So I asked fellow West Virginia Writers what they thought was their most critical writing habit. There were a few of the expected responses and several unexpected gems. Here’s what these practicing, active writers had to say:
Write Every Day
Hey, there’s a reason this bit of craft advice shows up on pretty much every list–it works! If you’ve never tried to write every day for a month, do yourself a favor and find out what this habit does for your creativity *and* productivity. Even if you think it sounds rigid and stuffy, try it. (I know you’ll find a way to make it fun…)
Get a Deadline
Several writers extolled the value of writing toward a hard deadline. Articles, blog posts, and accountability groups can all provide the necessary pressure to push you to up your word count, fast. (Pssst! Agents and editors also like to see that you have an established history of meeting deadlines…)
Write in Short Sprints
A few writers made a point to mention the importance of learning to write in short bursts. I know, with my own tendency toward procrastination, I’ll put off writing if I get too fussy about the time window. Everyone’s busy, and if you wait for the perfect chunk of uninterrupted writing time, you might miss out. To start this habit, set the timer for ten or fifteen minutes and write without stopping. Whether the doorbell rings, the phone pings, or the spouse clings–don’t stop until the timer sings.
Read Other Writers
Some stress the need to read within your genre, others testify that they never read their genre to prevent accidental influence. But everyone agrees: you should be reading a steady diet of talented writers. While it can be helpful to occasionally read poor writing, your To Be Read pile should include authors who know how to weave an incredible story. Consuming skillful writing helps shape your own sense of pacing, language, and structure.
Take a Rest Day to Practice Another Art
Is it surprising that most writers find creative outlet through other arts? Many writers also paint, produce videos, play instruments, or act. You probably have one or more hobbies that you feel conflicted over. Is it okay to quilt *and* write a novel? Is it too much multitasking? Should you focus on just one thing at a time?
Give yourself the gift of unstructured creative time — and make sure some of it is a project other than writing.
Nearly all professional writers insist upon the importance of continuing education. Workshops, conferences, online classes, private Facebook groups and other opportunities will help you sharpen your skills and ensure that your pen really is mightier than the sword…
Take a Walk in the Woods–No Tech!
A huge aspect of writing involves no actual writing. Observation feeds your mind, inspires your work, and keeps your creative tides high. When was the last time you just listened? When was the last time you listened without keeping an ear out for your cell phone notifications? Turn that baby on ‘Do Not Disturb’ and go for a walk. (If it gives you more peace of mind, most smartphones allow you to prioritize certain phone numbers in your settings so that those numbers or two back-to-back calls will ring through 😉 )
Remember all the great writers, artists and thinkers who roamed the countryside on foot for hours at a time. If they could make time back then, you can certainly find some time to wander. If anyone gives you grief about it, just shout, “Self-care!” as you head out the door. Don’t forget the sunscreen.
Don’t Edit While Writing
I heard a rumor that Dean Koontz writes one page a day–one perfect, pristine page. Dean Koontz is also a full-time, professional writer who can afford to do things the hard way. You can do things the hard way if you want, but you’ll finish many more projects if you keep your writing and editing separate. (See the section below for more resources on editing.)
Find an Excellent Critique Group
I shout, “Amen!” for this one. Find a group you trust to help you stretch, shape, and mold your project into its best form. The lone genius is a myth; collaboration is key. Critique groups can spot gaping plot holes, awkward phrasing, and grammatical no-nos faster than an English teacher on her fifth cup of coffee. The best part? If you’re privileged enough to stay in a group for a long stretch of time, the members will become familiar with one another’s writing voices. Talk about synergy!
Self Care to Prevent Burnout
This advice is related to the previous woods walk tip. You can stretch yourself too thin and write like a word cheetah for only so long until you burn out. I found this to be true about a year ago. My mind raced, I couldn’t rest, I couldn’t enjoy relaxing activities with my family. What helped? I got very intentional about taking a sabbath day off each week. Difficult at first, but incredibly rejuvenating. And, don’t worry, your weekly productivity will actually improve.
Eat nourishing food, set a bedtime and keep it, go out twice a month with your friends, sign off social media for a whole week! You’re a writer; you’re allowed to be eccentric 🙂
Finish What You Start
One of the most common frustrations I hear from beginners is the tendency to let doubt and fear keep them from finishing a work-in-progress. “It’s no good.” “I reread it and it was boring.” “I left it for a better idea.”
Everyone can start; professional writers know how to finish. Finishing is how you grow. It will always feel like you could polish more, tweak more, rework more–let it go. Do your best, whatever that looks like today, and keep going until the end. Set a deadline and get that novel, story, or poem as clean as you can. But at some point, you’ve got to release control and let your work out into the wild. That will feel scary and will likely cause a different type of frustration, but that’s the life of an artist. F. Scott Fitzgerald kept a copy of The Great Gatsby on him at all times so he could jot down endless notes and revisions. If he felt that way, you will, too. Finish anyway!
Edit, Edit, Edit
One of the ways you’ll build courage to share your work is to have a thorough editing process. You must do your best, and you must create a professional piece of writing. Your work deserves it! I recommend three deep edits–no more. First, read it like a reader. How is the pacing, the texture, the emotional tug? After you’re done, make some notes about the big-picture problems you may have found, and take care of those plot holes. This will be your content editing. The second time, make all sorts of notes and revisions. Watch for grammatical and punctuation errors. This round will be a line edit. Lastly, read the entire work aloud. You’ll be amazed at what stands out to you. The read-aloud is how I’ve caught the bits that are sneaky, like ‘calvary’ instead of ‘cavalry’. Yikes.
Just don’t allow yourself to camp out in the editing phase forever. After you’ve completed your three deep dives, pass your manuscript to someone else. It needs new eyes on it. Beta readers and editors will offer a new and critical perspective, lending another layer of quality and depth to your writing.
NOW YOU: Did your own habits make the list? Which habits do you struggle with the most?
Thanks to all who helped with their responses! You can find some of the talented West Virginia Writers at their websites, and join the community:
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