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The Seven Habits of Successful Writers

October 28, 2011 Humor, Writing 16 Comments


By Leslie Greffenius

One of the thrilling but daunting tasks of becoming a better writer is that you have to design your own curriculum. Sure, you can participate in helpful writing workshops taught by admired authors or read various experts’ books on craft, but you still have to choose for yourself which courses to take and what books to read. Even if you attend an MFA program, you have to decide what to write and how, whether or not to outline, how to undertake revisions, when and where to submit your work and so on. In many ways, writers are their own teachers, responsible for their own flounderings and successes and ultimately answerable only to themselves. Generally speaking, no one even cares what you do, which can be both a bad and a very good thing.

Still, in any career you embark upon, including writing, there are certain cultivatable habits that can make your job easier. And although writers have different ways of allocating their writing time and different methods of operating (some create meticulous outlines before beginning, others vomit out first drafts, etc.) there exists among writers something of a consensus on the habits that fuel success.

In contemplating this post, I realized that it raises a few small issues.

First, I don’t know what it means to be a “successful writer” so how can I presume to suggest habits to achieve this state? Does success mean publishing some fiction somewhere? Making a bestseller list? Or does authorial success involve more ineffable qualities like getting answers to questions or feeling that you’ve reached and touched a specific audience?**

Who anyway is the judge of a writer’s success? After publishing Animal Farm, in an essay called “Why I Write,” George Orwell said, “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”

Another reason my writing this post is presumptuous: I have not canvassed successful writers for their opinions on the most important habits to cultivate. This is partly related to my first point above. (If I don’t know what success even means how can I pinpoint the successful writers whose habits I want to ask about?) My statement earlier (“there exists among writers something of a consensus on the habits that fuel success”) sounded ok when I typed it, but is actually not quite accurate.  What I should say is that, in my years of hanging out with other writers, I’ve picked up some inklings of what many consider helpful writing practices.

Third, since I haven’t entirely succeeded in adopting the habits I’m touting (see 1, 3, and 5 below) I’m sort of only guessing at even their personal effectiveness.

So based on my own admittedly flimsy grasp of what constitutes success and my very informal survey of the literary world, here is my definitive list of the seven habits of successful writers.

  1. Write. Daily if at all possible, even if it’s for just a few minutes. Grit and drive are arguably more important than raw talent in achieving even artistic success.*
  2. Read. Scrutinize every good story you read to see how the writer accomplishes what s/he does. Good reading inspires, and moreover, provides specific insight into how you can engineer your writing for maximum effect. Francine Prose offered a personal example of this in Reading Like a Writer: In the process of writing a story she knew was going to end in violence, she was struggling to make it sound natural and inevitable rather than forced and melodramatic. At the same time, she happened to be reading some stories by Isaac Babel and noticed that in his work, a violent moment is often preceded by a lyrical one. “It’s characteristic of Babel to offer a lovely glimpse of the crescent moon just before all hell breaks loose. I tried it – first the poetry, then the horror – and suddenly … the incident I had been struggling with appeared, at least to me, to be plausible and convincing.”
  3. Nurture your inner schizophrenic. When you have written a draft of your story and it’s time to revise, you have to be able to look at it with a cold eye and take the ax to it as needed.  If, on the other hand, you sit down to write the first draft while agonizing about how not original or not interesting your work will be, and how many grammatical mistakes you’re bound to make, odds are your work will be…neither original nor interesting. You’re actually not one person, but two: a dancer and an ax murderer. Love both of these people who live in your brain, but keep them apart. (This is, by the way, really, really hard to do. Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer is helpful in guiding you to live this way.)
  4. Actively seek inspiration (conversations with friends, music, political uprisings) wherever you can find it. This, more than dogged determination helps me. And as Necee Regis suggested here, you should also seek ways to simply shore up belief in yourself and your work.
  5. Keep a notebook or electronic tablet handy at all times. Use it to write down sudden ideas that you will otherwise forget or to record interesting conversations you’re eavesdropping on.
  6. Become part of a community of writers and other artists – that means keeping in regular contact. Writers tend to be solitary creatures, I know. Still, it can be a relief to be with others who are not puzzled when you start talking about people who don’t exist and never have. In an earlier post, Randy Susan Meyers enumerated many other reasons why being part of a community can enrich your writing and your life.
  7. Embrace failure. Even if you are the next Hemingway, you are going to fail often, so learn to fail gracefully. Honor yourself with a small gift for every rejection you receive, or paper your study with rejection slips. After all, the more walls you can cover, the closer you are to success – whatever that means to you.


But now it’s my turn to ask: what do you think? What would you add to (or subtract from) the list above?


* Dr. Alice Flaherty author of “The Midnight Disease,” said in an interview, “In psychological terms, it seems that drive is more important than talent. Dean Simonton at Stanford has argued that the composers who produced the greatest works, like Mozart and Beethoven, are simply the ones who wrote the most – they were composing all the time, as they walked down the street or sat at a dinner party.”

** For further reading on this topic, see Susan Kushner Resnick’s post “When Success Has Nothing to Do with Sales.”






Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. This is too funny *and* a great list — and I agree with all your points, especially #1 (even if I don’t do it everyday I aspire to). Although I’m not sure I qualify as a successful writer, I would add research widely and read anything/everything (not just fiction) to your great list. Not only does it help spark ideas, if I’m lacking, but it also helps add authenticity and gives great backstory to what I do write. As for community (#5), I wholeheartedly agree — I’ve not been so lucky to have a physical group of writers, but for the first time in my writing life I’ve found a community through blogging & tweeting, which is wonderful! (p.s. I am very very envious of Francine Prose — with a name like that, how can she NOT be successful?)

    • Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

      Yes, research is very helpful, too! Sometimes at the front end – when I’m trying to get a feel for the culture I’m writing about – and sometimes after I’ve written a piece, to fill in details that make, e.g. place ring true. Thanks for the suggestion, Julia, and your comment.

  2. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Great post Leslie —
    Agree with all your points (despite facing the who am I to do so, etc. question).
    And I like Julia’s point about having the right name…. I’m going to look into that.

  3. I absolutely agree with you, when people see a writer signing books, they normally appreciate the finished product.
    Before arriving there it’s necessary to do a long way alone.

    • Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

      Great point, Bibiana. It’s too easy to compare the stick figure you start out with to someone else’s finished portrait and find yours lacking. Susan Bell in “The Artful Edit” included the parts of the original unedited manuscript of “The Great Gatsby”. It was so nice to see that it wasn’t, in the beginning, at all great.

  4. […] the whole post at Posted by chris at 8:12 am […]

  5. “You’re actually not one person, but two: a dancer and an ax murderer. Love both of these people who live in your brain, but keep them apart.” Love that quote – and your entire post.

    Thanks, Leslie

  6. As one who often slaps herself over the CW and Lit courses she didn’t get around to, I can relate. And there is only so much you can absorb… soon or late, you still have to write out your worst stuff, and live through it.
    Good post, good advice.

  7. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    Read every day, write every day. Yes and yes. As always Leslie you bring your unique spin to this topic.

  8. Very nice posting on writing – I’m focusing on improving my own writing (a life-time project, no doubt) and would add a comment on #3 above. I like to let what I’ve written sit overnight when I think it’s done. Invariably, I bring fresh and eyes and mind to it the following day and have something to add (or ax) that really tightens it up.

  9. Poppet says:

    This is a delightful post. I do think writing every single day hones your ability to write, always. It’s a case of practice, until it becomes a reflex reaction, the way a basketball player lands hoop after hoop with practice, eventually it’s an extension of his instinctive choreography, rather than a thought form which has to be deliberated and measured first.

    As for success, for me I felt like I achieved it not in book rankings, or acclaim, but in having consecutive months where I sell a book every single day. (Can I just say I love the ebook revolution.)

    When you spend so many years pushing for a dream, knowing you have people reading your book, willing to spend their hard earned money on your writing, that to me is the ultimate success. It’s the dream grown into an adult.
    And I agree, be your best cheerleader, but be ruthless with the end product. Smack it around like a psychopath, until it is your vision, perfected. I’ve found years of rejection helps with this process. Eventually you have no ego left, and you view your own work so dispassionately, you are a drill sergeant, and it will conform, or it doesn’t get to go out to play in the world.

    The seven habits – I like that number, I like this post. And it makes me think of the seven spiritual laws of success (Deepak Chopra). In it he likens money to blood. It must flow *to be healthy*. I apply that in every way to my life. A writer’s blood are words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. They must flow, pump, rushing with life, forward, pulling the reader along right through the body, back to the heart. If it doesn’t flow, it’s a heart attack, (it’s death). You know when your blood is pumping. if you feel adrenaline-rush alive when writing, then you’re on the right path, then your *writing blood* is flowing.

    I’m happy Bubble Cow posted this on twitter, I enjoyed the read.

  10. Carra RIley says:

    You can’t get to Carnegie Hall if you don’t practice…. WRITE!

  11. […] The seven habits of successful writers. […]

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Leslie Greffenius

Leslie Greffenius
Leslie Greffenius did not exactly earn, but somehow or other received, a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Iowa. She subsequently worked at a law firm, taught international law at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Study (Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Nanjing, China), and, having lived the better part of a decade in Asia and Europe, founded and for several years directed a private school for international students. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Monarch Review, Gemini Magazine, The Schuylkill Valley Journal and other literary magazines. She is working on her first novel. Read Full