7 vexing habits guaranteed to wreck your writing

bad writing habits

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Do you have bad writing habits? Check out this list and resolve to give yourself a fighting chance to become a much better — and more relaxed — writer…

I never learned how to write when I was a journalist. My habits were already too dysfunctional. Years of higher education had trained me to be a perfectionist who needed to rewrite every sentence as soon as I’d produced it.

Now, I write easily and happily. It’s taken me years to get this way. I did it by breaking the seven bad writing habits that, for years, kept me trapped. Here’s a summary:

Writing too soon

Many writers — alarmed by their own deadlines — try to begin writing as quickly as possible. It’s as if they imagine they haven’t started the job until they have words either down on paper or sitting on their computer. I made the mistake of doing this when I wrote a thesis; as a result, it took me more than twice as long as it should have.

What to do instead:

Begin by reverse-engineering your writing assignment. Start backwards, with the due date, and then assign deadlines to every stage of the writing process — proofreading, copy editing, rewriting, producing the crappy first draft, researching, mind mapping, thinking and planning. Most of all, don’t underestimate the importance of thinking and planning before you write a word. If you haven’t figured out who your audience is, or what your objectives are, how will you ever know when you’ve hit the right mark? 

Waiting to be inspired

Many people assume that writing is all about inspiration. It’s not. The man who invented the electric light bulb — Thomas Edison — said, “genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” (In fact, some sources present his odds even more aggressively, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”) Good writing is about hard work, not about divine guidance.

What to do instead:

When the moment to write arrives — which is to say, you’ve done enough thinking and planning —  don’t wait for the Muses to appear. Instead, sit yourself down at your desk and start writing. I like to follow the advice of best-selling author Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War:  “I only write when inspiration strikes,” he said. “Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”

Believing your writing will never be good enough

Many writers — even professionals — fear that they are incapable of producing excellent work. The celebrated poet Maya Angelou was famous for her fear that, any day, literary experts would reveal her to be a fraud. Fortunately, she did not allow this misguided emotion to stop herself. Nor should you allow it to stop you.

What to do instead: 

Instead of fretting about the quality of your work, concentrate on the quantity. The more often you do something, the better you will get at it.  It’s useless to worry about what others think. Instead, concentrate on what you can do, knowing that there are always plenty of people who will be willing to decry you. And, in fact, the most eager critic may be your own internal editor. Acknowledge his or her remarks and then move beyond them, writing diligently, self-editing aggressively and getting professional guidance when you need it.

Editing while you write

I spent many years editing while I wrote, never understanding how self-destructive this process was. It made me write slowly and it filled me with angst. When I work with new clients, one of my first questions is: do you edit while you write? The vast majority of them tell me the answer is yes.

What to do instead: 

Understand that the writing process consists of a number of discrete steps. If you try to do all these steps together, you’ll make writing far more difficult and complicated than it needs to be. This is why I am such a strong advocate of writing a crappy first draft before you do anything else. Breaking the editing-while-you-write habit is challenging but oh so worthwhile. I more than doubled my writing speed by doing this. Learn some tips for accomplishing the same thing, here.

Not taking a break before you edit

Driven by deadline, even people who can refrain from editing while writing, will typically launch immediately into editing upon finishing their draft. This, too, is a mistake.

What to do instead: 

Here’s some good news: one of the key steps of writing involves doing absolutely nothing. You should schedule a brief incubation period after every piece of writing. Writers inevitably become too close to their subject matter and no longer see the gaps in their own work. By taking a break, however brief, you increase the odds that you will be able to review your writing with a fresh mind. If you have a very tight deadline, your break may need to be as short as 30 minutes. If that’s the case, I suggest you do something wildly different before editing. This might mean working on another project, talking to a colleague or friend or even going for lunch. If you have a more lenient deadline, take at least a day’s break if you can. And, finally, if you’re working on a long-form project — such as a book or a thesis — then I suggest you take at least six weeks before you start to edit a word

Not allowing enough time for editing

How do you allocate your writing time? I find that many people with bad writing habits tend to spend too much time writing and far too little time editing.

What to do instead:

In fact, editing is the single most important step of the writing process. If you want to become a better writer, there is only one way to do it: become a more vigourous self-editor. I recommend that you spend twice as long editing as you do writing. And, of course, being able to do this requires careful planning. That reverse-engineered schedule I suggested in the first tip is likely the only way you’ll be able to squeeze it in. Note that many students tend to leave essays until the night before they are due, meaning that they frequently don’t have any time for editing at all. 

Failing to make writing a habit

Do you write in fits and starts? By that I mean, do you delay working on a big report until a few days before it’s due, and then devote six or more hours to it? This kind of non-habitual approach to writing makes the task far more uncomfortable than it needs to be.

What to do instead:

If you typically have a hard time getting started with writing, work on building a small habit. Even as little as five to 10 minutes per day is enough. There is no such thing as starting too small. In fact, it’s far better to start with a small goal, succeed at it and use that feeling of accomplishment to go on to greater success. Writing for five minutes a day, seven days a week is far more productive (and infinitely less stressful) than writing for fifty minutes, once a week.

What are your bad writing habits? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Make What You Say Pay by Anne Miller. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted November 15th, 2016 in Power Writing

  • Yanina Rodriguez

    I’m always having problems to getting started with writing, and I think is due my obsession with editing while writing. I start writing something I like but then I think is no good enought. I end up changing the first paragraphs so many times that I can’t pass from that. This post will be of great help to me. I’ll try to apply everything said here and hopefully get better with time. Thank you so much.

    • The problem you face is probably the most common one I see with all my clients. Editing WHILE you write will only slow you down and increase your discomfort. Work at breaking this habit and your writing will improve. It will also be a whole lot more fun!

  • Seasons

    Hello Miss Gray-Grant,

    I have just recently started following you. I have always been told that I have a lot of information and a easy way to present it. I was told that I should start a blog for the average person. My problem is that I can speak with people about what I know,but when it comes to writing I cannot keep up with my mind. Then I loose what I want to wrote. I am also dyslexic and it takes me time to read and study. I was wondering if there is a way to keep up with my ideas and a program that can put my ramblings into cognitive sentences.

    • Please, call me Daphne! My son and one of my daughters are both dyslexic and it takes them longer to read and write, but both are excellent writers. Here are several strategies you might try: (1) Be OBSESSIVE — and realistic — about your planning. It may take you longer to accomplish things, but if you plan for this you should be able to work in the time. (2) Consider mindmapping to inspire you and keep you on point. Do a search through this site to find all the info I offer on mindmapping. (3) Consider dictation software. (I’ve written about Dragon recently – search for it.) We can all speak faster than we can type so this should help you keep up with your thoughts.

      • naturalseas

        Thank you so much for responding. I will definitely look into mindmapping and the Dragon software.

  • steelredbud

    At one time or another (or all at once), I’ve done all these vexing things you discuss. Alas, MY problem is not that they are habits! Ha ha! Today, as my life begins to settle into what I will most likely view as the most wonderful time I’ve experienced so far in this 60 years, I continue to do the thinking and planning, organizing material, fleshing out my outline (which began with mind mapping), and so on. I actually like doing the crappy first draft, though I would hate for anyone to see it and I actually like editing. I can feel myself getting ready to launch into “the zone” with a big project I’ve been preparing for during the last 20+ years. World, look out!

    Your blog is tremendously helpful to me. I need these weekly reminders and discussions. They serve to remind me that this project is, in fact, do-able!

  • Melody

    The “D” word – discipline – keeps rearing its ugly head. Thank you for reminding me that this is really the easy way!

    • I’m allergic to discipline! I much prefer establishing habits or practices…

  • cherevkova

    Dear Daphne,

    How do you edit a big piece of writing? It’s hard to keep in mind large amount of pages, so it’s better to work with parts. But when I edit one part and add some new fact, I immediately start to edit other parts, that related to this fact. So I start to think about the whole giant text again. And that is so hard, I start to worry that I can forget or miss something and that I’m not attentive to my current piece of the text. Are there any tips about that? Did you have similar problems?

    Ellina

    • It’s NORMAL for editing to take many passes. In general, it should take you twice as long to edit as it does to write. Don’t worry. Just take a deep breath and have confidence that if you approach the editing job with enough time and diligence, you will catch everything. No one can be fully attentive 100% of the time. But if you go through your document four or five (or more!) times, you should be able to catch everything that’s important. You might also consider writing yourself little notes to remind yourself about things you need to check at another point in the manuscript.

  • Rhonda

    This is SOOOOO GOOD !! It helps making writing ‘easy as . . .”
    Thank you so much for you informative blogs.

  • MP UPPAL

    Thanks for all very useful reminders!

  • kimmarla

    Thanks for this fantastic advice!

  • William Stoner

    Daphne,
    I wrote my thesis while working a full-time, non-academic job. I took the job after the data collecting and analysis was done. Most weeknights, I spent an hour or so writing in longhand whatever had gelled in my mind, after jogging, showering and cooking something simple. If I could not settle down, I went to a local library, because the library atmosphere helped me focus. If I could not make progress writing, I worked on sketches and diagrams. On the weekend, I found the time to edit the handwritten material, crossing things out and writing changes in the margin. Then I would type up the edited material. When I had a few pages, I would take it to a copy shop and make a copy that I put in a plastic bag and stored in the freezer. The idea was to preserve my work in the event of a fire. I paid a professional typist to prepare what I submitted to my faculty advisor. I thought that my neatly typed work would be be met with approval, but my advisor told me I needed to expand everything. I was able to do that, because in the ensuing weeks, I had to refresh my train of thought, and I could see omissions that needed to be explained in greater detail.

    Without knowing any better, I did benefit from some of your methods. I did not know about memory mapping, but I did exercise that part of the brain used in sketching and preparing diagrams. Writing my crappy first draft longhand tended to discourage me from editing as I wrote. My shorthand permits me capture thoughts on paper in sync with the flow of my thinking. I worked a little most days, but I also took time to do fun things. I got discouraged once and went to the local aquarium, where I sat in the front row to watch porpoise perform tricks. I got completely soaked and my attitude changed for the better!

    Your advice is consistent with everything I’ve learning about writing – thanks!

    • I know this is not the main point of your story but I LOVE that you stored your thesis in your freezer. (I heard a story of a novelist who lost her almost-finished entire novel as the result of a house fire, so you were smart to do this.)