7 Habits of Every Good Writer

Have you ever googled “quotes on writing?” If so, you probably came away from your search wondering why anyone would choose to be a writer. Consider what Hemingway said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Or Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Or Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Writing is hard work: it’s mentally and physically taxing. It’s demanding and time-consuming and heavy on failure. It’s a great way to feel like you’ll never amount to anything. Yet, for some reason, many of us choose to do it. And we know that it’s important that our students and children be good at it.

So, in keeping with the spirit of our habits series I asked a few of my CiRCE-world friends to help me think about some of the habits that every great writer keeps. Here’s what they said. I’m not sure these responses will help make the process of writing any less challenging, but they might help your attempts (at writing and at cultivating good writing in students) be more focused.

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Andrew Pudewa, Director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing
Good writers are collectors. Louis L’Amour observed, “A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first.” Too often we imagine that great writers somehow produce something from nothing, something original and unique, something that has never been thought of before. The opposite is often true. Though I am not a fan, Stephen King, who certainly has a wild imagination, notes in his short autobiography that every idea he’s ever put into writing came from somewhere–a memory, a reading, a dream, an experience.

Good writers remain aware not only of experiences, but of words, phrases, figures of thought and speech. They read something that tickles, exhorts, stimulates, challenges, and they gather it—oft times in memory, more often in notes. Good writers observe and remember, translating image and experience into words that allow them to grasp the abstract and add it to the blender of the mind. Good writers appreciate what they find and take bits of this and that to give to their readers; they are alchemists, not producing something from nothing, but magically combining essences into elements.

Gather the pithy, wise, beautiful, poignant ideas and language you find. Commit some of it to memory, record the rest, and see how the furnishing of the mind allows for genius to flourish. Become a collector.

Adam Andrews, Director of the Center for Lit
A great writer’s cardinal virtue is precision. He disbelieves in synonyms. He cannot shake the suspicion that there is a better way to get his point across, so he says a thing out loud a dozen different ways before he chooses one for his page. He eschews approximation. He considers the editing process to consist of not primarily shortening but sharpening his language – not primarily in removing words, but in replacing them with better ones. He embraces the following distinction as a mantra: while a merely good writer can be understood; a great writer cannot be misunderstood.

George Grant, author, pastor, teacher
I suppose a great writer will necessarily impose upon himself a whole host of disciplines from careful note taking and observational journaling to scheduling consistency and dogged persistence. But, when students ask me what it takes to become a good writer, I always respond with just six bits of counsel. First, read. “Lyman Abbott said, “A broad interest in books usually means a broad interest in life.” Second, read deeply. Richard Steele quipped, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Third, read out of your time. William Hazlitt sagely observed, “I hate to read new books. Contemporary writers may generally be divided into two classes—one’s friends or one’s foes. Of the first we are compelled to think too well, and of the last we are disposed to think too ill, to receive much genuine pleasure from the perusal, or to judge fairly of the merits of either.” Fourth, read classically. And what’s a classic? Well, as Italo Calvino noted, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Fifth, read above your head. It was the inimitable Jane Austen who wrote, “You may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worthwhile to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it.” And sixth, remember that the medium is nearly as vital as the message, so enjoy the aesthetic beauty of good books (hardback antiquarian books, if at all possible). Winston Churchill really was on to something when he said, “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them.” This kind of delightful reading life will inevitably feed a delightful writing life.

David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility
Who is a writer? Simply, one who writes. Only a liar or fantasist would claim to be a farmer without farming. The writer rises every morning with a firm intention and plan to write. Usually a schedule or routine, a ritual almost sacred to him. This discipline is a form of supplication to the Muse. He begins like Homer, whether consciously or not, with a silent prayer, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story . . . .” Or if you prefer, he wrestles like Jacob with his muse until it blesses him. And then he takes what the Oracle has given him and like those Delphic priests of ancient memory shapes it into something fit for his readers and listeners.

Andrew Kern, President of the CiRCE Institute
A good writer reads widely and deeply and a lot, and he writes deeply and widely and a lot. He plays with words and phrases and clauses and structures, following the rules unless his purpose demands a bend. He is constantly learning new ways to come up with ideas, new forms to order them, and new expressions to modify them. He chases wild hares while standing firm, he ignores fads while attending to his audience, and he expresses clearly only what should be clear, which is almost everything. But when his purpose demands that the reader be flagitated, he doesn’t sheathe his sword. When he reaches an inflection point, he reviews his work to ensure it approaches his purpose, then continues to fail the rest of the way. When he is done, he submits his work to a publisher with the same reluctant determination he would use to slit his throat. And he only uses picturesque language if it helps. And he stops when he has said what needs to be said, not adding even a single clause to what has been written, or even a phrase, or word. At all.

Wes Callihan, Founder of Schola Classical Tutorials
A good writer is patient, slow to publish to the world, in two ways. First, he should not publish in the heat of a beginner’s enthusiasm. He should not start writing on a subject until he has read, studied, discussed, cogitated, and even taught the subject, perhaps for years, while his thoughts mature and he learns what has actually already been said about it. Second, having written a draft of something, he should set it aside for days, perhaps weeks or months, before coming back go it with fresh eyes to revise.

Sarah Ruden, author of The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible, translater of the Aeneid
What’s important for me is not the habits but what I don’t do; and I set that up not as a daily discipline, but merely by not making certain facilities available when I have the chance. If I don’t download music, if I don’t use apps, I can concentrate on my writing for hours every day, simply because it’s the most interesting thing to do. Most of all, I don’t let publishers talk me into thinking that I have any responsibility for marketing my work online. I’ll talk or write about it any time, anywhere – but I won’t chase opportunities online, particularly not through social media. I know work couldn’t compete with a virtual party full of nice and interesting people, a party I can persuade myself is somehow going to contribute to my success – so I don’t let myself go to that party. I’ve refused to buy the car that could take me there, by not joining Facebook or Twitter or any other forum where I’d try be “followed” from day to day.

A number of years ago, I had two Facebook accounts, but I found that using either in connection to my writing – which is my main mission in life – was like trying to interest other vendors at a flea market in my own particular widgets. But, I asked myself, why should other vendors be interested in my widgets? And why should anything but producing good and useful widgets preoccupy me?

I think that the greatest spiritual corruption–and all-around frustration–in the commercial marketplace in this era is the mix-up of production and marketing, so that it becomes next to impossible to distinguish the things worth having. But–critically for people like me–the confusion also renders it much harder to make such things.

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