Just Write poster

5 habits of a great writer

I am not saying that every person who does these things will become an overnight bestselling sensation. We do not wave magic wands. This is not Cinderella. I’m saying if you show me a great writer, I’ll show you a person who routinely does these five things.

1. Read

Drown in the classics – anything from Dr. Seuss’s “B Book” to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”  Find what you like and consume it like a starving man would a Filet Mignon. And think about why you like it. The voice? Rhythm? Moral? Things that draw you to a particular genre, author or setting help define your own writing. Which is exactly why you need to remember the old adage: Garbage in, garbage out.

If you read crap – work that tells (rather than shows) or uses paltry description that falls flat – you will write crap, mimicking the style. Don’t go there. Read works that use original images – books that expand the way you think about sentence structure, detail, dialogue and setting. Shit that’s interesting and well-written.

2. Free write

I probably talk about free writing more than I do anything else. Here’s the re-cap: Don’t be a douche. Nothing about free writing can hurt you, and you will very likely find your best ideas, phrases and sentences when you let loose and do it. We use two separate parts of the brain to write. One to create and one to critique. When you free write, you turn the create on HIGH. The more you do it, the bigger that creative muscle gets. More on that is over here.

Also, because I know the awesome benefits of free writing, I host weekly prompts for that purpose. It’s called Just Write for a reason. Seek original images. Make word lists. Free associate. Surprise yourself with language.

3. Carry a notebook

I carry a green steno pad in my purse. It has a blue Bic pen inserted in the spiral. If I do not have these items with me, I lose my mind.

I’ve lost count of the number of times an idea got away because I was able to scrounge up a napkin to write on, but didn’t have a pen. Driving. At the beach with my boys. Watching one of their soccer games. Even at the goddamn grocery store. In a flash, a difficult paragraph makes sense. I discover the solution to the transition I need. I am struck by a brilliant metaphor, or cleaner structure for a short story.

Don’t do that to yourself. The deeper you engross yourself in your work (and you will, if you haven’t yet), the more time you will spend mulling words and stories. Be prepared. This is one time the fucking Boy Scouts knew what they were talking about.

4. Write to one person

This tidbit has been passed around more than Heidi Fleiss, for good reason. When you block out the masses and tell your story as though speaking to a friend, your words become more intimate, more friendly, more revealing. You lose the stuffy bullshit and big words. You become more genuine – more you. You’re also more helpful. Writing to one person makes it about that person, not about you as the author. The result is the reader is better able to follow your plot, understand your meaning, oh, and give a shit about what you’re saying.

This is difficult for some writers to fully grasp, which is why I created Write Raw.

5. Make fear your bitch

To be clear, you can still, technically, be a good writer without doing the first four things on this list. But if you don’t get past your fear, you’re going nowhere.

“What if I suck? What if no one reads my book? I feel stuck and blocked and have no idea where to turn.”

Yeah. Fear lies. The posts addressing this very real feeling outnumber those on any other topic on this site. The favorite seems to be this one. So if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and go. Now.

If you have a burning desire to write, then write.

If you think you cannot do it, you’re wrong.

If you think it’s unrealistic, you’re wrong.

If you think it will be scary, you’re right.

If you’re willing to go after what you want in spite of that fear …

If want to go out knowing that you did everything you could …

you’re in the right place.

• • •

If you’ve read this far, here’s my gift to you: Print this sucker out and paste it beside your monitor. I believe in these five things so strongly, I made you a poster. 🙂

Psst. Be sure to subscribe to the site in the upper right-hand corner. That way, I can send the sexiest, most liberating and inspiring tidbits of writing advice straight to your inbox.

14 replies
  1. Renee
    Renee says:

    Number 2 is the best advice…one day I was driving and this idea came to me. I had no paper all I had was receipt paper. Pulled in to a remote parking lot. Not aware of the time. A policeman taped on my window wanting to know what I was doing. I told him just a minute I almost have the scene done.

  2. Carl Purdon
    Carl Purdon says:

    I do #1 & #5 and, kinda-sorta #4. Instead of writing to one person, I try to envision what I’m writing as a movie. That helps keep things tighter for me. I never do #3. Couldn’t read my handwriting anyway, but I subscribe to the Willie Nelson approach — if an idea is great, you’ll remember it. If you forget it, it wasn’t that great.

    I don’t do #2 (that sounded funny after I typed it) but I do the mental version of it. Instead of writing freely, I use alone time (driving, motorcycle riding, lying in bed) to let my thoughts run free. Sometimes I talk to myself (not in bed, my wife is usually there) and just say whatever insane thing that pops into my head. I really am kind of strange sometimes. Creative, but strange.

  3. Lonesome Jackalope
    Lonesome Jackalope says:

    Helpful, indeed these are bedrock concepts to writing and should be in everyone’s tool kit. Of course, I would add good whiskey to the list but what may float one writer’s boat may sink another. Actually, I’d add one more, and this one is to me mostly; write your best but without expectations that people will like it. Just do it for the stories sake. I finished another short story last night and only a few people read it. No comments, nothing. But the piece was worthy, a good read. Today, I’m getting on with it because there are so many more things to write, and not enough breaths left to take.

    • Rebecca T. Dickson
      Rebecca T. Dickson says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I was over at your place earlier and I enjoyed your most recent story. I didn’t see any social media links for you though?


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