Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Five Habits for Writers to Avoid

“Much that is learned is bound to be bad habits. You’re always beginning again.” W.S. Merwin

We have this mistaken idea that bad habits are the result of some weakness, some character flaw. But our least helpful writing habits are more likely to result from things we’ve inadvertently learned. That means there’s this good news—once we’ve identified these learned behaviors for what they are, we can unlearn them.

Here, five habits we writers would do well to banish:

Comparing our progress with others: As writers, we’re each on our own journeys. None of us will move along exactly the same trajectory toward exactly the same end. So while it’s fine to be inspired by the success of other authors, it’s silly—and potentially demoralizing—to expect our successes to follow theirs. In truth, some of our most significant accomplishments happen on the page, in relation to our craft, and these may happen in ways that aren’t immediately acknowledged by anyone but ourselves.

Making excuses: You want to write, but you don’t have the time. Or you don’t know how to start. Or your kids keep interrupting. Writing doesn’t have to be your top priority, but should it really be your last? Alice Munro, one of the most brilliant authors of our era, wrote her early stories while her children were napping. Even if you can only write for ten minutes a day, that’s a start.

Getting in a rut: You keep at your work, but you sense it’s flatlining—characters languish, story lines run on and on, language sounds wooden. While persevering is admirable, it’s also helpful to do a reality check every now and then. If you’re in a rut, come at your project from another angle. Take a workshop. Get some coaching or editing advice. Study a craft book.

Sharing too soon: Agents and editors see this problem all the time—writers have a good concept, but it’s poorly executed. Or they have nice execution, but the concept’s not fully developed. In either case, the problem is the same—the work went out before it was ready. When you think you’re finished, wait. Days, weeks, even months. When you return to the project, you’ll see the flaws, and you’ll have new perspectives on how to correct them.

Losing touch with the joy: Beneath the hard work of what we do, there’s the joy of discovery, of creating beauty on the page, of engaging readers. If you find yourself losing touch with that joy, take a step back. Allow yourself to write something just for fun. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey.

For more on becoming the writer you hope to be, see Deb’s Write Your Best Book.