The twelve habits of highly productive writers

June 25, 2015 Rachel Toor

When someone’s doing a lot more than you, you notice it. It brings out your petty jealousy. And if you’re like me (occasionally petty and jealous), it might make you feel crappy about yourself. Which is, let’s face it, ridiculous. No one else’s achievements take anything away from yours, or mine. The fact that another writer is working hard and well should be nothing more than inspiration, or at least a gentle prod.

Source: Goydenko Liudmila/iStockphoto

So I started to think about the practices of highly productive writers. What are the personality traits and habits that help people crank out the pages? Here are a few that occur to me:

They reject the notion of "writer’s block". Productive writers don’t reach for excuses when the going gets hard. They treat writing like the job it is. They show up, punch the clock, and punch out. Nothing romantic about it. They give themselves a quota; sometimes it’s butt-in-chair time, sometimes a word count. These writers know how to use deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, to stay on track.

They don’t overtalk their projects. Some writers like to talk about writing more than they actually like to write. Others dine out for years on their topics—giving conference papers, writing journal articles, applying for grants—until they’ve all but lost interest in what they are supposed to be writing. One prolific academic writer told me that he often gets interested in something and spends a few months working before he realizes it’s not going to pan out. He puts it aside without ever having talked about it. Only once it’s well under way will he discuss it.

They believe in themselves and their work. Perhaps it’s confidence, perhaps it’s Quixote-like delusion, but to be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. If you second-guess at every step, you’ll soon be going backward.

They know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not "working”. Productive writers have been through the cycle enough to know it’s a cycle, and sometimes you figure out problems while you’re walking the dog. They know to trust that and don’t get twitchy when the pages stop piling up.

They’re passionate about their projects. Too much scholarly work is obviously produced without heat. Some academics take so long to finish a book they can barely remember what interested them about the topic in the first place. Productive people become impatient and seek out new thrills. They like to learn stuff.

They know what they’re good at. It’s important to find the project and the approach that will work for you and will let you use your own real and valuable skills to best effect. Perhaps academics find themselves traumatized by writing because they’re trying to sound like some "smart" version of themselves. Their writing comes off as inauthentic. Often, however, these same people can talk about their ideas in a way that makes you want to listen for hours. The best writing is a conversation between author and reader. If these folks could write more like they teach—be themselves on the page—the work would surely benefit.

They read a lot, and widely. I’m always amazed when professors say they don’t have time to read for fun. How else can you attempt to write something good? If you don’t think that your work should be a pleasure to read, most of us won’t want to read it. Productive writers (should) pay attention to craft and read to steal tricks and moves from authors they admire.

They know how to finish a draft. As with relationships, beginnings are exciting and easy, full of hope and promise. Middles can get comfortable. You fall into a routine and, for a while, that can be its own kind of fun. But then many of us hit a wall. Whether it’s disillusion, boredom, or self-doubt, we crash into stuckness. Productive authors know that they have to keep going through the hard parts and finish a complete draft. At least you’ve got something to work from.

They work on more than one thing at once. Of course, when you hit that wall, it’s tempting to give up and start on something new and exciting (see above, re: beginnings are easy). While that can lead to a sheaf of unfinished drafts, it can also be useful. Some pieces need time to smolder. Leaving them to turn to something short and manageable makes it easier to go back to the big thing.

They leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again. Some writers quit a session in the middle of a sentence; it’s always easier to continue than to begin. If you know where you’re headed the next time you sit down, you’ll get there faster.

They don’t let themselves off the hook. If only I had three hours of quiet every day. If only I had the perfect office. If only my hair weren’t so frizzy. People often say to writers, "Oh, I’d love to write a book, if only I had the time," as if it’s merely a question of having a leisurely spell to sit noodling at your computer. You have time only if you make it a priority. Productive writers don’t allow themselves the indulgence of easy excuses. When they start to have feelings of self-doubt—I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’ll never write another good sentence—they tell themselves to stop feeling sorry for themselves and just do the work.

They know there are no shortcuts, magic bullets, special exercises, or incantations. I am suspicious of strategies that diminish the time and effort required to do good work. Write your dissertation in five minutes a day? Complete a book in 60 days? Maybe you’d like to try the KitKat Diet, or purchase a lovely bridge?

There are no tricks to make it easier, just habits and practices you can develop to get it done.

This post is adapted from the original article by Rachel Toor- you can read the full version here.

Source: Goydenko Liudmila/iStockphoto

About the Author

Associate Professor, Inland Northwest Center for Writers  // Rachel is currently associate professor of Creative Writing at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, the graduate writing program of Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared in various and diverse places, including The New York Times, The LA Times, Inside Higher Ed, Reader's Digest, and a variety of other more academically-oriented publications.

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