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The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Writers

The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Writers
writing habits

So you love writing.

You’re committed to developing your writing voice, improving your skills and working steadily on your craft.

But, sometimes after a day’s writing, you want to pull out your hair.

If only you could figure out what successful writers do every day and then use this insight to get better at your craft and learn how to become a writer.

Because a lot of successful writers are inaccessible (or they’ve passed on).

The good news is you can still learn from them if you put in the work. All you have to do is emulate their writing habits.

In this post, I’ll explain the 7 habits of highly successful writers and how you can cultivate these habits using practical writing tips.

1. Have an Orderly Daily Routine (That Pays)

I won’t lie.

The creative process is messy, unordered and demanding, but you’ll find it harder to organise your writing if your life outside of the blank page is chaos.

The writer George Flaubert argued an orderly daily routine is all writers need to create. He said:

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work.”

For many writers (particularly new ones), being regular and orderly means keeping a job.

When you sit down to write, the last thing on your mind should be paying the bills.

If the prospects of an orderly routine fill you with boredom, consider T.S. Elliot.

Working with numbers is an anathema for most writers, but British poet T.S. Elliot worked in Lloyds bank in the UK and wrote his poetry outside of work.

How to Cultivate This Habit

Until your writing is earning you a decent income, don’t quit your job.

Instead, create on the margins of the day by either getting up early or writing after work.

2. Write Every Day

Successful writers sit down in front of the blank page every day, not just at the weekends or when inspiration strikes.

They do the work, because writing is their job, not just a hobby.

Consider Anthony Trollope.

This 19th-century English author produced an astonishing 47 novels during his career; two dozen were published while he worked in the General Post Office.

According to Mason Currey, Trollope said about writing every day:

“All those I think who has lived as literary men, — working daily as literary labourers, — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”

If Trollope completed a novel during his three-hour writing session, he took out a blank sheet of paper and started writing a new one, immediately.

How to Cultivate This Habit

Writing three hours a day is a tall order if you’ve never attempted it. Instead, write for 15 minutes today and 15 minutes tomorrow.

Set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to write.

The following week, write every day for 30 minutes. Do this until you create a writing routine that sticks.

3. Leave Yourself Subtle Writing Prompts

Prolific writers know how important it is to get going quickly and efficiently. They leave themselves subtle prompts that simplify picking up from the previous day’s work.

Ernest Hemingway famously stopped writing in the middle of a sentence so he’d know exactly where to resume the following day.

The American novelist Henry Miller was also a big believer in stopping before he ran out of ideas. He said:

“I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, do you see? I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have still things to say.”

How to Cultivate This Habit

Buy a packet of index cards or Post-It notes. When you’re finished for the day, write on a single index card or Post-It what you want to work on tomorrow.

Now, stick this next to where you write.

4. Embrace Research

For a long time, I struggled to accept research as part of the writing process.

I told myself research was a distraction from doing the work of putting one word after another on the blank page.

Now, I know better.

The contemporary non-fiction writer Robert Greene spends hundreds of hours researching books like Mastery and The 48 Laws of Power.

Greene typically reads 300–400 books about a particular topic. He annotates what he reads and translates his notes to a trusted system for organising his ideas.

In this Reddit AMA, he said:

“I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles on to note cards, each card representing an important theme in the book.”

How to Cultivate This Habit

Review your calendar and block part of your creative time for writing and another part for research.

If you’re worried about getting stuck and endlessly researching your work, set a hard deadline for when you’ll stop researching and start writing.

5. Work Without Distraction

Successful writers know quietness and being alone are triggers for deep thinking that supports the creative process.

Perhaps, this explains why pictures of writer’s offices and workspaces are so popular with other writers and creative people?

The American novelist behind Freedom and the Corrections seeks solitude by disconnecting himself from the internet.

During a book tour for his 2012 novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, told a journalist he wanted to write more each day.

So, he physically removed his Wi-Fi card from his computer and permanently blocked his machine’s ethernet connection with Super Glue.

How to Cultivate This Habit

Create a place where you can work uninterrupted on your ideas for at least an hour at a time.

This could be a small room in your house or apartment, a quiet table in your local favourite coffee shop or a seat at the back of the train where you can sit and write wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

The location is less important than having a place your brain associates with writing at length without interruption.

6. Practice being physically healthy

Sitting at a desk, hunched over an old manuscript or your keyboard for hours at a time isn’t good for your physical health, and writing in pain isn’t conducive to creativity.

Successful writers go to great lengths to keep themselves physically healthy so they have the strength to come up with new and better ideas.

The British writer Charles Dickens was a prolific walker.

On a given day, Dickens walked 12 or more miles around Kent or through the streets of Victorian London. He used many moments from these walks as inspiration for his novels.

“There are details in Dickens’ descriptions — a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door — which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are,” says critic G.K Chesterton in Charles Dickens: A Critical Study.

How to Cultivate This Habit

Keep a pair of trainers next to where you write as a visual reminder to exercise.

Even walking (or running) for 30 minutes at the end of the day will help you sleep better and give you more energy to write tomorrow.

If you exercise for several days in a row, reward yourself with a healthy treat.

7. Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Arrive

Accomplished writers are fastidious about recording ideas throughout the day.

Mark Twain carried a pocket notebook with him for his ideas.

Thomas Jefferson jotted down notes about everything from the growth of plants and flowers to observations about daily life.

Even George Lucas keeps a notebook with him when he’s shooting a film.

My favourite story about a writer who made it a point to write things down involves the children’s author, Roald Dahl.

One day, Dahl found himself stuck in traffic. Suddenly, he thought of a breakthrough for a story he was working on. Having no notepad or pen, he grew afraid he’d forget his idea before getting home.

So, Dahl got out of the car and with his finger, he wrote the word ‘chocolate’ into the dirt on his vehicle. This idea later became Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Dahl said about his ideas:

“You work it out and play around with it. You doodle… you make notes… it grows, it grows…”

How to cultivate this habit

Commit to writing down 5–10 ideas (it doesn’t matter how outlandish) in a notebook you carry around every day.

You can use digital tools, like an app on your smartphone, or you can buy a small notebook that fits in your pocket.

Your Creative Path is Clear

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll recognise these 7 habits as proven writing advice.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Becoming a successful writer doesn’t mean discovering a great secret. Instead, walk the path of the literary betters who came before you.

Do what they do, and you’ll discover how they work.

Then, you’ll be able to use this new insight into your creative life to improve the quality of your writing and strike out on your own.