Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Advice for authors isn’t hard to find, but time and again we discover the same nuggets of wisdom. Why? Because they’re the habits that have been proven to work – the things that make prolific, successful authors what they are.
Now, maybe you already know these key habits, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to cultivate. That’s why, today, I won’t just be focusing on what characteristics amateur authors should adopt to take their work to the next level, but how they can begin performing those characteristics in useful, day-to-day ways.
So – in the mold of Stephen R. Covey’s famous The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – what are the seven habits of highly effective authors?
1. Voracious reading
Remember crawling into a fort with a pile of books and so many goldfish crackers you wouldn’t need to come out for a month if Mom would just stop making you go to school?
If you don’t love reading that much anymore, you’ve probably bought into the Nefarious Lie of the Evil Queen of Adulthood that you are too busy to read.
You already know how vital reading is for technique, for inspiration, and for protecting your eyes from the blue end of the light spectrum otherwise known as how-many-TV-shows-do-you-follow?
So, why don’t we do it like we used to? It’s true life got busier, but as soon as we saw this to be true, we jumped on the busy train with everybody else and started being too busy doing nothing to do anything that we really want. We have to work to live. We have to eat healthy food and keep our bodies in shape. We have to invest in our families. And we have to read for the sheer, uninterruptable, got-my-book-under-the-table-at-dinner-time pleasure of reading.
Make it happen:
Designate a reading day. Mine is Sunday. Mid-afternoon, whatever else has happened that day and whatever I do before I go to bed Sunday night, I will absolutely, 100%, without fail, if I only have time for a half a page pick up a book and read it for pleasure. That’s what a habit is. Habits are hard to form but simple to form. Pick a day when you typically have more than thirty minutes of blank space on your calendar and make it your reading day. Don’t question it, don’t skip it, just do it. After several weeks of ‘hard,’ welcome to ‘easy.’ That’s the beauty of a habit.
Designate a time of day. Other people do better with certain times of day, every day. My Mon.–Sat. schedule is too erratic for this, but people who work 9–5 might prefer the same time of day every day. If you go over to my parents’ house at 8:00 pm on any given night and my dad’s not in his recliner reading, I’ll eat my hat. Once you’ve figured out the best time to pen in your dates with Patty O’Brian and Silvia Plath: don’t question it, don’t skip it, just do it.
Make it a family affair. It may be that your communal living arrangements crowd out your personal preferences. If so, it’s time for a heart-to-heart with your partner. Designate a time of day or day of the week when the family can not prioritize but actualize a reading-just-because session. Force your kids (you’re the boss, after all,) cajole your partner (you’re the boss, after all!) and if you stand alone, so be it. If it’s just you? Get a grip on your computer habits.
Institute an audiobook tradition. Apps like OverDrive (free), Audible (not free), or Google Play (requiring a little MP3 input from fantastic free sites like LibriVox) make book-intake easy. If you don’t have a nearly automated way of listening to audiobooks, we’re going to fix that right now. No, we’re not going to add it to your to-do list, we’re going to fix it right now. When forming a new habit, your two best friends are the words ‘right’ and ‘now.’ You can spend time researching other apps if you want, and if you have the time, and that’s great. I make no claims about the best platforms – only about the best way to get started: go to the platform you’ve already heard about. Sign up. Then come back and finish reading.
If you get the right book and the right reader, you shouldn’t have too much trouble ‘finding time’ to listen; it’ll be more difficult to find the will power to stop. But if you’re feeling ‘meh’ about the book, not ready to ditch it but not addicted either, establish a place where you’ll always listen – the bathroom, the car, while applying lotion after a shower. Whatever works for you. But then do it. Right now and always, until it’s a habit.If you’re not willing to do it right now, you’re not trying hard enough to form a habit.Click To Tweet
2. Dedicated research
Research includes mining other authors’ work for inspiration and technique, quite different from pleasure reading (see #1,) as well as the more formal stuff you remember doing in school.
We’ve sung the praises and preached the moral obligations of doing research in a good many articles before this one, but how do we make research a ‘habit?’
Step 1: Define your needs. Each writing project should include an early planning phase, either before or after you crank out a sloppy first draft. If done before, include a re-planning phase for after. Map out all the areas that need research. This can be done on paper, through a word cluster, or via well organized internet bookmarks, which is how I organize my research. This method saves trees and ensures my work will be available to me anywhere there’s an internet connection. Paper also provides a creative space, though, and I don’t object to paper planners.
Step 2: Put your research needs on your calendar. Treat them as doctor’s appointments. (I’m not equivocating here. Of course going to the doctor is more important, but if you want to develop a good writing habit, this is the way to do it.) If you have a habit, cough cough, of putting research on your calendar and then skipping it anyway, you may need to ask someone to keep you accountable or rename your research appointments so that they feel more compulsory: ‘Meeting with Dr. Hubert’ or ‘Job Interview.’
Step 3: Follow through. Research will look very different from project to project, but all projects have this one huge thing in common: you can’t skimp on the research.
3. Commitment to writing
This one’s a lot like reading, and advice on cultivating good writing habits abounds. Write every day. Only write when you feel like it. Take writing retreats. Use writing prompts. Sit in the chair. Follow your muse. Steal somebody else’s material and change it just enough to where they can’t tell. Okay, scrap that last one… and then scrap all the others, too.
What works best for you? Working every day, with or without inspiration? Writing in large chunks? Staying up all night and well into the next day because you’re finally on a roll? Whatever writing habit you choose to cultivate needs to fit with your personality or it will never be sustainable in the long term.
This is sacrilege to some people, but writing every day doesn’t work for me. My schedule is too unpredictable, and I don’t typically like micro-bursts of writing. I might schedule self-editing, reading, research, or other writing-related processes for my short time slots, but I don’t try to write every day. My best creative writing happens when I follow inspiration to a manic hour of night and lose sleep over the projects that I simply cannot dam up. But sometimes professional writing comes with deadlines, and I find it is also good to be forced to write according to the calendar.
When you have a particularly productive spell, take notes. Not ‘take notice,’ take actual, physical notes. Where were you? What were the distractions like? What was your mood? What had you been eating/drinking? Did you have any exercise or outside time that day? What was the source of inspiration? Did you force yourself to write until it started to flow, or did you give in the inspiration when it struck? What room were you in? What chair were you in? What clothes were you wearing? Did you pause and self-correct along the way or plow forward judgment-free? Were there other people around? What music (or not) were you listening to? Where was your phone while you were working? Were you on a laptop or holding a pen? What time of day was it? Did you work that day? Before or after writing? What time did you wake up? How many hours of sleep had you gotten?When you find conditions that help you work, take notes! Some things can’t be replicated, but you can help invite inspiration in more ways than you’d think.Click To Tweet
If you take notes once, you may find an attempted reproduction feels contrived and ineffective. ‘I just don’t understand it! I’m wearing my writer’s sweatpants and listening to Korsakov!’ But if you take notes on several productive sessions and look for patterns, you will likely be able to establish your ideal writing circumstances and force those into your schedule.
4. Investment in self-editing
There are several ways to self-edit, and all of them should probably be implemented. Take time off and revisit, print it out or change the font, read out loud, do a word count on heavily used vocabulary, etc. Finding a habit that will be effective involves two things: 1) establishing a routine and 2) occasionally breaking it.
A routine is a useful way to make sure everything gets done. When you finish a draft, do the following:
- Spell check,
- Find/replace double spaces, double periods, periods next to commas, punctuation with an inadvertent space before, words that are sometimes hyphenated/sometimes not to scan for consistency, etc.
- Do a word count on go-to favorite vocabulary words; for instance, if you’re into the word ‘impactful’ lately, ask MS Word to find and select all instances of ‘impact’ so you can gauge what percentage of your manuscript is going to sound like a broken record,
- Leave the piece alone for several days and read it with fresh eyes,
- Get someone else to read/edit it,
- Edit it again,
- For longer pieces, leave it for a month and re-read; leave it for another month and re-read,
- Delete the first and last sentences in many paragraphs,
- Delete the first and last paragraphs of several sections,
- Cut the story up into slips of paper and arrange as a storyboard,
- Make a dialogue file and read for consistent tone of voice,
- Look for boring parts and delete them; don’t look back, delete them (if any details are missing, you’ll catch these on a later read-through,)
- Go on an ad-rampage, deleting all superfluous adjectives, adverbs, and throwaway words (e.g., ‘he started to walk’ – no, he walked,)
- Check for consistent tone, point of view, verb tenses, spacing, and plot continuity,
- Leave it alone for a month and re-read.
Then, every once in a while, throw the routine to the wind and do something completely different. Don’t do this too often – the idea is to stay alert, not to break an effective habit.
5. Engagement with others
This is a pretty easy habit to implement, since it involves someone else doing the work. Recruit beta readers, professional editors, peers and mentors, friends and colleagues and family to scan your work for deficiencies and assets. A few rules you may want to follow to make this a good habit:
- Don’t ask people just because they like you enough to say yes; ask people who read a lot and have good taste,
- Don’t make anyone read your first or second draft… I said anyone! This is not an effective or respectful use of anyone’s time,
- Give back: if you ask another writer for a read-through, make sure you’re available to return the favor,
- Be willing to pay for the right editor; they will tell you all the things that your friends are too nice to tell you, and their eyes are paid to spot mistakes,
- Have a rotating schedule of people you ask; don’t overtax anyone.
6. Growth mentality
Repeat after me: I can figure this out.
This is the simplest and yet most difficult habit to establish.
It is the simplest because literally all you have to do is respond to every challenge and every unknown by saying, ‘I can figure this out.’ It is the most difficult because it then involves following through with your commitment to figuring things out. You don’t know how to market? You can figure it out. You don’t know how to self-publish? You can figure it out. You don’t know how to increase blog traffic? You can figure it out.
This isn’t easy. It’s work. Becoming a highly effective author is work. Becoming successful in anything in life is work. But the reason this particular habit is so effective is that it no longer allows you to accept excuses as barricades to moving forward. The human brain is amazing. You can figure out literally anything that you put your mind and time into. The key is cultivating a habitual willingness to do so.
7. Varied living
A quick Google search will reveal just how many famous authors made a habit of taking long walks. It’s not a coincidence; living a rich life is absolutely vital to crafting rich writing. I am going to assume for the time being that you are familiar with the importance of gathering real-life experience, and cultivating healthy living habits, and dive right into the how-to.
Establishing good life habits simply involves finding a time in which you can be consistent. This might mean walking to work if you’re close enough, taking a walk on your lunch break, or having two days a month that you vow to try something new. Chances are, you probably know what’s missing from your life. Maybe you’re a socialite, and you have no trouble making time for new adventures, but you are a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, midnight-oil-burning kind of writer, and you have a hard time getting out and exercising. Maybe you’re a marathoner, and running through the woods is the time when you brainstorm all of your writing, but you’re stuck in a rut, because all you do is run and eat and work and write.Varied writing comes from varied living. If you want to show readers something new, you’ll have to search out new experiences.Click To Tweet
Whatever it is you’re missing, you have to find the time to schedule it and then guard that time with everything you’ve got. This means a willingness to say ‘no thanks’ to valuable things that you really want to say ‘yes’ to. It means a willingness to start doing an activity completely irrespective of your mood. It means a willingness to suffer through the first hard phase of establishing a new habit until you are regularly making time for things you’ve never done before: long walks through the downtown, quiet nature meditations, or meeting new people and picking their brains.
Making a habit stick
The best and most effective way to start a new habit of any kind is to start so small that you cannot possibly fail. I give my adult ESL students 60 seconds’ worth of homework. This helps them establish a daily routine of practicing English outside of class without cutting into their busy schedules, preventing the kinds of clashes that lead to repeated failures.
This is the thing that a lot of people miss: failure is a habit, and habits are hard to break. For a habit to stick, there must be a pattern of success. So, for any of these seven habits – and choose only one to start with – determine what you need to do, find five minutes a day or week to do it, and never-ever-ever fail to follow through.
When you have a success streak, you have a habit, and you can build on it. But do not start big, fail repeatedly, and get stuck in the habit of failure. Make your goal so small that failure is an impossibility and you’ll find soon enough that your habits are sticking.
What are your good and bad writing habits? How have you learned to foster better habits along the way? Let me know in the comments, and for more great advice on forming beneficial writing habits, check out Nobody Beats The Triangle, But You Can Be Prepared For It and There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write?