Writers & habits

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There’s a wonderfully interesting article by Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called “The Habits of Highly Productive Writers.” The subhead is this: “There are no tricks to make writing easier, just practices you can develop to get it done.”

Ms. Toor discusses twelve habits, and you’ll want to read what she says about them; this post will make a lot more sense to you if you do. She asserts that highly productive writers…

  • reject the notion of “writer’s block” the way others shun gluten
  • don’t overtalk their projects
  • believe in themselves and their work
  • know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not “working”
  • are passionate about their projects
  • know what they’re good at
  • read a lot, and widely
  • know how to finish a draft
  • work on more than one thing at once
  • leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again
  • don’t let themselves off the hook
  • know there are no shortcuts, magic bullets, special exercises, or incantations

There are two tricky issues about this piece. The first is that we don’t really know what Ms. Toor means by “highly productive.” Quantity? Quality? Both? I’d be happier if I knew how she defines the term. I know some writers whom I’d consider highly productive, but they don’t think they’re productive enough. “Highly productive” is a highly subjective assessment.

The second tricky bit is that if you’re a reasonably productive writer (by your own standards) you already know and practice (or know and differ with) these habits, so in a way the article is irrelevant to you. If you’re not a productive writer (by your own standards), it may be relevant but you’re likely to be hiding under the bed sobbing by the time you finish reading the piece.

Actually, there’s a third issue: Is this article about highly productive writers or highly productive academic writers? Since Toor is writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education but uses examples from both worlds—academic and nonacademic—I’m a little confused. Again, “highly productive” could mean two very different things, according to what you’re writing and who it’s for.

It’s the nature of articles like this that they reiterate what we already know (if we fit the profile) or tell us what we might want to know (if we aspire to the profile). When the points are as nicely set out as they are in this article, it’s also a pleasure to see one’s life (or aspirations) described so cogently.

Still, I have a few quibbles with a few of the specifics. For instance: Highly productive writers work on more than one thing at once. Not necessarily. Many h.p. writers can’t spread their thinking over two projects at once; they give all their attention to one project and bash away at it until it’s finished. It’s like being a serial monogamist.

Another instance: Highly productive writers read a lot, and widely. Maybe they all should, but not all of them do. Mystery writers sometimes fall into that narrow-reading category, devouring books in their genre and ignoring almost everything else. A lot of productive fiction writers don’t read nonfiction, and vice versa. Plenty of productive writers have so much going on in their own heads that they can’t stuff anything else in there and hardly read at all.

And then there’s Toor’s remark in the Highly productive writers don’t let themselves off the hook section: “When they start to have feelings of self-doubt—I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’ll never write another good sentence—they tell themselves to stop feeling sorry for themselves and just do the work.”

Where did that notion come from? I guess there are a few h.p. writers who say that to themselves—there must be. It’s true that h.p. writers ultimately don’t let themselves off the hook, but in the timespan between the self-doubt and the return to work there’s frequently a lot of panic, depression, anxiety, wailing, phone calls, shrink visits, temper tantrums, and worse.

I love that Rachel Toor took on this juicy topic, and it was great fun to read and think about her conclusions. But the problem I always have with definitive statements is that I worry about the exceptions to the definitions. Definitions of normative behavior scare me, especially where writers and all other artists are concerned.

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