10 Helpful Writing Habits
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Writing can feel easy sometimes. Sometimes it isn't. From the writers I talk to as well as my own experiences, we often feel inadequate, unskilled or out of place among our peers. I'm told this is normal but I'm not always sure. Some days are easier than others in all things and the same goes for writing. The only thing to be done is to keep at it and improve. Always improve.
I like to see things broken down into bite sized pieces. So here are some bites to help those along the path who need it. Each one of the items on this list are ways to make writing a little easier. I discovered many of them while writing and publishing Well of Bones and now that I'm going back to fix Well of Bones book 2 (I wrote the rough drafts almost simultaneously) I'm kicking myself for not keeping an eye of certain things that are obvious to me now. Each one comes directly from my Well of Bones notebook so I'll try to decipher my handwriting and relay them to you. Hopefully someone else will find them useful.
1: Outline. Maybe this is a personal preference but I like to lay everything out chapter by chapter. It's just easier to organize my thoughts that way. I write a bio for each of my main characters and include their goals. What motivates them? Why are they doing what they're doing? How can they accomplish their goals? Should they accomplish their goals? Going chapter by chapter and jotting down what needs to happen, what the characters want to happen, and what actually happens is a good way to know where I want the story to go before I get there.
2: Format. I know formatting isn't the fun part, but it's easy to set it up from the beginning. If you have it right all along, that's one less thing on your editor's plate so they can focus on everything else. The current standard is as follows:
Black, 12-Point, Times New Roman.
Page size 8.5x11". 1" margins on all sides.
Single space after periods.
Indent paragraphs 0.5".
Use page breaks for new chapters (ctrl + Enter or click the end of previous chapter. Then insert>break>page break)
Number pages in top left header. I like to put my last name and the title of the book here as well.
Signify scene breaks with a centered hashtag (#) on an otherwise blank line.
Some editors/proofreaders require the manuscript to be a word document, however, I like to use google docs and my editor for Well of Bones had no problem with me sharing it that way. I received her notes in real time as she posted them which was good and bad for different reasons.
3: Write without looking back. Possibly the hardest thing for me to do. I always want to go back and edit after writing a few pages. Not a good habit to get into. Your mind is in a different place when writing something down for the first time and while you are editing. There will always be time to tweak things, make adjustments, and get rid of stupid mistakes. It's a hard habit to break so if you haven't started, don't. If you already suffer from this condition, stop.
4: Keep it relevant to the story. New characters, situations, conflicts all have to play a part in the story. Don't ever write something just because you think it will be cool. If it fits with the story, great. Use it. If you fell in love with a situation and are trying to squeeze it into your narrative just because you love it, cut it. I know it's hard but your readers will thank you for it.
5: Passive voice. Don't use it. Example: "The cowboy was kicked by the horse." It's better as "the horse kicked the cowboy." Passive voice is identified as the subject being acted upon. A dead give-away is the phrase "by the..." unless the agent performing the action has been omitted altogether. "The cowboy was kicked."
I'm horrible at explaining it and even worse at keeping it out of my writing. Good thing I have google and great editors. If you want to learn more about passive voice, check out the link below. They explain it much better.
6: Filter words: another thing I need to keep out of my writing a little better. A filter word distances the reader from the story. It weakens your writing by reminding the reader that they are reading by telling what senses are in use rather than showing through stronger description. Words like see, saw, hear, heard, feel, felt, taste, tasted, smell, and smelled.
When your audience is reading a character's point of view, you want them to experience that character's senses, feelings and emotions as closely as possible. This is a difficult task to begin with, but eliminating filter words can help. You can change "Bob tasted blood and mud as Joe pressed his face to the ground" to "the metallic flavor of blood crept over Bob's tongue and gritty mud filled his mouth as Joe pressed his face to the ground." Poor example, but you get the idea. Make it visceral.
7: Take short breaks. Not long breaks. When writing, it's healthy and useful to take a 15 minute break every hour or so. Rest your eyes from the screen, stretch your legs, go for a walk. Your body will thank you and when you return to the keyboard, you will find the words flowing just a little easier. When I have trouble getting passed a difficult point, I'll write for only an hour and force myself to stop, even if I have more to put down. Then I'll come back hours later or even the next morning and pick up where I left off. This is only when I know I wouldn't have much else right away. If things are flowing well, don't stop unless it's time to stretch.
No matter how difficult things are getting, do not take a long break (days, weeks, months, years). There is a chance you will never pick up that project again. Or, if you do, it's difficult to remember where you were wanting things to go or the means of getting there. It's just better if you stay diligent. If I had taken my own advice, Well of Bones would have been on bookshelves in 2015.
8: Read books in your genre. It should go without saying. If you're writing dark fantasy, read dark fantasy. If you're writing young adult sci-fi, read young adult sci-fi. If you have trouble putting your novel into a single category, read books from each of the categories you can't choose from.
Not only does this give you an inside look at trends and tropes (overused or otherwise) but you can also discover for yourself what you think works and doesn't work so you can emulate that in your own writing. I said emulate. Don't copy.
9: Try reading dialogue with a partner. This is a good way to determine if your dialogue feels genuine. Do people speak that way? Star Wars is great, but George Lucas' dialogue was horrendous and the cast knew it. No one talked like that. "Blast!" "I've got a bad feeling about this." "I don't know where you get your delusions, laserbrain."
Reading lines with a partner can also help pinpoint stilted dialogue (doesn't sound natural).
Example: "My husband is choking. Will someone help him?" Fixed: "He's choking. Help him!"
Side note: don't overuse exclamation marks. They lose their value the more you use them. If you have hardly any in your manuscript, the ones you do have pack that much more punch.
10: Write often. Write your novel. Write in a journal. Write a blog. Write writing prompts. Just write. You won't run out of creative juices. It can only help.
And that's it. Some of these might be obvious but I hope you have found some value in my humble insight.