16 Good Habits for Writers to Model

what we can learn from great authors
what we can learn from great authors

My partner has this annoying habit of saying “what the fuck!” when he doesn’t understand things, like people driving at 40km/h or having to pay a lot more for something than he thinks it’s worth.

One day, when my youngest daughter, Gabbi, was around three years old, we were at the playground when another mum politely turned to her and asked if she wanted a turn on the swing as well. My sweet little Gabbi, with her innocent dark eyes and long black hair flowing down her back, didn’t understand the woman (she had quite a strong Russian accent) so she looked up at her and said, “What the fuck?”

Clearly, Gabbi misunderstood the use of the term WTF.

Modelling is a recognised, natural way to learn

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming, modelling is seen as one of the main ways in which highly successful people learn and thus become highly successful. People at the top of their game in any given field regularly model the behaviour of those who are even higher up the ladder than they are in order to improve their skills.

The reason why modelling is such an effective learning strategy is simple – why re-invent the wheel? If someone else already knows how to do what it is that you are learning to do, then modelling his or her strategy makes good sense.

What this means for writers

As writers, we can model other writers who are good at any aspect of the writing life that we’re struggling with, be it writing or publishing strategy, coping with stress and anxiety, overcoming limiting beliefs or even balancing the writing life with our family life.

Whatever it is we need, there are writers out there who have been there and done that and we can learn from them. All we have to do is find them. (And remember to be discerning with which behaviours you choose to model – the part of modelling behaviour that my Gabbi obviously forgot!)

Below is a short list that I’ve compiled of habits that some famous authors developed in their own writing lives to help them along. If an author is well known for his/her strategy, then I’ve placed his or her name next to it. If many authors use this technique, then I didn’t attribute it to anyone in particular.

Famous author habits

  Always stop writing when you know what’s going to happen next. (Ernest Hemmingway.)

  Creating a daily routine so that the repetition of the routine becomes your way of settling in to write. The routine itself becomes mesmerising. (Haruki Murakami.)

  Learn to work amongst distractions and noise. (E.B. White.)

  Henry Miller has a lot of good ideas to model in his book, “Henry Miller On Writing.”

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  3. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  4. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilisers.
  5. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  6. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day.  Narrow down. Exclude.
  7. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are
  8. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

  Be willing to write badly. (Julia Cameron)

  Similar to number 5 above – You can’t edit a blank page. (Jody Picoult.)

  Find a way to procrastinate and fidget that works for you but doesn’t interfere with your writing. Maya Angelo talks about having playing cards and crossword puzzles to keep her Little Mind occupied while her Big Mind thinks about the things she wants to think about. In fact, many writers talk about the ritualistic things they do before writing, just to get settled, whether it’s having a cup of tea or checking emails and social media.

  Become comfortable with throwing lots of writing away. “I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.” (Barbara Kingsolver.)

  “Turn off your cell phone.” (Nathan Englander.) I would add to close the email and social media tabs on your computer as well.

  Learn to write in a variety of settings, such as coffee shops, in the car, on the train, amongst their children and in the silence of an empty house. A.J. Jacobs, for instance, wrote while walking on the treadmill. He says it took him 1,200 miles to write his book!

  Learn to write whether you feel like it or not.

  Good writers get into a writing habit, and they actively create inspiration and good ideas when their creativity seems to have dried up.

  Cultivate a good physical exercise routine. Writing is a sedentary activity that is not only unhealthy for your body but also for your creative spirit. Writers are famous for being good walkers, for instance, but any physical activity will do. (Julia Cameron, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling…)

  Discipline yourself. Writing might seem like something that writers do when the inspiration strikes, but most good writers are disciplined about it. It doesn’t matter whether you write for twenty minutes every day or five hours. Be disciplined about it.

  Be prepared to practice – even after you’ve been published. Just like fine artists practice the basics of brush strokes and shading techniques every day, pianists practice their scales, singers do voice exercises before every singing session and even soccer players practice ball skills and sprinting, so must writers be prepared to practice writing. Do a paragraph of descriptive writing, write some dialogue, enrol in a writing course, listen to an interview with an established writer, copy out pages from a novel by your favourite writer or Google writing prompts and do one every now and again.

  Read good books. (I always thought this was an obvious pre-requisite for a writer, but apparently, it isn’t. I've met many people, especially at my writers' workshops, who say they want to be writers, but they don't read. Go figure.)

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