The Three Habits of Successful Writers

Written by Caitlin Jans | December 19, 2016

Many writers have one or two of the following habits, but it is very rare to find writers that do all three of these things regularly, unless you are looking at a shelf at a bookstore or library. Almost all of the authors whose work is on that shelf, at some point in their life did all three of these things habitually. Once you are established as a writer the third habit becomes less important, but until then it is the most vital habit and the one most commonly overlooked.

1. Write

The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.
–John Irving

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.
–Ray Bradbury

Don’t write to become famous or to make a lot of money.  Write because you love it. Write because not writing for more than a few days feels like you have abandoned a puppy in a mineshaft.  Save the puppy.
– Joe Beernink

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
–Pablo Picasso

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.
― Shannon Hale

It might seem obvious or redundant that being a writer requires one to write a lot. But many people who call themselves writers rarely write. I know one writer who spends about four hours a year writing creatively. Many of the writers I know wait for inspiration.

If you are going to become a professional writer it involves writing regularly. Even when you do not feel like writing.

When I was younger I waited for inspiration, but the more serious I got about producing work the more regularly I wrote. And the more regularly I wrote the more regularly I produced work worth reading.  That is really what it comes down to. Good writers produce work worth reading. Hopefully a lot of it.

Would the Harry Potter series would have worked if J.K. Rowling waited for inspiration? No, she would probably still be on book one.

Writing, if you are serious about it, is a lot like every other job. You have to commit a lot of time to it. You sometimes have to write a lot of rubbish to get to the good stuff, but that is OK, like Shannon Hale says, sometimes early drafts are all about shoveling sand.

If you are protesting right now that you don’t have time to write, I hear you. I have a baby, a full time job, and at first I really struggled to find the time to write.

But I found a way, mostly by giving up all TV and the occasional social gathering. And I am really glad I did. If you want to work on intentionally adding more writing time to your life, these three articles are really worth the read: How to Make Time For Focused Writing, How to Develop Good Writing Habits, and The Six Month Novel Writing Plan.

2. Edit

No one cares about your first draft.
– Neil Gaiman

Going back and editing is the best part of writing; it’s like reading an interactive novel. ‘Oh I wish the author used this word here or had this dramatic reveal there…oh that’s right! I am the author!’
–Mabel E. Wetherbee

I wish I felt like Mable E. Wetherbee about editing, but frankly I (and many other authors) don’t enjoy editing. I have discovered, over time, that if I type slower and copy edit a little as I go, I am left with a product that while not yet finished is awfully close. It allows me to focus on any changes I have to make on the content itself, rather than the spelling and the grammar (although hard as I try, there are always mistakes).

I take different approaches to editing a poem, an article, or a novel. Each genre requires different editing techniques. For example, when I edit poems my focus is on concision, I try to remove any line or word or punctuation mark that is not vital, so that I am able to convey my idea without any extra words. When I edit my own articles, I focus on how clearly I am making my point.

When I edit a novel I edit for different aspects each time. For example one editing round could focus entirely on continuity, another on characters.

No matter how you do it, editing takes focused time outside of writing and it also takes perspective. I do not know any writers that can do all of the editing right away. They need to take a break of at least a week, then return to the work on it after a period of time.

The following articles are very helpful ways to get started, if you struggle making editing part of your writing practice: Editing Exercise: Length Play, Five Free and Cheap Editing Options, and Three Steps to Take Before Publishing Your Manuscript.

3. Submit

Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.
– John W. Campbell

I figured out that I had to write regularly when I was 18.

I figured out that I needed to spend most of my time editing when I was 19.

I was 24 when I figured out that those two steps were insufficient.

No one was going to break into my house, steal my manuscript, publish it, and send me royalty checks.

I had to start submitting for myself, and I had to be serious about it and I had to know what I was doing. This took time. I figured out how to submit my work to literary journals first.

This was good in some ways because the stakes are a lot lower. If a literary journal publishes one of your poems poorly, it is frustrating, but no great loss. It is just one small piece of writing. If a publisher takes the rights to your novel and messes up, there are much greater consequences.

Unfortunately after I had such a degree of success I didn’t pursue publishing a manuscript for over four years, as if somehow now that my work was out in the world that would be enough for a publisher or an agent to track me down.

That has worked for some fiction writers (Elizabeth Gilbert’s agent found her after Esquire published one of her short stories), but for the majority of writers that is not how it works. So finally in the last three years I have started to submit regularly to manuscript publishers as well as literary journals.

I submit regularly. At least once a week I submit to a few literary journals and a few manuscript publishers. I have my manuscript out to four publishers at all times. I have various poems and stories out to at least 30 literary journals at once. While I have yet to publish a book, I have published a rather large amount of poems in anthologies and literary journals. So even though my whole book of poems has yet to be published you can find my poems in a number of anthologies at brick and mortar bookstores.

When you first start submitting make a clear number-based goal regarding how many submissions you want to keep out at a time, and then stick to it. When you receive a rejection, send a submission out. Make sure your work is always being considered in the world. Of course, in order for this to happen you have to be writing all the time. In order for your work to be taken seriously it has to be edited and polished.

For further reading, the following articles might be very helpful for you: Three Things I Wish I Knew Before Submitting to Literary Journals, Good Literary Journals for Unpublished AuthorsHow to start Submitting Your Work To Literary Journals, and How to Submit Your Manuscript.

In Conclusion

Writing is all about balance, as long as you continue to do all three things, you will be published. But it is a lot of hard work, a lot of commitment, and a great deal of time. Stay focused. I know you can do this.