Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

Have you ever wondered why some people write easily and fluently, while others struggle and strain as if trying to squeeze a 185-lb body into a size six pair of jeans? In 30 years at this trade, I've noticed that effective writers tend to share seven traits. So, with apologies to Stephen Covey, here is my list.

Effective writers...

  1. Separate the writing and the editing processes. When they write, they write, not worrying about the quality of their work. Writer/director Cecil Castellucci says: "The best flowers are fertilized by crap." Remember this and give yourself permission to write a really crummy first draft. Editing is a job for later. That's when you'll have plenty of time to rearrange big chunks of text, monkey around with sentence structure, obsess over word choice and fix punctuation.
  2. Focus on the interesting. Effective writers (and speakers) always tell lots of stories. If they have to communicate something "theoretical," they illustrate it with real life examples and anecdotes. They know that human beings don't just crave food -- they are also starved for stories.
  3. Tap into the power of metaphor. As metaphor expert Anne Miller likes to say, "metaphors lead to instant understanding." There are at least three metaphors in this short newsletter (can you find them all?)
  4. Do adequate research. There is nothing more painful than trying to write when you have nothing to say. Effective writers understand that good research is all about asking interesting questions -- of themselves, of the books, websites and reports they read and of anyone they interview. And this needs to be completed before any writing can begin.
  5. Learn from the writing of others. Effective writers understand that they are lifelong apprentices. They learn by reading -- constantly. Note: this is not just passive, flip- through-a-thriller-while-sitting-on-the-pool- deck kind of reading. This is active sit-up- and-pay-attention-to-technique dissection -- similar to what a scientist would do in a lab. You won't want to read this closely all the time, of course (it's work -- although fun work, to my mind). But effective writers do some of this every week.
  6. Write in small bursts. Creative work doesn't require oodles of time. That first draft you need to write? It's best done in dribs and drabs, a little bit at a time. Instead of procrastinating, effective writers persuade themselves to write a little each day, no matter how frazzled and frantic they feel. (Editing, on the other hand, usually needs space, time and quiet.)
  7. Read their work out loud. Language isn't just meaning -- it's also music. The most effective writers can often be found sitting by the computer keyboards, madly whispering to the screen, repeating their words back to themselves. Yes, it looks kooky and coworkers may become alarmed. But effective writers don't care. They do it because it works.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday December 22nd 2007, 5:22 AM
Comment by: jurgen W.
Great points, and I'd add one more: when they get stuck, they treat it as a practical obstacle to overcome rather than a psychological fault. They use mind mapping, brainstorming, looking for how others have solved similar problems, and other techniques to overcome the block and keep writing.
Saturday December 22nd 2007, 8:11 AM
Comment by: gloria C.
This site is fantastic thank you
Saturday December 22nd 2007, 8:27 AM
Comment by: robert T.
muy bien
Saturday December 22nd 2007, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Dee M.
Am I being clueless, or is there no author's name on this article? I'd like to use it with students, and so I need attribution. Where am I not looking?
Sunday December 23rd 2007, 12:33 AM
Comment by: Edward E.
Author's name = Daphne Gray-Grant (two lines below the title, starts with word "By", instead of just the name. Cheers.
Sunday December 23rd 2007, 9:07 AM
Comment by: janardhan M.
good article.short n sweet.
thank you
Sunday December 23rd 2007, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Shanie M.
I really appreciated this article. Thank you.
Sunday December 23rd 2007, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Paul C.
What an interesting and powerfully useful article! Thanks, your article inspired writing action today. What did I like most? All of the seven points were just as equally important, however, I like the emphasis of dissecting effective published writings of others as "scientist."

And of course, another great point is just writing without regard to mistakes, word choices, and more. That point actually allows the creative juices to flow rather than prohibiting it by trying to write top quality sentences initially.

Thank you sincerely for sharing your thoughts concerning these matters! I am certain Steven Covey is probably flattered his phrase was used in this creative yet effective manner. Please continue to give. -- Pall Stanley
Sunday December 23rd 2007, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Maksa M.
Fantastic !
Friday December 28th 2007, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Troy G.
This article really "hits the bulls-eye" with all seven arrows! Well, at least six arrows landed in the red. The seventh arrow "sounds" ridiculous to me!
Saturday December 29th 2007, 11:25 PM
Comment by: Bonnie Y.
I have always felt that someday I would like to do some serious writing. This short article gave me more information on how to start than any English class I have ever taken. Thanks!
Monday December 31st 2007, 5:35 AM
Comment by: Clifton D.
Great informative article many thanks
Monday December 31st 2007, 5:55 PM
Comment by: Lee K.
Great insight - here's another tip/tool that I can't live without. When I get stuck in the mud, I dig here: visualthesaurus.com. It's worth the $20 annual subscription, and then some!
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Jane W.
Excellent, concise summary.
Thursday January 17th 2008, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Frank N.
Troy Geddes suggests number 7 is ridiculous. I do it all the time, and it works great for me.... Try it:-)
Sunday February 10th 2008, 5:10 AM
Comment by: Taganana
I'm a Spanish speaking person and I find it very helpful no matter the language in which you write. I agree with Frank Natalie in number 7 being a very good idea. I also do it.
Sunday February 10th 2008, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Dianna H.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Regarding point #7 -- this is, in my opinion, what takes my writing to the next level. I pound out the first crap draft, then I read it aloud. This allows me to hear the "flow, the "clunks," and the illogical constructions.
Monday February 18th 2008, 6:07 PM
Comment by: charles G.
They say you can't see the forest for the trees,
you guys, you found theasurus, how could you miss
"Via-Voice" by IBM, it speaks back to you in every language on the universe, will type for you, and all in your private world without
disturbing anyones thoughts. You will be hearing your own voice regardless of your dialect. and for less than 20 dollars. with Via Voice and spell and merrian Webster on my screen while composing I am in my own world, the dictionarys and theasurus etc. lye at my feet.I am not a writer but I write great poetry.
charles garcia (Poem Hunter) youll find me. or( chasgarcia@cox.net)
Tuesday February 19th 2008, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Julia S.
great inspiration! keep suggesting!
Thursday March 6th 2008, 10:20 PM
Comment by: Leeann M.
And my personal number 8:

Great writers MASTER the rules of writing BEFORE they break them.

Monday May 26th 2008, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Jaye
If she hadn't made the first habit #1, I would be trying to figure out why she didn't. A brilliant list; she's covered it all.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 10:31 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Thank you Daphne! Jaye, I agree with you: definitely a brilliant list!

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