Serious writers’ habits teach us a lot about what it takes to start and finish writing projects. Read ten habits of serious writers and what distinguishes a professional writer from a novice:
What are 10 habits of serious writers?
There are at least 10 (and many more) things that writers who are serious about telling stories do. They:
- Invest in writing skills
- Show up (even when it’s hard)
- Do research required
- Finish started writing projects
- Read as often (and broadly) as possible
- Refuse to let expectation halt progress
- Write often, in any medium
- Create to expand boundaries
- Write to try other personas
- Live and write in tandem
Let’s explore these habits of committed writers further, with examples from authors’ interviews and writing processes:
Invest in writing skills
Many successful authors came up through writing programs such as MFAs, others learned by studying the authors they wanted to emulate.
Investing in your writing skills takes many forms, for example:
- Building a regular writing habit
- Taking a course or class in craft
- Practicing writing in any medium (be it fiction or non)
- Living with curiosity and an inquiring mind
There is a striving impetus to writing that Amy Tan puts beautifully:
When I was six or seven, I used to read a thesaurus searching for the words that meant exactly what I felt. […] I always felt that words were inadequate, that I’d never been able to express myself—ever. Even now, it’s so hard to express what I think and feel, the totality of what I’ve seen. But this loneliness is the impetus for writing.
Amy Tan, quoted in Joe Fassler, ‘Why Write Fiction in 2017?’, The Paris Review, December 2017.
Show up (even when it’s hard)
When you read interviews with successful authors, often they describe almost monk-like discipline.
In a 2008 piece for The New Yorker, with the tagline ‘learning how to go the distance’, Japanese author Haruki Murakami describes how habit and routine he acquired in running a jazz club in Tokyo helped him develop the endurance required of a serious writer.
Things were settling down. Up to that point, it had been a question of sheer survival, and I hadn’t had time to think about anything else. Now I felt as though I’d reached the top of a steep staircase and emerged into an open space.
Haruki Murakami, ‘The Running Novelist’, The New Yorker, June 2008.
So often, serious writers describe telling stories in similar terms of ‘sheer survival’. A compulsion to push through inertia and keep showing up for a contract with oneself.
Do research required
One thing that serious writers understand is the real work writing is.
There is a popular, mythic idea of ‘The Author’ as a visionary who creates in a blind flash of fevered, divine inspiration.
Many stories require much more rational research and a systematic approach.
Writing becomes a purpose-driven shuttling back and forth between the realms of fact and imagination.
Some genres, of course, require more research than others.
Joan Didion makes a neat distinction between researching fiction vs researching non-fiction:
The element of discovery takes place, in nonfiction, not during the writing but during the research. This makes writing a piece very tedious. You already know what it’s about.
Joan Didion, interviewed by Linda Kuehl, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 71’, Winter 1978
In an interview for Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, author J Robert Lennon describes how the internet has simplified researching books:
Google Street View has changed fiction writing enormously. It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re writing about, you can at least tell what it looks like.
J. Robert Lennon, interviewed by Alexandra Chang.
Finish started writing projects
A serious writer, perhaps more than any other habit, is someone who finishes.
Romy said it best in our interview, when asked about the three biggest challenges in becoming a serious writer:
It’s wonderful when we first get started and you’re passionate for the project, and then after a while it becomes work. And especially if you’re not really sure where you’re going with the story, it can be so hard and I see so many people give up. And no publisher ever publishes an unfinished novel.
Romy Sommer, ‘Writing coach interview: Romy Sommer on romance and founding ROSA’, Now Novel
Even if it seems a project is a waste of time, and you hear the siren call of a bright and shiny new story idea, don’t give up too soon. So much may be fixed, finessed, renewed, in the revision and editing process.
If you do abandon a project, don’t shred and forget.
Put it away in a drawer (C.S. Lewis claimed much of his most successful work was teased out of earlier abandoned projects).
Finish with help at your side
Work with help from an experienced writer and finish your book.
Read as often (and as broadly) as possible
This may seem obvious. That successful authors read.
Surprisingly, though, many beginners want to tell stories but aren’t particularly interested in reading other authors’ work.
That’s like wanting to be a Michelin-starred chef and not being willing to taste anything but your own food.
The more you read, the more you enrich your craft with:
- Broader vocabulary
- Literary devices
- Frames of reference and allusion
- A deeper understanding of the many ways a story may be told
Refuse to let expectations halt progress
In our recent writing webinar on how to build a writing career, Now Novel coach Romy laid out several distinctions between amateur and professional, serious writers.
When we asked attendees to name what sets serious writers apart from amateurs, many said ‘being paid to write’ or some variation on this.
This is true – many writers who take their writing seriously do make money off their writing.
Yet making money from writing requires perseverance. There are so often setbacks along the way that it’s first pivotal to develop resilience.
How do you practice resilience? By throwing your hat back into the ring after each form rejection. By not letting expectation and outcome interfere with your forward march toward your writing goals.
Many famous artists (Van Gogh, for example) created out of the kind of impetus Amy Tan describes above, regardless of the commercial reward (or lack thereof).
Learning how to self-publish or market your books of course stands you a better chance of selling copies. Yet a serious writer is marked by a professional attitude and approach as much as by their sales figures.
History remembers those who kept marching to their own drums, not just the bestsellers.
Write often, in any medium
Whether you’re writing an essay, a journal entry, or a book review, each piece of writing is a cobble in the walk.
An English lecturer once said, when told of doing copy-writing to support studying English literature, ‘that’s journalism’. As though ‘journalism’ were a dirty word.
Yet many journalists move sideways into fiction. All the years of finding and telling a good story, structuring it, communicating, provide an excellent dress rehearsal for other forms of writing; ‘pure’ invention.
Create to expand boundaries
Many of the worlds most-quoted authors expand boundaries – of expression, subject, belief, possibility.
Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, for example, that ‘anatomy is not destiny’ (challenging Sigmund Freud’s axiom that ‘anatomy is destiny’ [emphasis added]. This was an important challenge in second-wave feminism to the idea, for example, that women had to fit narrow, specific gender roles in society.
This reminds us of the wonderful power of stories, of writing of any kind – challenging received ideas (and communicating one’s own). Robert Frost said that writing stems, in part, from animus – debate, argument – whether internal or external.
As Toni Morrison suggests, being a writer can mean writing the books you wished were written already, out of a library-expanding impulse:
If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Toni Morrison, quoted in ‘Toni Morrison’s most notable quotes about life, race and storytelling’, USA Today, 2019.
Write to try other personas
Writing fiction, in many respects, is similar to acting.
Serious writers gain wisdom and insight by inhabiting the lives of others in imagination.
As Now Novel coach Romy says (in describing the differences between working in film vs being an author):
I love writing because film work, as you probably know, is very much directing by committee. Everybody has their little part to play.
But as a writer, you are the location scout, you’re the director, you’re the casting director, you’re the wardrobe, you know, the costume supervisor. You get to do all of that.
Serious writers treat this concatenation of roles with curiosity. They pay attention to producing each aspect of a story’s broader picture, paying each its due care.
Live and write in tandem
One of the hardest things to learn (but the most useful for becoming a serious writer) is how to write and live in tandem.
‘I don’t have time’ is one of the most often cited reasons authors provide when giving up.
Juggling writing and life’s other responsibilities is hard. Yet writing is a responsibility, not a luxury, if you have the urge to do it. Because you’re being responsible to your desire.
Mesha Maren puts this in an interesting way in ‘On the Importance of Not Writing’. She describes learning how to bridge ‘writing as escape’ and ‘living as a hiatus from writing’. Learning how to live and write in tandem:
Writing had always been the essential way through which I metabolized the world, but up until then it had also meant shutting myself off from others. I was either writing and not living, or living and not writing. I began to take more college classes, while still working at the club. Eventually I quit the club, but not before learning something indelible: an ability to bridge the brain and the body.
Mesha Maren, ‘On the Importance of Not Writing’, The Paris Review, May 2019.
What do you see as an essential skill for a serious writer? Share your perspective in the comments.
Get help, feedback and a reliable sounding board to develop and finish your story.