5 Habits of Highly Effective Writers

Be a reader.

Read widely and well. Read in the genre in which you are writing, but also break away from it. Read essays, crime fiction, flash fiction, poetry. Read investigative journalism. Read diaries from the nineteenth century. Read a book you remember from childhood. When you read, your imagination opens up. Your words flow more freely. I’ve known many readers who weren’t writers, but I’ve yet to meet a good writer who wasn’t also a reader. When I was writing Golden State, which imagines present-day California on the brink of secession, I read Mississippi high school history textbooks from the 1960s, memoirs of soldiers in Afghanistan, Swedish detective fiction by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and short stories in obscure literary journals. Some of it was research, but much of it wasn’t.

When you are stuck, when the words elude you, do this: put down the book you are writing and enter another book as a reader.

Be an observer.

The writer's primary occupation, aside from putting pen to paper, is watching and listening to the world around her. Without acute observation, your writing will fall flat. Observe the physical details--sights, sounds, smells--but also observe human nature. Watch the way people behave. How do they react to one another? How do they respond to crises, large and small? Think about why people do what they do.

Readers come to a novel for a good story, but they also come for something else--an understanding of the world we live in, and of the people who inhabit it.

Protect your time.

I do not mean to say that you should abandon your day job, spend less time with your children, or ignore your spouse. I do mean that you should look for things that can be trimmed away. I write during the day, while my son is at school. I rarely accept lunch engagements or go out for coffee. I may have other work obligations during the school day--editing someone else's manuscript or reading submissions for Fiction Attic or various non-writing tasks to publicize my books--but I make an effort to set aside a few hours, or even a single hour, of each weekday for writing. During that hour, I don't do other work. I do my primary job, which is writing.

The greatest commodity anyone needs in order to write, aside from imagination, is time.

Whatever time you have carved out to do your writing, don't let unnecessary things intrude. Most phone calls can wait. So can most emails. What if you have an insane job or intense family obligations? I feel your pain, and I know it isn't easy. But if you get up at four a.m., the rest of the world (young children and babies excepted) will think you are sleeping, and they will probably leave you alone. If you have to get up at four o'clock in the morning to create a protected space, then remind yourself as you roll out of bed why you are doing this, and why it matters.

Prioritize the writing over the lifestyle.

Some people are attracted to the literary lifestyle--readings, parties, conferences. All of those things are good in moderation. It's great to get together with other writers, with people who understand why you do what you do. But if the readings and the hobnobbing and the conferences cut too much into your writing time, they're not worth it. It would be like someone who wants to practice law, who spends all of his time hanging out at the bar where the lawyers hang out instead of finishing law school.

Write first, live the writing lifestyle second.

Once your book comes out, you'll be invited to do plenty of readings. You'll be the life of the party, or at least of someone's party, I promise. For now, get the words on the page.

Be true.

You know it when you're being false. If you don’t know it, enlist a trusted reader who can call you out on it. When you write something that feels false--not in the sense of it not having happened, but in the sense of it being untrue to the voice or the vision or the character you are trying to get onto the page--scrap it. Hit delete. Turn the page. Begin again. That, after all, is the beauty of writing; you can always begin again.

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