Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Habits of Highly Effective Writers

There are dozens of lists of how to be a better writer. Lots of good advice generally, but often advice can seem conflicting and confusing. Ultimately, on you know how you're doing, in terms of pursuing a creative vision and actually knuckling down and doing the work.

As lists go, this is one of the better ones I've come across. I'd especially endorse:

2. Make your characters bleed. “The next time you watch your favorite sitcom or drama, observe that all of the scenes are arguments,” writes Tom Sawyer in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists.

A very good point. Stories are about heroes overcoming adversity. If there's no conflict or adversity, there's no story. So our characters need to bleed. And if they bleed, we'll squirm. And if we squirm, it proves we care about the character. We need to invest in characters and they need to be real. So, make them real, then beat them up before our eyes.

3. Stop comparing yourself to other writers. “There will always be someone who writes faster, or slower, or gets a bigger advance, or better advertising,” writes Carrie Vaughn in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “Everyone’s career and writing process is a little different. Follow your own path.” You’re not Stephen King or Martha Beck? No worries. Be yourself.

I'd only add to that something even more pompous. You're not Stephen King. And he doesn't get to be you. You can be anything you want to be. He has to be Stephen King. Just make sure you're something - and actually get out there and write stuff.

4. Build a firm foundation. “The plot, like the foundation of a house, is the structure on which all else is built,” writes Mary Higgins Clark in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “No matter how glib the writing, how enchanting the characters, if the plot doesn’t work, or if it works only because of flagrant coincidence or seven-page explanations of the climax, the book is a failure.”

Again, top advice. I'm currently writing with Miranda Hart on Series Two of Miranda for BBC2 - and we are taking ages to get the stories right, to get the beats in the right order, to find the right moments and give the character the right goals. It takes way longer than you think it's going to, but it has to be done or else your script will, at best, a shambles, and at worst, unfixable. Build you car on a decent chassis.

Then we can skip to:

7. Get used to disappointment. “A writing career is nothing more than a long series of disappointments punctuated by occasional moments of success,” writes Michael Bracken in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “Maintaining a long writing career involves a little bit of talent, a little bit of luck, and a great deal of determination.”

I just had something turned down today, and it was annoying, but things fail far more often than they succeed. It's part of life. Deal with it, move on - and use these knock-backs to motivate you (without become embittered... Or at least too embittered).

Anyway, read the rest here. It's primarily about novels, but the lessons apply across the board. Save yourself some time, energy and money by learning from mistakes other people have made. I wish I had.


  1. I've always liked that car analogy when it comes to story structure. All cars have wheels, drive trains, engines and steering wheels - they need them to be cars. It's what you build on top of that which makes them Morris Minors or Ferarris.

  2. Come to think of it, Simon - I might have heard it on your podcast with Paul Kerensa! Subconscious, I promise!

  3. Really? I never listen to myself speak, don't worry.