Work on your personality before you work on your writing

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There are many routes to becoming a better writer. Here’s one I favour: become a better writer by improving your sense of well-being… 

My brother-in-law, Doug — who’s a civil engineer — likes to tell a joke about people in his own profession.

What’s the difference between an introverted and an extroverted engineer, he asks? The answer?

  • An introverted engineer looks at his (or her) own shoes when speaking with you.
  • An extroverted engineer looks at your shoes.

Ba da bum.

Most of us have certain ideas about the types of people who work in specific professions. Salespeople are extroverted. Lawyers are over-confident. School teachers are controlling. Librarians are fussy. Writers are shy.

Of course, these ideas are clichés. Each of us is unique, and we bring all aspects of our personalities — and life history — to whichever profession we choose. Also, we can train ourselves to behave in certain ways that don’t come naturally to us. For example, I am an introvert (like many other writers) yet I’m perfectly comfortable speaking to a group of 300 people.

One desire that most of us share, however, is that we want to achieve a sense of “well-being.” I know that term is rather vague, so let’s look at how scientists define it. People with well-being tend to have a high frequency of positive emotions, a low frequency of negative ones, a high degree of life satisfaction and an ability to resist social pressure. They also tend to shape their environments to suit their needs, believe in their ability to continue to improve, have warm and trusting relationships with others and have a strong sense of accomplishment.

Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? I know I tick off some of those boxes but not all of them. But here’s the deal: If you have a greater sense of well-being, you’re going to be a better writer. Why?  Everyone does better work when they are happier.  Much as we like to imagine that writing success is what will make us happy, the formula works the other way around.

Recent research, reported in Scientific American, gives some clues as to how we might improve our well-being. Score high in any of the following five personality traits, and you are more likely to exhibit well-being in many parts of your life.

  1. Enthusiasm: Enthusiastic people are friendly, eager and fun. Their energy level is higher than average, and they can persist through roadblocks.
  2. Low withdrawal: “Low withdrawal” is a funny, negative kind of concept but it refers to people who refuse to walk away or give up. I’m using the term “low withdrawal” only because it’s the scientific one; I’d prefer to call it “sticktoitiveness.” People who score high in withdrawal are easily discouraged and overwhelmed. Those with sticktoitiveness, on the other hand, tend to have greater life satisfaction and more positive emotions.
  3. Industriousness: People who are industrious work diligently and effectively. They do what it takes, and they do it over and over again. Industriousness is correlated with higher life satisfaction, more positive emotions and fewer negative ones.
  4. Compassion: People who are compassionate figure out what they have in common with other people. They are empathic, mindful and grateful. Compassionate people have more positive emotions, more personal growth and more self-acceptance.
  5. Intellectual curiosity: People who are intellectually curious enjoy thinking and learning and tend to reflect a lot on their experiences. They ask questions, challenge the status-quo and are prepared to take risks. Intellectually curious people show self-acceptance, purpose, and accomplishment.

So, what should you do if enthusiasm eludes you…. you have no sticktoitiveness…you’re not the least bit industrious… you believe compassion is for sissies… and you’re not intellectually curious?

I suggest you choose to work on one of those traits — just pick whichever one seems easiest or is most motivating to you. The good news is that scientific studies now show that we can succeed in changing our personalities. The bad news is that it’s challenging, it takes work and it requires time.

It might seem paradoxical that a writing coach would advocate what amounts to self-improvement work on your personality (rather than, say, sentence construction) but I believe in hitting multiple fronts at the same time. And, if you increase your sticktoitiveness, you’re going to find it easier to fix those sentences anyway.


My video podcast last week aimed to help writers interested in producing a memoir. See it here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How is your sense of well-being? And how does it affect your writing? 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 April 30/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff. 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.

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