Habits of Good Writers

In “Coaching Writers,” chapter 4, 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. Tuesday. Then, return to the blog discussion before class time Wednesday morning to read your colleagues’ posts and respond/comment to at least two of them.

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52 responses to “Habits of Good Writers

  1. I am 100% guilty of always writing too much and too long. Anyone who looks over my work just says “EDIT, EDIT, EDIT.” I have so many things that I want to say and so many ideas to convey, that it seems to all happen like word vomit. The editors that I work with regularly know this about me, and they know that I am flexible. I think that’s the most important thing to be as a lengthy writer. When I write, I know that my story is going to need to be cut considerably. I also consider myself a story teller, which also contributes to my “word vomit” problem. I agree with the text when they say, “Rather than worry about the 5 Ws, they regale their colleagues with anecdotes, scenes and narrative bits. They tend to answer even the most theoretical questions with war stories, jokes, and parables.” That is my writing style in a nutshell.

    One thing I wish I could improve on is my curiosity. I tend to be only interested in stories that…interest me. I have certain hobbies and interests in the news and media, and when something happens that I don’t necessarily care a whole deal about, I tend to ignore it. I’ve always struggled with this issue, and hopefully learning to edit can broaden my interests and current event understanding.

    • I tend to ignore stories I don’t care about either! On the first day of class, Professor Van Wyke mentioned that editors need to “know a little bit of everything.” I think that I could work on that by making myself become interested in stories that may not originally be interesting to me. For example, I often skip over the politics section of the newspaper, simply because politics don’t pique my interest. Even if I’m not interested, as a good reporter I should know what’s going on in the politics world.

    • I could also improve on looking into content that I’m not necessarily interested in. Instead of my favorite lifestyle magazines, I’ve started picking up business and male-directed publications. It’s a small step that has exposed me to new perspectives and content. Although I don’t always understand the topics, it’s been an interesting transition.

  2. Clark and Fry’s description of good writers at times made me smile, but at times made me feel inadequate, as if I were doing something wrong. I saw myself in several parts of their list. #14, “writing too long,” is absolutely a habit of mine. I cannot recall a story or article I’ve written that was too short, or even the correct length; I constantly have to go back through to do some trimming. Although the extra step associated with this habit can be frustrating, I think it helps me as a writer because I need to consider which parts of my article are the most essential. After thoughtful consideration, my edits usually leave me with the best version of my story, because I threw away the parts that were merely “okay.”

    The first two habits on the list made me cringe. I do not have great confidence in my brainstorming abilities, so I often do not get in touch with the creative side of my mind that would allow me to see stories everywhere. I find myself choosing a story off the Time Delphic’s “budget list” each week, rather than pitching my own ideas. If I occasionally suggested my own ideas, I believe I would see improvement in my writing. An important part of both writing and editing is recognizing when a topic would make a good story, and recognizing the elements that would make that story interesting to the reader. If I ventured out on my own, I would be forced to develop those skills, rather than relying upon someone else’s creativity.

    • Generating story ideas gets easier when we seek out the unfamiliar. Spend your free time visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods, events, restaurants, etc. And just strike up conversations with folks. People do love to talk about themselves. Also, read everything.

    • I often have problems generating story ideas too. My technique has been to go above and beyond sanity when it comes to an idea.

      For instance, I’m starting to think about a personal experience article I’m writing at the end of my Freelance class. Some students spend a week as a nun, being blind or following doctors. Those things don’t scare me. I started considering things I would want to read and something that would make a readers palms sweat. I started with jail (I know, crazy), reigned it back to a group home, then homeless, then homeless shelter, then a college homeless student.

      While my ideas are still in the works, sometimes going above and beyond ideas can spark a brainstorm of tangible ones.

  3. Two items on the list that I definitely related to were “loves to tell stories” (10) and “devours books and movies.” (13) I almost always have a go-to funny or random story to tell on just about any given topic. The reading also mentioned “They love words, names and lists.” I’m infamous for making lists. List of things I need to do, lists of fun things to do and guess what-books and movies I want to read/see. I also enjoyed the quote about editors that said: “When they debrief their writers, they always ask for the name of the dog, the color of the car and the brand of beer.” I think I have a hard time turning off this side of me sometimes because a friend will be telling me about her weekend and I’ll interrupt with a million questions about details.
    “Sydney, who cares? It doesn’t matter!”
    “But I want to know!”

    All that being said, I know I need to work on taking time to organize my thoughts before I begin writing. (7) I tend to just jump in, then hit roadblocks in my thought process. I think I have it in my head that planning wastes time, but in reality, it could save me a lot of fuss later on in the writing process. I also tend to be hesitant to rewrite, especially completely rewrite. (8. Starting over-The horror!) In addition, I could benefit from taking more risks. (12) I tend to stick to formula rather than think outside the box when it comes to writing.

    • I am a notorious list-maker as well. One thing I’ve learned to do with that habit is use listing techniques in planning a story. If you think of your story as a list, you can get a better sense of how you want to order things, what questions you need to ask, and who you need to talk to. Think of a story as a list—maybe it will help you in the planning process and help you organize before starting to write.

      • Beth LeValley

        I do this too! I make lists for everything, and I love that you said “think of your story as a list.” I often have an abstract outline in my head as I’m writing an article, and that way it has organization but can still be moved around if need-be. I like how you made this habit a technique in your writing.

  4. One thing on this list that really stood out to me, was that good writers are always looking for stories. When they walk down the street they’ll pick up about 10 story ideas, just from keeping their eyes open. This is something I struggle with a lot! I find it very difficult at times to think of great story ideas, but I often forget that if I would just pay attention to everything going on around me, I’m sure I could come up with tons of great ideas. This is definitely something I can improve on!

    Another problem I have is actually the opposite of what Sydney said! Sydney, I am jealous that you are able to pay such close attention to detail, because that is something else I need to work on as writer. I will often times get all the important parts of a story and I will tend to overlook the small details that don’t seem like they matter at the time. Then when I go to write my lead, I find that I don’t have any details to build around my story because all I was paying attention to was the meat of the story and the information I needed. This means that my stories can sometimes be a little boring because nothing about them is very personal – mostly just the big facts!

    • To help with gathering details, try filling your notes with at least as many observations as quotes. What do you hear, see, smell? Jot down snippets of overheard dialogue. Note accents, dialects. Watch how people interact with each other. Your smartphone is a good tool here, too. Shoot photos and video and record audio to help you remember the ambiance of a place.

      Just remember that details should be authentic and revealing. Being petite and blonde, for example, rarely reveals anything about personality or character. But a person’s tendency, for example, to finish others’ sentences, to always jiggle a foot, to dart their eyes around the room, etc., can reveal impatience. So look for details that let the reader know more about a person, rather than details that merely describe.

  5. It feels good to know that I’m not the only one who “‘bleeds’ rather than ‘speeds'” (#6). I always thought this was a (bad) habit of mine, that I should be able to write a story faster than I usually did. “Because their standards are so high, their early drafts seem painful and inadequate” (39). I’ve never related to a sentence more. I always put so much pressure on myself, and that’s why I’m always grateful when editors, especially professors, allow us a draft before our final copy.

    I also definitely agonize over leads (#4). And I usually can’t just come back to it after I write the rest of my piece. I typically want to have one down on paper, so I know the direction of my story…but I usually want it perfect instead of drafted. I agonize over length, word choice, information presented, structure, you name it. But if this apparently makes me a good writer, then I’ll take a little anxiety.

    As for what can improve, I’d say I could work on guiding the reader to the end (#15). I always feel my endings are just blah. I just stop or try awkwardly to conclude, even though I know I shouldn’t. Getting a witty or really solid end can be challenging for me (which is why I love when sources give me good kicker quotes).

    • I agree that I struggle with endings too. My stories tend to be “top heavy” in the sense that I feel like I spend so much time working on lead and the main bulk of content that by the time I get to the end I’m just like “eh.” People always say writing the lead is the hardest part. Honestly, I think writing the ending is worse!

    • I am a slow writer too… painfully so. That’s something I tried to work on in J54. I would often take an entire evening to put a simple news story together, so I started setting a timer and promising myself that the first draft would be done when the timer went off. Then, I went back and edited. I’m still not sure which method is better, agonizing over each sentence as I write, or speeding through and then going back. “Bleeding” appears to have this author’s stamp of approval, but I’m not sure if that’s realistic in a busy newsroom. But it’s nice to hear I’m not alone!

    • The book talks later about “bleeders” vs. “speeders” and how it’s impossible to force one to be the other. Good editors learn how to support both kinds of writers. That said, even the bleeders I know become faster writers with experience. But few become speeders.

  6. I definitely love to tell stories. That was one of the biggest things that I identified with when reading this chapter. My Grandpa, one of my uncles, and my Dad all have this character trait as well (which explains where I got it from). My uncle is also a journalist. I think that when I took J54 that I struggled at first with the news writing style because I wanted to make it too much of a narrative story. My creative english side wanted to include fluff in my stories, which doesn’t work in news writing. This is partially why I am a magazines major and not a news major – I want to be able to use some creativity in my writing. I think that when I took J54 part of what I learned (and tried to work on) was being able to keep my own personal style of writing in a news story without overdoing the fluff. I also had a tendency to write too long of stories and paragraphs in J54. I am fully aware that I often do this, and I think that J54 definitely helped me to become more aware of it and to reduce it.

    • I actually had the opposite problem-I think I was so used to writing for academic work (ie. essays, research papers) that I didn’t have a problem with J54 (Find the key information, stick to the facts). I struggled more in J91 to find my voice and make my writing more personal/creative.

    • I am on the same page as you! I could not, in any life, be a news writer. The stories I am excited to write and the ones I come up with. I have not interest in writing stories about news because I’m not instrumental in the creative process of coming up with that story idea—the story presents itself in news writing.

    • I would argue that more news stories should include artistry, creativity and narrative devices, etc. The sterile remove of some news-writing probably turns off a lot of readers. But you can’t write with an artistic, creative, literary bent if you haven’t first done the reporting. The best magazine feature writing is, first and foremost, exhaustively reported.

    • I, too, prefer the less newsy writing. I like to tell stories and pack more description into my pieces. My voice also tends to be more snarky, so that manifests itself better in magazine-like writing. Like Van Wyke, though, I agree that reporting is still essential to this type of writing. But then it’s fun to present those facts using your voice and preferred creative devices.

    • I had the opposite problem as well. I did well in J54 because I found it easy to be strait forward and get the story out on a page and be done, but with J91, I found it really difficult to put my personality in the stories. I wanted to just get the facts out on paper and be done, and it was hard for me to make it my own because I was afraid of it sounding too unprofessional.

  7. I’m a victim of many of these traits– especially rewriting, devouring books and movies and writing too long. I tend to never know when a paper or article is a finished product; I want to keep revisiting ideas, correcting sentence structure and making it easy to read. I also love getting feedback from other people, and once I do, I don’t stop attempting to create the story like they want to read it. I also love to read, and I watch as many new movies as possible during a busy college student’s schedule. I also know that I write too long, but I also realize that the editor would rather have more information to work with than too little.

    I do wish that I would love to vocally tell stories more than I do now. My father was a reporter right after college, and he enjoys speaking to audiences and telling stories around the dinner table. I would much rather write out a story than tell it in person. I am also known as the “observer” friend– rather than including myself in a conversation between friends, I’m known to just observe the conversation and flow between the others. I sometimes come up with my own ideas, but I wish I liked them better. I often feel timid when I suggest an idea to an editor and end up saying “you’re welcome to change it!” when I know I should trust my gut and be confident about it.

    • I lack confidence when pitching a story, too. The “you’re welcome to change it” line is familiar to me, as I’ve said it myself numerous times. Even during brainstorming meetings, I qualify my ideas with phrases such as “It might be a good idea” or “I’m not sure about this, but…” I wonder if confidence will come with time. I’m still new to the news game, so maybe more experience will give me (and the rest of us timid folk) the confidence to share my own story ideas

    • I notice this trait – undermining one’s own ideas – more in women than in men, and not only among writers. Anybody else notice this, too?

      • Yes! Men seem to stick by their ideas, even when they know they’re not the best, while women seem to use the qualifying phrases Angela mentioned. I think it just goes back to the stereotype of women being seen and not heard. Now that ideology seems to manifest itself in their being more unsure of their thoughts when they do express them.

      • I’ve unfortunately noticed this trait in myself. Similar to Angela, I’ll often include “I think” or “maybe” when I pitch an idea that I haven’t fully developed. But besides the observation that women do this more, I’ve also noticed something else: whenever I am direct and confident in my ideas, more people are likely to affirm them. When I’m less-confident (saying “I think” or “maybe”), it gives others the go-ahead to point out the flaws.

  8. The first habit I identified with was “prefers their own ideas.” From the first article I wrote, I’ve known I could never be a news writer. The stories that I get passionate about writing are the stories I came up with pitched. I seek out stories I get excited about because I know I can get others excited to read that story. In high school, I received the “Writer of the Year” award from my journalism advisor because he admired how I went after the stories I really wanted to write, and how much I dedicated myself to that story.

    The second habit that described me was “devour books and movies”—the stories I wrote in high school were in the Arts and Entertainment section because those were the stories I pitched and went after. I started a podcast with the film studies teacher at my high school and called it “Take Two: Film Reviews.” I would consider myself an extreme movie junkie.

    The last habit that spoke to me was “agonize over leads.” I could not tell you how leads have haunted me in the middle of the night. I go through wording of leads in my head as I walk to classes, listen to music, study, etc. Even when I come up with a story idea that I won’t necessarily pitch or write, I come up with about twenty different versions of the lead in my head. My biggest challenge is losing those leads because they never come to me when I can write them down.

    • “My biggest challenge is losing those leads because they never come to me when I can write them down.” I bet you always have your phone on you, though. Voice memo is a wonderful thing.

    • I think my one of my weaknesses include my own story ideas. I’m curious to know how you come up with your stories. Is there a process you follow?

      • I come up with ideas starting with a trend I notice, whether that’s a trend in popular music, in film plots or genres, in social media, etc. If it’s not a trend, it’s a greater idea that I think should be brought to people’s attention. I start big, then whittle my way down to a way to enter that story with something specific and current.

  9. A repeated theme throughout this discussion is how the quest for perfection can paralyze us as writers. Who else feels the “paralysis of perfection”? Any tips for countering it?

    • I once had a professor advise that “a piece is finished entirely when there is nothing more to be changed”

      Not to be insensitive, but it took everything in me not to laugh in their face.

      What I have come to find as both a designer and a writer is that you will rarely walk away from your work 100% satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, you may be very confident and very pleased with the result, but there is always going to be that intense desire to go back and modify it until it reaches “perfection”.

      I place the word perfection into quotations simply because I believe it is an intangible concept that can never be obtained. Even the most profound professionals, given the chance, would go back and make revisions to their work, no matter how big or small. As humans, we will always have feel as though our work is inadequate comparably to others.

      As a rule of thumb, I often ask myself whether or not the work is performing the intended purpose. If it’s for a poster, I must dictate whether or not the design is capitative, if the color choices are appropriate, if the readability is clear, etc. Similarly, with a story, I find myself asking the question “what do I want the reader to take away from this piece?” Many elements build up a successful story: word choice, strong voice, credible source, etc. The list goes on and on. If I finish the article and the message I deemed important in the beginning seems abundantly clear, I can walk away from my work feeling confident that the piece will serve it’s purpose in the broader community.

    • In writing and design I’m constantly chasing perfection. Over the years I’ve realized you can find perfection within a piece, just not what you expect.

      You can find the perfection in a quote that brings the article full circle and just fits perfectly. Or the lead that sets the tone and uses the witty vocab you’ve been waiting to pull out. There can be perfection amongst the chaos of an “imperfect” story.

    • As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I am always struggling with this! In math or science, there is one way to solve a problem and there is one concrete correct answer – if you do the problem right, you get the right answer. This is what trips me up so much in writing, because I know there are infinite ways to write a story, which means there can’t be a ‘perfect’ way to do it. I think going into the story accepting this fact and knowing that it can still be a really good story, even if it can’t be ‘perfect,’ makes it easier to be happy with the finished product!

  10. “Good writers tend to write too long, and they know it.” pg 41.

    Often times I find myself offering up far too much detail when writing a story. My passion is graphic design and creative advertising. Although it goes without saying, I am a visual person. When I write a story, I tend to spell out every fine detail in an attempt to paint a picture in the minds of the readers.

    In some instances, this can be effective. Other times, it is absurd and unnecessary. More often than not, my editor is forced to cut my stories. It may not be because they don’t find the detail relevant, but simply because they may not have room to run a 600+ word article. When it comes to the editing process, my once carefully crafted work of art is picked apart and stripped away until nothing is left but the bare-boned facts.

    So, as I sit here feeling defeated, I turn to you, fellow students of J70. Do I take the time and set up the scene for the reader? Or do I cut the fluff and get to the point. Ideally, I would like to have a good balance of both, but I have yet to master this skill. Any suggestions?

    • I know the feeling! I feel like you can tell a powerful story without using too much detail, though, and so you can certainly do both. I feel like word choice plays a role. You can be blunt but still get an idea across. A high school English teacher of mine made it a point to try to get us to write this way. I have that to thank her for. And it certainly takes practice, seeing how I haven’t been in high school in a few years and I still haven’t mastered it. One thing I do to practice is just write descriptive sentences and see how much I can condense them while still trying to tell a story full of imagery and “art”.

    • One thing that an editor told me recently: If you’re questioning how important some information is to your story, take it out. Then look at the story with fresh eyes–does the story seem like it’s missing something without that information? If not, leave it out. Over-reporting is great, but then it’s our job as writers to determine what is important. Say you’re interviewing a professional chef and she says she’s been to 25 different countries–that’s cool, but irrelevant, so leave it out. But if she says that she includes different flavors from all the countries she’s been to in her dishes, then that information is relevant and should stay in your story.

      • I never thought of that, Kendall! Although now that you mention it, it seems silly that I haven’t. Your example really helped me understand what kinds of detail is relevant in any given story. When I sit down and interview a source, I record the whole conversation and take additional notes on anything I think is interesting. Perhaps my problem is I am trying to jam every little thing into one story in an attempt to make it overly captivating. But if I chose an interesting angle from the starting point, I would save myself a lot of effort down the road. Focusing in on the important and relevant details is something I really have to practice as a writer. Thanks so much for all of your help, Kelsey and Kendall!

  11. There were a few traits I immediately recognized. I see stories everywhere, agonize over leads, rewrite, love to tell stories, devour books and movies, write too long, guide the reader to the end, and definitely bleed rather than speed. I’m my worst critic. In that sense I certainly have a writer’s ego. I really wish I had all the traits listed simply because I want to be the best writer I can possibly be. I disagree that I’ll ever really prefer my story ideas because typically I’m in an environment with talented writers who have a few ideas that I wish I would have thought of. Because of that, I think that coming up with better story ideas that I’m more passionate about would make my reporting life better.

    • See, I’m the opposite when it comes to preference on personal story ideas. I have to brainstorm several each semester for a campus publication, and I feel like a little piece of me is gone when it gets assigned to another writer. I always wonder how I would have produced the article. I will admit, though, that one of the best feelings is when another writer kicks butt on an article idea that you pitched. You feel like you had a small, small part in it.

    • I know how you feel about being an in environment filled with talented writers. I too feel like my ideas compared to others are not good enough. I value other people’s ideas and wish I thought it myself.

    • I am the same way. I find it much easier and also much more enjoyable to write a story that I am passionate about rather than one that I don’t find very interesting. I also tend to want to write stories about things that I know a lot about already, and if that is not an option, I get frustrated. Like I said in my post, I need to start keeping an eye open for possible story ideas, because I’m sure one that interests me could be right around the corner!

  12. The list divides pretty evenly on traits that I’m good at and things that I could improve on. I can find a story anywhere. Last semester, Prof. Inman asked my class to walk around campus and come up with ten story ideas. By the end of the 10-minute exercise, I had found an idea for a feature article. And like the reporter in the article’s introduction, I, too, will follow up with a source to get every last detail of the story. Taking the time to carefully organize a story and provide lasting visuals is important to me. That being said, the list includes traits like being an avid reader and taking chances that I could definitely improve on. I challenge myself to not only read more, but also read a variety of content.

  13. Once I got to #4, I knew Clark and Fry were speaking directly to me. To me, the lead is perhaps the most important part of the entire article. It tells me what I need to know and why I need to keep reading. I’ve gazed through articles or flip the page depending on my interest in the lead, so I assume my readers do the same. To say I “agonize” over a lead is too negative, I bathe in a good lead. Once I have the juiciest sentence that gives me metaphorical goose bumps I’m set, the rest of the article will just have to follow, and definitely won’t be as great as that first sentence. I don’t see this as negative. Time consuming, yes, but necessary. I rewrite and rewrite but as an admitted perfectionist, I can tell you it’s worth it.

    A characteristic I could improve on would be organization. Many times I have so much I want the reader to know, it gets lost in translation. Learning to reword and organize my thoughts into cohesive sentence structures can help with this. Then again, I’m a pretty disorganized person in general…

    • I definitely can agree with trying to improve on organization. When I have all the reporting done and I actually sit down to write, I have so many things in my head that it’s hard to actually start writing. I have started writing my stories in sections, just writing everything down and getting it all out before going back through and moving paragraphs around so the organization flows well.

  14. I definitely write too much in any given story, and I definitely know it. For me, this has always been a good thing because I never struggle with getting to the end of the story. From the editing perspective, it’s always easier to cut out part of the story than it is to stretch out a story that’s too short or doesn’t really have any substance.

    • The beauty of writing a lot is that you’ll meet word count no matter what. If the story is too long, you can shorten it. The problem though is still trying to include everything in a shorter piece. I feel like when I write a lot, I can never get to the end fast enough. I personally like writing short and to the point.

  15. Looking at this list intimidated me at first. I realized most of the habits are things that I strive for, but a few of them haven’t become automatic yet.

    Overall, I’m a very organized, methodical person. Staying organized, collecting information, guiding readers, etc. have all become pretty automatic for me. I’m a perfectionist, so I’m not opposed to rewriting as much as is necessary. Also, considering I’ve been a journalist for the past few years, I love to tell stories and try to see them everywhere.

    I struggle with taking chances because, like I said before, I’m very methodical, so once I find something that works I tend to stick with it. I try to read a variety of books, magazines, online articles, lists, etc. as often as possible to try to inspire my own fresh ideas. I also don’t always fight for my ideas–I need to get better at being more assertive.

    Overall, I think these are all good habits to try to instill in myself as a writer–they aren’t habits yet, but definitely something to work towards.

    • I agree, the list is very intimidating! I think you make a good point, though, about how we can work toward making these things habits. Like any habit, they’re learnable.

  16. I feel like I can apply a lot on the list to my life as a designer and not as a writer. I notice design everywhere — from kerning on a billboard to the layout of a menu. I don’t agonize over leads; I agonize over font and color choices. When I’m designing or working on an art project, I can spend hours trying to get the tiniest details just right. And even once I’m done I think of ways it could have been better or what I could have done differently.
    What I need to work on is focusing all those traits on the list to myself as a writer. I know I can do it because I’m already doing it in the art department.

    • I think it’s interesting to see your perspective on this list as a designer. It makes me wonder if writers can learn any good habits from designers!

  17. A lot of these things were either hit or miss for me, but when I read the fourth habit, “good writer’s agonize over leads” it struck a special chord. They’ve always been particularly torturous and many all nighters from last semester were spurred by my need to perfect my lead.

    I do wish I had more of the “reporter” qualities described here, like “seeing stories everywhere.” I just don’t. Newsworthiness or finding that nutgraph has always been something difficult for me. I only tend to look for stories when I’m prompted to, and even then, have a hard time. Maybe someday it will become more natural.

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