7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers
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We all have the same 26 letters available to us. This finite number of letters can be spun into an infinite number of words, sentences, concepts, stories, essays, books, careers.
All great writers have one variable in common, no matter how disparate the way they use those letters. They have habits that work for them.
This list of habits isn’t exhaustive. Nor do you have to use all of them. Find some that work for you.
My goal is simply to get you to write more and write your best stuff so the world can see it. Your career is on the other side of finding and implementing the right habits.
Become An Idea Mchine
“The way to have good ideas is to get close to killing yourself. It’s like weightlifting. When you lift slightly more than you can handle, you get stronger.” – James Altucher
I give my creativity sensei James Altucher credit for this technique because it’s his technique, not mine. But I’ve been writing 10 ideas for new articles each day for the past five years.
It taught me this valuable lesson.
If you’re a writer, coming up with great ideas is your job. Notice I said “coming up with” and not “waiting for.” If you wait for great ideas to come to you, you’ll wait for your whole life and never have a writing career.
Quit putting yourself under pressure to have good ideas, just focus on the act of coming up with ideas, period. When you write down 10 ideas for articles or concepts to write about, 8 or 9 of them will suck. But you’ll get one or two good ideas.
Come up with ideas constantly and you’ll come across a few great ideas. You just need a few great ideas to build a writing career.
This takes time. People ask me how I come up with headlines. My little trick? I’ve written 15,000 of them or more. There’s your secret. I know you believe in this magical path where you somehow become an amazing writer without practicing, but you know it doesn’t exist.
Less idealism. More pragmatism. Remove the mystique behind coming up with great ideas and get them through grunt work instead.
Take the Next Step After “Practicing”
“Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. And Ship constantly.” — Seth Godin
Writing alone doesn’t make you a better writer. Publishing your work makes you a better writer. Putting your work out there to face scrutiny makes you a better writer. Letting the marketplace judge your work makes you a better writer.
I’ve had this conversation with many writers. We’ll be talking shop and they’ll tell me how they have this giant archive of unpublished drafts of their work. Why? What good is your writing if no one ever sees it?
How are you going to have a writing career without publicly displaying your work? You won’t. And you know that, but again, aspiring writers seem to have these weird little mind-viruses — warped illogical beliefs that can’t possibly be true. One of them is the idea that endlessly creating drafts without sharing them is helpful.
It’s not. It’s counterproductive and harms your self-esteem because hesitation causes more hesitation. You think that if you just keep hesitating it’ll make you feel better about pulling the trigger. It never will. It just creates more anxiety.
Put your work out there. In the beginning, no one will even care anyway. Over time, you will one hundred percent get haters.
But guess what? Fuck them.
Are you really going to throw away your dream over the opinions of other people? Hope not.
Get Out of Your Own Head and Into the Heads of Others
“You can write for an audience or you can write for yourself. You can’t do both” – Josh Spector
Good writers at least think about their readers even if they don’t write exclusively for them. Thinking about your readers doesn’t equal dumbing down your work. That’s the major cop-out excuse I hear over and over.
Writers who don’t get the readership they want and blame it on the readers.
“They don’t get it.”
No, you don’t get it.
It’s frustrating to watch. I see so, so, so many writers who are just vain. They can’t see outside of themselves or their writing at all. The same happens in business — people think they should have a successful business just because they started one and people should buy their products just because they created them.
A helpful question to always ask yourself – Would you want to read your own writing if you weren’t you?
Do you want to read someone else’s random story about their trip to Kansas?
Do you want to hear someone else’s “musings” about their relationship with their parents without any context that shows you a window into your own life?
Then why would you expect other people to read your work for no reason?
This is the number one problem I see with aspiring writers. Like, all of them. Even if you write about yourself, your writing isn’t about you or for you alone. It has to be about and for other people, too.
Don’t Overcomplicate This, Please
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” – Attributed to like 97 different writers. Still a good quote
No need for an elaborate strategy to build good writing habits.
Keep it simple:
- Write around the same time
- Choose a length of time that works for you and that you’ll stick with
- Maybe write at the same place each day too
That’s all you need to do.
Do it for years, while publishing your work, and you’ll have a writing career.
On the one hand, there is such a thing as forcing the issue. Writing constantly just to write can lead to bad writing. Part of becoming a better writer is living an interesting life. Some day you should go out and get the right experiences before putting words on the page. Solid argument.
On the other hand, most writers don’t write enough, period. And going on a grand adventure probably won’t solve their inability to sit down and put words on the page.
Guess what? You can live an interesting life and practice your writing at the same time. If you write for a half-hour each day, you have 15 and a half other hours in the day to focus on being more interesting.
This stuff isn’t complicated. This goes back to the hesitation idea. Hesitating to get your writing routine started won’t help you get your writing routine started. Start.
There Are Two Ways to Practice: Only One is Right
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Vince Lombardi
When you do start to practice, focus on iterative practice, meaning you’re actively trying to tweak a specific part of your writing style or trying to implement a certain technique.
You can do this intuitively, I do, but avoid ineffective practice where you just sit down and ramble whatever you want onto the page over and over and over again.
How do you know which techniques to work on?
You can study proven methods and take advice from pieces like this.
You can read the work of other writers and try to reverse engineer their methods or emulate parts of their voice in your own work.
Careful with this one, but you can ask peers for feedback on your work and try to implement it into your own writing
Practice this way, without quitting, and you get much better. You find your voice. After you copy, steal, and swipe styles from a wide array of sources, you become unique.
Fuel Your Words With Words
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King
I don’t want to give this piece of advice, but I’m going to give it. Read this in a condescending tone. You can’t become a better writer without becoming a better reader.
Books give you useful ideas. You get to ‘download’ the life experiences of another human being in a few hours — either fictional or real.
You also get to study the craft of writing itself in its most elite form. Books go through much more rigor than essays or blog posts. You get to see what great writing looks like and this can inspire you to reach the same level yourself, one day.
Books unlock new parts of your brain and help you connect disparate ideas. In any one essay from me, you may find traces of psychology, biology, economics, marketing, human nature, literary inspiration, so it goes. Books are the cheat code to life, period, not just writing.
When I was dead broke with no future, I heard that you could improve your life by reading books. I just gave it a try and it worked. What should you read? As Naval Ravikant says, read the books that make you want to read more.
I hated reading assignments in school because the teacher chose the books for me. As soon as I could choose my own books, I fell in love with reading.
You probably already do read. But make sure to keep the habit consistent. I noticed my writing tends to fall off if I go through long droughts where I’m not reading. It’s like books are protein and supplements and my writing is the exercise itself.
Feed your brain and creative muscles. Use the information and inspiration from books to write your own best work.
Find Inspiration Everywhere
“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days–listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you’ve taken in, all that you’ve overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.)” – Anne Lamott
Life has so much material to provide — from the banal to the hard to believe to the joyous to the tragic. I’ve taken so many moments from my life and put them into my writing.
Random moments like the time I saw a BMW in a parking lot and used it to write an essay about the miserable corporate worker with “golden handcuffs.” Moments I’ll never forget like my dad getting kicked out of our home with all his belongings on our front lawn. Observations I make in the coffee shop when I’m people watching. Conversations I have with friends.
I’m always looking for new material, everywhere, in every single moment. Life is interesting. Even boring lives are interesting.
Being a human being is pretty insane if you ask me — sentient apes floating on a rock with just the right conditions to sustain life in the middle of an infinite abyss who pay taxes, fall in love, build pyramids, and take pictures of their butt on Instagram.
Tap into the wonderful awesome craziness that is being alive. If you actively build the habit of trying to take your observations and putting them on the page, you’ll never ever run out of material.
Your story is interesting, but you have to portray your story in the right way.
All these habits, at their core, deal with the fact that we’re mostly the same. Writers have the same problems and the solutions are similar. People have the same problems, the solutions are similar, the stories and myths we share have pre-defined arcs, and human nature is unchanging.
The ultimate habit is focus.
Just focus on your writing and use your writing to focus on the essence of what it is to be a human being. Paint that essence, with context, to the subject or niche you choose to write about, and you’ll be a good writer.