I can get. Re-telling stories is like re-writing them. The same information goes in each story, just changing slight inflections and word choice that engage the listener or reader. Clark and Fry were also right when they said that writers read. Reading helps make me a better writer. I need to read novels to learn to write longer articles and read the news to write short ones. Without reading it’s difficult to develop my own personal style.

    However, sometimes I think that I forget about the reader. The listener evokes a response immediately, but the reader gives feedback over time. I would like to think that I take chances, but truth be told, I find myself being very cautious. I am not a naturally adventurous person. I have to force myself to talk to people I don’t know and am always panicking when I have to talk to someone over the telephone. If I was less afraid and more bold, these things wouldn’t be difficult, and writing stories and asking for interviews would be considerably easier.

    And I will admit that I am a slow writer. It takes time for me to think of how I want to write something. I rewrite my lead several times before I get it right–even then it changes.

  16. I see myself in habits like preferring my own ideas (#2) and devouring books and movies (#13). I love to stay informed on topics, but I hate absorbing too much from one certain writer because I’m afraid it will change the way I look at something to the point of being biased. I also have a hard time envisioning other people’s ideas and see my own potential stories clearly, while I get lost in the details of ideas that are given to me. When I write about a topic I am careful with the research I do about it, because I don’t want to lose sight of my own ideas.

    I love books and movies for letting me see the world in different ways and I always learn something about people or events. I cannot read enough, watch enough, or know enough about other people and places.

    I struggle a lot with taking the time to organize (#7) because I often feel like my writing has to be such an “organic” process that everything else must revolve around my writing, rather than my writing taking shape after I have everything else organized. I realize it’s incredibly inefficient and it’s mostly a way of justifying my own procrastination, so it’s something I constantly try to be aware of.

    I also struggle with the first habit, which is seeing stories everywhere. As a writer, I feel like failing to see the world as a million stories waiting to happen is the most embarrassing thing to admit. I think it is the best habit of good writers, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Mentors in my life have told me one of the best ways to cure this is by making sure your life doesn’t become too routine, and that changing up small details of your day can inspire you in big ways. Hopefully I get better with that.

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