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.
- 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.*
- 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.”
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”