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Five Smarter Habits of Great Writers

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Budding writer

Have you ever thought you could be a great writer… if only you had the time?

If only you could finally finish your novel, you’re sure it would be snapped up by agents and publishers.

If only the publishing industry wasn’t in shambles, publishers would wake up and realize you’re actually a genius and deserve their undivided attention.

If only….

I am here to tell you you can be a great writer. You can do it in less time and get more people to sit up and take notice. You just have to do it smarter.

Here are five smarter habits to become a great writer.

1. Write for Others

When I first wanted to be a writer, I did what most people do, I sat down at the computer and wrote whatever I felt like. I just typed out all my feelings, and since I was both a teenager and a bit of a dork, they were mostly complaints about girls. I would write for what felt like hours until I was exhausted. Then, I wouldn’t write again for weeks.

Basically, I was journaling. Journaling is fine, and some of the best writers started out by journaling every day. It’s a good way to learn to put sentences together and develop a habit of writing.

However, journaling alone won’t make you a great writer.

Journaling is kind of like starting a personal blog. Most of the big bloggers started out with a personal blog. I did. However, writing a personal blog is writing for yourself. To become great, you have to learn how to write for others. You can’t just write what you feel like writing. You have to learn to write what other people want to read.

The single best way to remain in obscurity as a writer is to write solely for yourself. Instead, write for others.

2. Write Something Scary Every Day

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”

To become a great writer you have to push your limits. Don’t write the safe blog post. Write a post you’re not sure you can write.

Don’t write a story with the same basic plot, characters, and setting. Instead, write something wholly new.

Write from a different point of view. Choose a subject you don’t know very well (yet).

If you write every day, you will improve. If you write something scary every day, you will improve much faster.

3. Finish Short Pieces

When you’re first starting out as a writer, it’s more important to finish short pieces than to write the Great American Novel. In fact, most of the novelists we consider great began their writing careers by writing short stories or even newspaper articles.

Before Ernest Hemingway wrote his breakout bestseller, The Sun Also Rises, he worked as a newspaper reporter, and wrote short stories in his spare time.

Before Stephen King wrote his breakout bestseller, Carrie, he wrote dozens of short stories and a column for his college newspaper called, “Stephen King’s Garbage Truck.”

Before Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he worked as a journalist, then as travel writer, and wrote short stories for fun.

When most people first start taking fiction writing seriously, they try to write a novel. It makes sense. You read novels, so why not try to write one. However, most great writers were well into their writing careers before they published their first novel.

Short stories are good practice, because they give you the chance to learn all sides of a story before you invest the hundreds of hours it takes to write a novel. They also help you get work into the public, allowing you to begin the hard but essential work of building an audience.

4. Test Your Skill by Submitting for Publication

Neil Gaiman said, “Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”

You won’t become a great writer until you start to submit your short stories and articles for publication. This is counter-intuitive. You might think you should wait until you’re a good writer before you start to submit your work.

However, studies have shown that when you put your skills to the test, you improve far faster than if you write without being tested. And for writers, publication is the best test of all. If the editors of literary magazines think your short story is good enough to publish, you passed the test. If they don’t, you have that much more motivation to get back to your daily practice.

Submitting takes courage, but so does being a great writer. If you want to be a greater, you have to summon the courage to submit your work.

5. Disregard All Advice

You can’t become great at anything in five easy steps, no matter how smart they are.

Great writers, like all great artists, break the rules. They write when they feel like it. They lock away their unfinished novels for years without submitting them for publication. They write for themselves.

Great writers are great because they learn the rules, and then, once mastered, they disregard everything they ever learned and write from the great rumblings of their soul. However, your writing will improve if you follow these habits of great writers.

What are the best lessons you’ve learned about how to become a better writer? Share your advice in the comments.

About the author:
Joe Bunting is the founder of The Write Practice, a community workbook for writers. His new ebook, Let’s Write a Short Story!, teaches people how to become great writers by writing and publishing short stories. Follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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42 thoughts on “Five Smarter Habits of Great Writers”

  • Some great tips here – thanks Joe. I especially like the idea of trying to write something scary every day. It’s also interesting hearing what great writers did before they were famous. I read the other day that Salman Rushdie was a copywriter with an ad agency before he became famous for writing novels.
    Damien Elsing recently posted..How to Turn Your Boring Newsletter into a Powerful and Engaging Marketing ToolMy Profile

  • Cory says:

    Helpful article, Joe – thanks for it.

    I’ve been focused more on the non-fiction side, but I think the fourth habit still applies. In fact, I’ve been thinking about reaching out to editors (at newspapers and news magazines), and your article gave me a little boost of courage to do it! So again, thanks!
    Cory recently posted..Failing the Fifty-Year TestMy Profile

  • Wickpen says:

    Great advice. I have been writing for years but I have only made efforts to embrace my passion for it and claim my status as a writer earlier this year. I have read and read and read all the tips and advice on writing. There is so much information out there about the writing craft, that if you are not careful, you will find that your time is consumed reading about writing rather than actually writing.

  • Joe Bunting says:

    Damien, I totally believe Rushdie was a copywriter before his novelist days. It seems like nearly every great writer did some kind of hack writing before they transitioned into fiction.

    Cory, You should totally reach out to editors. You probably know all this stuff, but my friend Jeff Goins wrote a good article about creating relationships with editors and getting published in magazines: http://goinswriter.com/how-to-get-published-in-a-magazine. Good luck!

    Wickpen, So true. I always challenge people to write immediately after learning something new about writing. Practice cements the lesson. So what does this post challenge you to write today?
    Joe Bunting recently posted..5 Steps to Write a Short StoryMy Profile

  • Yeah, i like this. Nice advice @ No5. No matter how many ebooks or courses you partake in, it won’t make you the best until you develop your own niche yourself.

    You know, following an ebook or a course might make you money but you will be an apprentice (online) always. Until you find your own voice, you can break forth online.
    Sheyi | ivblogger.com recently posted..How Alexis Grant Became Successful Online: The InterviewMy Profile

  • Just want to add one other important tip:

    Read — and emulate — good writing. I think our society sometimes perceives reading to be “entertainment.” In fact, for writers, it’s a key part of the job!! When I coach writers who want to produce books, my number 1 suggestion is always that they go to a library or a bookstore and find a copy of a book — by someone else — whose style they admire. Then, I suggest they thoroughly analyze that book and figure out how they can emulate it.

    Magazine writers can use the same strategy by simply substituting magazine articles for books. Business writers can, too, by substituting a report, an email, or whatever else they want to write.

    I’m NOT suggesting plagiarism! I’m just saying that by imitating the experts we can all become better ourselves!
    Daphne Gray-Grant recently posted..What you can learn from a profile of the BossMy Profile

  • Joe Bunting says:

    Great point, Daphne. I should have definitely added that one. As T.S. Eliot said, “Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.”

  • Jon Wilburn says:

    Joe – Probably the best advice I’ve received on writing is just showing up … everyday. Do it over and over again. Write a million words if you have too (I hope its not that much). But the idea rings true. If you write and then submit, you learn something. The key is to do it over again and again and again.

  • The “Writing For Others” part is definitely something thats helped me drastically. I write for three sites outside of my own blog and its improved my skill greatly.
    Charles Singletary recently posted..Fifteen Minutes of Fiction: Act 7My Profile

  • Jacqui Davis says:

    Great advice Joe,

    I especially like #3 because I have pieces that I have started, got stumped on a particular part so I stopped to mulle it over and never went back to it. Now I say finish it even if it’s crap. The act of working through it has to be beneficial if it teaches you nothing more than tenacity.

  • Nice article, Joe. What especially resonated with me was the last tip. To learn all the rules and then to throw them out – this jumped out at me. I guess that’s the one I need to work with right now! :-)
    Vinita Zutshi recently posted..Violent Children: What if Your Child Hits You?My Profile

  • Amanda Socci says:

    Smart advice, Joe Bunting. I’ve read all of this advice many times before, but it never heards to read it again and be constantly reminded of easy steps you can take to improve your own writing.

    My one other thing to add to your list would be an expansion of your point #2 in which you advise writers to write something scary. Part of grabbing that fear by the “balls,” hope you understand what I mean by that, is by going outside of your knowledge zone and diving into unfamiliar territory by desiring to learn a new topic and researching the smoke out of it. Out of that research will come a wickedly fresh perspective on unfamiliar topics and some pretty rockin’ writing.
    Amanda Socci recently posted..Part 2, Groucho Marx Voice Resurrected!My Profile

  • Lee J Tyler says:

    Terrific article and great tips. I think I will add in something quoted best by Hemingway when asked a similar question, “You just sit in front of the typewriter, and bleed.” That might not be an exact quote but you get the idea. My point is the old truism that you should write everyday. This is similar to your point to write something which scares you (I love that idea). We cannot grow without moving beyond our comfort zone and that involves fear. We must, no matter what, write ever day; if it’s 500 words on a truly bad day, 1k or more. I am constantly surprised at the change in me and my writing each time I begin and a transformation occurs within the piece and the writer. We must look at it realistically, of course, through a well-trained eye. But nothing will ever happen if we don’t try to put the words in the right order. (Now who said that? ;) Thanks again for a terrific article. I’m keeping it and all of the great comments in a special place.
    Lee J Tyler recently posted..Do not disparage the power of the receiptMy Profile

  • I am a new writer working on my first novel’s first draft. I joined a critique group and have found that I am improving rapidly due to their mentoring and encouragement. I also find that the bi-monthly meetings act as deadlines to keep me moving forward on the draft.

  • I love the reminder to “write something scary every day.” For my personal growth as a writer, I think this might help propel me to the next level, especially in my blogging and poetry right now. Thanks for the great ideas, Joe.
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted..Crafting Sex and SexualityMy Profile

  • Jack Dowden says:

    Number 3 and 4 really spoke to me. They’re the reasons I started my blog, 100 Stories 100 Weeks, in the first place! I think too many people start out trying to write a grand, glorious, long novel, only to fall flat. Rather, they should get comfortable with storytelling first, so their novel will be that much easier.

    Submitting is important too, otherwise, you’ll never get feedback and you can’t improve. When my first few stories got rejected, it hurt, but it motivated me to improve them. Some of them I managed to sell after some revision, so submitting does work.
    Jack Dowden recently posted..Week 12: Happy Labor Day!My Profile

  • Valerie says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Joe. I actually needed to hear a lot of what you had to say. Lately I’ve been resisting writing for others, but you made some good points about learning to write what other people want to read. #2 is a biggie too – I’ve been focusing a lot lately on stepping outside my comfort zone, so “write something scary” makes a lot of sense to me.
    Valerie recently posted..How to Become a WriterMy Profile

    • Joe Bunting says:

      Thanks Valerie. I think you have to write for yourself and write for others. If you don’t find a way to do both you end up either burning out or being ignored. It’s good to resist writing for others, I think. It’s also good to resist writing for yourself. I don’t know. It’s a mysterious thing.
      Joe Bunting recently posted..Let’s Write a Short Story ContestMy Profile

  • I have been writing for 5 years.ITtakes practice.Ijust published my first book.The title is THE SIR DAVID THOMAS SERIES AVAILABLE FROM PUBLISH AMERICA.

  • Marla says:

    I think you are right here. I def try to only write for others. I feel like a good book or story should free someone, you know what I mean? After reading your book Joe, I have stopped being scared of novellas and plan to publish/edit my own onto my website. I think that just pushing out the story, getting the soul out there on the paper, is what is most important.

    If we don’t write for others, we are only writing for ourselves, and how is that freeing?
    Marla recently posted..I’m an Artist, UnfortunatelyMy Profile

  • LK Watts says:

    Hi Joe,

    Great blog. I find my best rule for writing is motivation and self discipline. Instead of talking about writing I make sure I’m taking part in the process. So many people say they are writers but what they don’t realise is they spend MORE time saying this than actually writing.

  • Wonderful goods from you, man. I have bear in mind your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely great. I actually like what you’ve received here, certainly like what you’re stating and the way in which you assert it. You make it enjoyable and you continue to care for to keep it smart. I cant wait to learn far more from you. This is really a great site.
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  • GrammarPolice says:

    Eleanor Roosevelt would have said, “Do one thing *every day* that scares you.” Not “everyday”.

  • tahseen says:

    Even though i make lots of grammatical mistakes,i dont stop writing.I have a habbit of writing like what all i went through the day or whatever i saw,i come home and write it down. I think i can express my feelings much better in a closed book or rough papers,rather than expressing it to humans.Thanks for the tips. I would like to try on scary scripts also…

  • Paige says:

    “Write Something Scary Every Day” and “Do one thing every day that scares you” – I think this is the best advice for any writer. For me this actually includes #4 – submitting my writing for contests or publication. I guess that’s a good place to start :)
    Paige recently posted..From a Place of LoveMy Profile

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