The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

In 1989, author Stephen Covey came out with his best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I’m a sucker for self-improvement books and found Covey’s book inspiring and practical. At the risk of insulting the late Stephen Covey, I’ll dare to suggest seven habits of highly effective fiction writers.

The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_PeopleCovey presented his seven habits in a logical order, with a nice, organic structure. His phrased his habits—aimed at helping people live better lives—as brief directives, but took about a chapter to explain each one. They included such things as “Be proactive,” “Begin with the end in mind,” and others.

In a similar manner, my suggested habits have a rough order to them, but are not as neatly structured as Covey’s. My habits do not parallel Covey’s, but they do consist of brief directive statements which require some explanation. Here they are:

  1. Listen to your inner storyteller. First and most important, you’re a writer because you have story to tell, because you can’t imagine not writing. Keep that inner spark always burning; it will sustain you through the difficult times.
  2. Form the discipline of writing. Sometimes your inner storyteller doesn’t yell loud enough, and the rest of life’s obligations close in. If you’re to be a writer, you still need to write, write, write. There is no substitute for time spent with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard.
  3. Get help with the craft. Seek all kinds of help. Study English again. Develop your vocabulary. Read about writing. Read the classics. Attend writing classes and conferences. Join a critique group.
  4. Follow your muse. As you write more, you’ll think of characters, plots, and settings during odd, idle moments when you’re not writing. That’s your unconscious, creative voice—your muse—talking. Pay attention. Though she may lead you to unimagined and uncomfortable places, she might help you develop your unique writing voice.
  5. Submit your best. Don’t rely on editors to see the genius of your story through all the spelling, grammatical, and plot errors. Do a thorough job of self-editing, thinking critically, viewing your manuscript as a reader and English teacher might. Submit only when you can honestly say it’s your best product and you’re proud of it.
  6. Be a professional. Present yourself to the world as if you’re already a successful author. Establish an author website. Don’t get so angry at editors, reviewers, blog commenters, or readers that you descend into flame wars, emotional outbursts, or other unprofessional conduct.
  7. Actively seek improvement. This may sound like number 3 above, but that earlier habit is about the initial learning of fiction writing; this one is about continual development, honing, and advancement of your craft. It means to cycle through all the habits as you go, improving known weak areas, always working to ensure your next story is better than all the previous ones.

Long-time followers of my blog will recall my post proposing 15 writing virtues. The seven habits I’m advocating today are another approach. It’s easier to remember 7 things than 15 anyway, right? There are many paths to self-improvement, and you’re free to find your own. For now, it’s back to growing and improving for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 7, 2014Permalink

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Why I Write

It would be better for you, the reader, if I could title this blog post, ‘Why You Should Write,’ since that would be more interesting and applicable to you.  However, it turns out I’m not as well informed about you as I am about me.  In hopes that one writer’s motivations may apply to someone else, I urge you to read on nonetheless.

The simple answer to why I write is that I cannot do otherwise.  The creative, story-telling impulse is too strong to resist; my muse screams too loudly when I don’t write.  In that manner, it is easier to write than to abstain.

All of that is true, but it wasn’t always so.  I didn’t always have a story to tell.  Even when I did, my doubts about writing outweighed my desire to do so.  Of doubts I had many.  How could I possibly write as well as the authors whose stories I read and loved?  How could I ever hope to convey ideas and provide entertainment in such a clever and skillful manner?  I understood that writing took time; could I spare that time?  I knew beginning writers got a lot of rejections; could I deal with them?

Further, I had not done well in English classes in school.  Enjoyed—yes; excelled—definitely not.  In college I majored in a branch of engineering.  Engineers are not known for their language skills.  An ability to write well is actually frowned upon, and could get you tossed out of the Engineers Guild.  (I’m kidding, of course–at least about there being a Guild).

So, despite a lack of writing skills, a lack of confidence in my English ability, and despite an inferiority complex when I compared myself to the world’s best authors, despite all those things, I still took up a pen and scribbled.  Why?

Looking back, I did have three things going for me.  First, I had a strong interest in reading fiction.  Loved it.  Devoured books, especially science fiction.  Second, I am creative by nature.  I delight in imaginative brainstorming, but not so much with other people, as brainstorming is normally done.  I seek to come up with solutions to problems that are unique and interesting to me.  Third, I’m one of those self-improvement nuts.  Phrased more positively, I was willing to spend the time trying to improve a new skill.  I’m willing to push on past minor failures along the way to achieving a goal.

These attributes didn’t pop up out of nowhere, of course.  I was influenced by my parents.  Much as Jules Verne gained a sense of precision and skill with words from his lawyer father, and a sense of romance and knowledge of human relationships from his mother, I too was a product of separate influences from my parents.  Thinking about it now, my own parents separately bequeathed me important attributes necessary to be a science fiction writer.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

In summation it appears that, for me, the impulses to become a writer overcame the opposing factors (the doubts, lack of skills, etc.).  After that, like any hobby, the snowball effect took over and the habit of writing became self-sustaining.  I found I enjoyed writing the more I practiced it and the more I learned about it.  My critique group helped hone my skills and provided an encouraging atmosphere.  Eventually, I felt confident enough to submit stories to the marketplace.  Lastly, getting stories accepted and published provided the most powerful incentive of all to write more.

That’s why I write, and if you’re wondering if you could take up writing as a hobby or vocation, perhaps some of the items I discussed apply to you too.  More likely, your reasons will be different.  Did this blog post trigger some thought of agreement or disagreement?  Write to me here and let me know.

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 13, 2011Permalink