Like most bad habits, poor writing practices are easy to form and hard to break. But unlike most bad habits, writing-related ones can have a big impact on your career (or bottom line if you’re a freelancer). If you want to become a better writer, it’s time to stamp out these unproductive habits.
1. Neglecting to Read
Writing for a living without regularly picking up new books, articles, or other forms of content is like being a professional chef without ever tasting anyone else’s food. To hone your skills, you need to sample what’s out there. Not only does exposing yourself to great writing help you find new rhetorical techniques, strategies, and effective turns of phrase, it also sharpens your “ear” for rhythm and flow.
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Nothing makes or breaks a piece like good rhythm. You might have compelling ideas and interesting quotes, but clunky sentences or ill-constructed paragraphs will doom your work. However, it’s nearly impossible to learn how to write with rhythm by taking a course or picking up a manual. The majority of writers acquire this skill by absorbing as much writing as they can.
2. Jumping Straight In
It’s always tempting to dive right into your work without outlining first—especially if you’re a freelancer. After all, time equals money: The more writing you can do, the more you’ll make.
But cutting corners upfront will almost always slow you down during the later stages of the writing process. Without an outline to keep you focused and on-topic, it’s likely that you’ll lose your train of thought, get stuck in a particular section, write too much in some parts and not enough in others, and fail to develop your points.
So even though you might dread outlining, try to spend at least 15 to 45 minutes doing it for every project (depending on its length, complexity, and type).
3. Editing While You Go
Many writers get stuck in the weeds while they write. A sentence sounds off, so you pause and rewrite it. However, changing that sentence messes with the flow of the paragraph, meaning you need to rewrite four more sentences. Next thing you know, 20 minutes has gone by and you haven’t made any progress.
It’s hard, I know—but refrain from editing until you’ve finished your first draft. You’ll find it much easier to fix both macro and micro problems when you know what the entire piece looks like. Plus, you’ll finish your initial writing much faster. That gives you more time for editing down the line.
Need some help? Luckily, there are plenty of apps designed to mitigate “edit while you write” syndrome. Rough Draft strikes out words and phrases rather than deleting them. This gives you a visual incentive to keep typing rather than going back and fussing with your work. Fighter’s Block is also a fun option; after you enter your goal wordcount, you have a limited period of time to hit that objective before the monster knocks you out.
4. Not Setting a Routine
What do Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Ernest Hemingway have in common— besides being supremely talented, of course? These writers each had their own highly specific creative routines.
And they’re not alone. Most successful writers work the same way every day. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, used to have a cup of tea, write from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., take a break to see her friends, and then write from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Establishing a routine has a couple of benefits. First, it allows you to transition from everyday life into a creative mood. Second, a routine makes it more difficult to procrastinate writing or let other obligations get in the way. When you’re committed to, say, writing one hour before work each day, you’re far likelier to actually get that writing time in.
If you don’t have a routine yet, start by identifying the activities, setting and times of day that make you most productive. For example, maybe you always have an easier time focusing after you’ve worked out or had a cup of coffee. Once you know what boosts your efficiency, weave those elements into your routine.
5. Reacting Poorly to Negative Feedback
No one enjoys receiving negative feedback. Writers often have a particularly hard time getting constructive comments on their work, since writing feels so personal. But becoming defensive or emotional when an editor or manager critiques your work will hurt your career in more ways than one. Obviously, this reaction damages your professional image: If people believe you can’t accept edits, they’re usually hesitant to rehire you or recommend you to others.
You’ll also lose the opportunity to improve. Chances are, the feedback you’re getting is valid, so paying attention and incorporating it into this piece as well as future pieces will help you grow as a writer.
The takeaway: Try to recognize the value of negative feedback. Remember that you are not your work. That means you shouldn’t take these comments as personal attacks on your character.