How do you break bad habits? More importantly, how do you break bad writing habits that prevent you from finishing that manuscript you've been talking about for months, maybe even years?
Let's be honest: it's hard breaking habits, especially when it comes to bad writing habits. Writing is a career that requires a lot of self-motivation. In other words, it's the perfect breeding ground for procrastination, distractions, and a world of other bad writing habits stalling your writing time.
But there's hope! The best way to break bad writing habits is to first recognize that 1) you have them and 2) you need to put forth the conscious effort to stop doing them. Here's what I consider the three worst writing habits—and how to break them.
Bad Writing Habits Have Stopped Me From Writing, Too
Most (probably all) writers are guilty of falling down the rabbit hole with the following three habits. I know I am.
Especially with the first one on my three writing habits to break list. Once I stopped short in my writing to Google something really quick, and, well, you know what happens when you turn to Google for an answer and get seriously distracted by water bears. I'm not kidding.
I don’t remember now what the “real quick” thing was for my own novel, but I do remember spending an hour learning about these animals. And water bears weren't even in my story!
It’s really easy to succumb to the three bad writing habits listed in this post. To save your writing time, I'd like to teach you what they are—and how to break them.
3 Bad Writing Habits (And How to Break Them)
All writers are guilty of falling down the rabbit hole with the following three habits. Here's what to watch for and how to break the habit:
1. Writing Work That Isn't Your Novel
There's a lot of work that goes into a writing career that's not actually writing. Marketing, website-building, research, newsletters, and engaging with readers on social media or beyond are all on the list of things you need to accomplish almost daily in order to build a successful writing career.
On the road to becoming a novelist, it's tempting to take the time you've set aside for your manuscript and turn it into time to do anything related to writing.
But that's not writing.
You can't engage your YA fantasy fans with a book that hasn't been written.
There's nothing to post on your site if you don't finish your book. (Blogging is also “writing” work that feels like writing but really isn't. You can only blog about how hard finding time to write is so much, especially if you're not actually doing the writing.)
Research, while important, also isn't time spent writing your book. And you're very likely to fall down a research hole and never emerge.
How to Break It
This one is seriously the hardest bad writing habit to break. After all, all of these other writing endeavors and necessities are work, so it feels productive. Scratch that. It is productive—just not the kind of production you need to finish your manuscript.
Your manuscript writing time is your writing time for your manuscript. Period. That's when you put your butt in your chair and your fingers on the keyboard and force your protagonist into spiraling conflicts that push them on a journey from beginning to end.
That means you need to turn off the internet if it's too much of a temptation. Put your phone on silent. Shut the door to your writing room (if you're lucky enough to have one of those) and dedicate your attention to the eccentric girl and struggling boy who need it most. Noise-canceling headphones might be a good investment.
“But what about research?!”
Yes, you need to research. But DO NOT do it during your writing time. Set aside a different chunk of time to learn more about the Knights of the Round Table or natural disasters, specifically sandstorms in Middle Eastern Asia.
Despite what lots of writers think, your story has very little to do with research. Story structure doesn't require knowing what material designers used to make petticoats in the seventeenth century. It doesn't require finding the perfect, punny name for the bar your main character loves to frequent.
It helps make the story more authentic, sure, but required? Nope, it's not.
So do your research, but don't count your research as your novel writing time. And if you need to know the petticoat thing, make a note in your manuscript to look it up later. (TK is a great place marker if it helps.)
Pro Tip: a great time to do research is after your first draft in preparation to write your second.
The point is when you sit down for your writing session, it's time to write your story. Everything else, all other writing projects, should be set aside for outside your writing time.
2. Waiting for the “Perfect” Writing Conditions
There have been a lot of comments on our Instagram posts lately about the perfect writing conditions. We'll post something about writing even if you don't feel like it, and inevitably someone will say they're waiting on “the same inspiration that started the story” or “for life to calm down.”
Look. I get it. When the sun is shining, I'm in a great mood. I have motivation for everything. When it's dreary, I don't. But I live in Ohio and if I waited for the sun to show its face before I got down to writing, I'd write maybe ten days a year. (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you get my point.)
There are no “perfect” writing conditions. You either write—or you don't.
Life won't calm down.
That inspiration you're waiting on? An awesome way to lose it forever is to wait around for it to come back.
How to Break It
You've heard this a million times on this blog, and probably on every other writing blog out there when they talk about habits with writing.
I don't care what your writing routine looks like. You can write at 3 am, naked, hanging upside down from the ceiling for all I care. What matters is what works for you. When are you most productive? After coffee? After you put the kids to bed? After you do an incantation calling on the gods to imbue you with creative spirit? Great. Do that, then write.
And if something doesn't work for you, nix it.
Don't worry about when all the “great writers” write or what they do to get in the mood to put words on the paper. You do you. Finding your own production groove is what will encourage you to be consistent.
3. Not Reading
The idea that some writers don't read is mindboggling to me. That's like trying to be a pro basketball player without ever watching a game. How are you supposed to learn how to get it done if you don't study people who've already done it?
I know you're busy. We're all busy. But reading is a necessity for a writer. It's seriously part of the job. And, you know, you should probably like reading if you're going to write. If you don't like books, why are you writing one?
Reading can spark ideas, expand your vocabulary, and give you an instinct for story structure.
You need to read.
There's no scooting around this one. The trick is to make your time for reading as enjoyable as your time for writing.
How to Break It
Okay, that was snarky. What I mean is … read.
I've noticed people tend to think of reading as an activity that takes up at least the amount of time it takes to play a game of Monopoly. If you look at it that way, yes, it's a little daunting for a busy person. Just because you can't fit in hours of reading every day doesn't mean you can't fit in any reading at all.
You have more time than you think. When you're taking a break from writing or work, what do you do? When you're waiting for water to boil on the stove, what do you do?
My guess is you whip out your phone and work those scrolling muscles. Am I right? If you admitted yes, maybe try whipping out a book (or audiobook!) instead. Skip bingeing the latest Netflix show to read. Let your new favorite Netflix show be your reward post successfully accomplishing your daily writing goal.
(Note that reading, while a necessity for a writer, is also not writing. See #1 above.)
Bonus (Bad) Writing Habits
When you think about what it takes to be a successful writer, you might focus on technical writing skills—the ways good writers use commas, for instance, or adverbs, or paragraph breaks.
But here's the thing: mastering these technical aspects will make you a better writer—but only if you actually write.
That's why the most important habits, the ones I focused on the most in this article, are the ones focused on the lifestyle of professional writers. Experienced writers make time to write, actually write during that time (whether they feel inspired or not!), and read a lot.
Still want some technical writing tips? I get it. Here are some bad writing style habits, with articles that will help you break them:
- Overuse of adverbs
- Overuse of passive voice
- Overuse of one paragraph length (you need both long paragraphs and short paragraphs)
- Overuse of any of these words
- Misuse of commas
Mastering these technical writing elements will help you transform poor writing into great writing.
Mastering the three major habits I listed above will help you overcome writer's block, master the writing process, and actually produce your own writing. Which is, let's be honest, the first step to producing great writing.
Break a Habit This Week.
One of the best ways to break a bad habit, according to psychologists, is to substitute a bad behavior for a different, better behavior. Think of breaking these bad writing habits in “if/then” form.
For example, in the past, if you needed to know petticoat material, then you Googled it. Now I want you to substitute that behavior by saying, “If I need to know petticoat material, I'll make a note to look it up later.” Then return to writing your manuscript.
I have a sneaking suspicion you probably have at least one of these bad writing habits, if not all. Choose one and work on breaking it this week.
One last tip! My recommendation if you have all three bad habits is to start with breaking the second one on the list first. Think, “If I want to be a writer, then I will do this, this, and this to start my writing routine.” Mine is, “If I need to write, then I need to get my tea, go to my writing space, and shut my phone off.” Eventually, this new behavior will become a good writing habit.
Which bad writing habit are you going to work on breaking this week? Let me know in the comments!
Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write about a character struggling to break a bad habit. Bonus points if you can make it a unique bad habit! A good example of this is in chapter one of best-selling author John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, when Aza Holmes tries to break her bad OCD habit (and you can read the first chapter for free on Amazon).
When you’re done, share your writing in the Pro Practice Workshop here. And don't forget to share some thoughts on your fellow writers' work!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.