How to Think Like a Great Writer

by Guest Blogger | 35 comments

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Today’s guest post is by Michael Mahin. Michael is a repped screenwriter and children’s book author, with two books forthcoming from Atheneum and Clarion. He blogs about writing and dreaming big at He also runs a web design business that caters to building sites for writers, actors, and other creative types.

Attitude is everything. You’ve heard it a thousand times. You’ve probably even said it yourself. And yet, sometimes a bad attitude still gets the best of us. Sometimes we hate our writing. Sometimes we hate our agents. And sometimes, maybe, we even hate ourselves.

Over time, these kinds of thoughts can turn into a constant stream of negative self-talk that saps our creative energy and leads us to self-doubt. So how do we fix our bad attitudes and start thinking like a great writer?

How to Think Like a Great Writer

As Earl Nightingale famously wrote,

“Our attitude toward life determines life’s attitude towards us.”

Nightingale was clearly talking about the effect that one’s attitude has on one’s experience. It seems to me the same could be said about writing.

How a Positive Attitude Can Help You Find Your Flow

If you read my last post, you’ll know that Susan Perry’s Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity (1999) is a distillation of hundreds of interviews with award-winning writers and her discoveries about how great writers achieve peak performance and “find their flow.”

In her book, Perry suggests that there are 5 keys to “writing in flow.” The first, which I wrote about here, is having the right reason to write. The second is having the right attitude.

Perry does not suggest that all you need to be a great writer is the “right” attitude. Rather her study is more realistic and practical. As she writes,

“If you are so inclined, you can change your attitudes in such a way that you will become a more productive writer, a writer who is more comfortable and self-assured about the creative process itself.”

In the same way that we learn how to structure a story, so we can also learn to cultivate the right attitudes.

How Great Writers Think

In her many interviews of successful writers, Perry observes these common positive attitudes:

  • An openness to experience: Successful writers have a nonjudgmental orientation towards their work and allow themselves to consider all possibilities rather than shutting any out automatically.
  • A willingness to take risks: Successful writers are open to the sorts of risks (challenges and deviations from the norm) that lead to creative breakthroughs.
  • The ability to be absorbed: Successful writers are intrinsically motivated and able to “lose themselves” in (or remain fully focused on) the task at hand.
  • Resilience: Successful writers don’t think in terms of success or failure, but rather growth, which helps them endure and reframe professional and creative obstacles as they arise.

Contrary to our fantasies about what being a great writer means, it does not mean an end to self-doubt and frustration, or what Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art (2002), would call “resistance.” (I’ve written more about this awesome book here.) Rather, it means having attitudes and/or practices in place that help us deal with the various “bad attitudes” and obstacles that inevitably arise.

Perry’s list gives us a good idea of how great writers seem to adopt certain positive attitudes that help them counteract the bad ones.

How to Cultivate a Positive Attitude

In her book, Perry describes how best-selling author Michael Crichton dealt with the self-doubt that plagued him:

“Crichton keeps a journal during the writing of his books, so that when he starts getting that ‘I never should have started this, it’s garbage’ feeling, he looks back and sees that he felt the same way at a certain point while working on previous novels.”

If you struggle with self-doubt, keeping a journal of this sort might help you mitigate and understand the nature of your negative attitude. Regardless, identifying and understanding that attitude is the first step.

Thinking like a great writer is not about telling yourself “you’re great,” but rather identifying the attitudes that don’t serve you while cultivating other more positive attitudes and practices that will.

What persistent negative thoughts or frustrations do you struggle with as a writer? How do you combat them? Let me know in the comments, and I'll share mine, too!


Make a list of three positive attitudes you could have about writing.

Then, find a piece of writing you've been struggling with. Or start something new — perhaps a story about a young writer with confidence problems who has a new crush.

Take fifteen minutes to write, embodying your three positive attitudes as you go. When you're done, share your attitudes and your practice in the comments.

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  1. Priyanka Chhadwa

    Good write up. I often feel that my ideas sound the greatest when i first arrive upon them. Having said that, truly great ideas can always stand the test of time.

    Finding motivation to go back to something you have been working on for 10 hours and getting no breakthrough can surely bring people down.

    The ‘Three Positive Attitudes’ thus are,

    1. Write it down so you don’t have to remember it.
    – Having a clutter of ideas never amounts to much for me. It makes me anxious and procrastinate, feeling that some how in the pass of time it will all filter out into a finite plot.
    I really have to start talking myself out of these notions.

    2.Exhibit A
    – Writing makes a sort of exhibition out of me. Every work is a true reflection of what i feel in that moment. The rewriting is trying to carry forward the momentum.
    I know that introvert character that i love and adore so much has its reasons. And why i decide to include animals in every story. As i very much consider them a part of my life.
    The key word here would be reflection.

    3. The feeling of words printed on a once blank canvas.
    -If you are anything like me, a blank page is pretty daunting. But when words start filling up the page in your selected spacing and punctuations, its a thorough transformation. Some might even call writing an Art :p
    The feeling of printing paper with your words is irreplaceable 🙂

    Thank you for motivating me to put my 15 minutes before bed to good use. Now i shall go ahead and sleep and have a wonderful day tomorrow, as shall you. Karma is a bitch.

    • Susan W A

      Yes, transformation of the blank page … do you ever reflect on a piece you’ve written that you enjoy reading over and over, and realize you don’t know exactly how it came together? Sometimes I think, “I remember putting that word down, and coming up with that phrase, but how did the rest fall into place?” (I mostly write poetry to reflect on and celebrate the big and small of life .)

    • Priyanka Chhadwa

      i wrote a screenplay for my first project in film school. It was okay but on the day of the shoot, the weather completely changed and the script just wouldn’t work. I had to rewrite parts of the script in less than an hour and the final result surprised me. It turned out to be much better than what i had started with as i considered the real possibilities of my surroundings 🙂 i haven felt such a jolt of happiness since them 🙁

      Poetry writing is very difficult for me, hats off to you for pulling it off. I feel poetry writing has to be so much concise and i cant help but use more words than necessary :O i need a script doctor 🙂

    • Susan W A

      What a great experience to have re-written on the spot and have it turn out even better! Something to carry with you to realize you have it in you to do it again.

      I re-read your original post and really enjoyed it. Some gems of phrasing and ideas.

    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks for sharing Priyanka. Before bed is a great time to do stuff like this! I’m a big fan of writing it down. Before bed helps me simmer down to sleep, and also has the benefit of priming my subconscious before sleep. Stephen King calls it, “Giving it to the boys in the basement.” 🙂

    • Priyanka Chhadwa

      hahaha!! “boys in the basement” . that really cracked me up for some reason 🙂

      hope to read more from you!

  2. Jason

    Keeping a journal to keep track of your altitude. Cool idea.

    • Michael Mahin

      i think you meant attitude. but I like altitude better!

  3. Nathy Gaffney

    ok here goes. Fear of:
    revealing shame
    overwhelm of too many thoughts that I can’t get out of my head
    starting strong, but running out of steam.
    Here’s my 15 minutes of practice.

    Sasha looked out across the tree line. In the distance the sun was rising and giving the mist hanging in the trees a pinkish red glow – visually radiating a warmth that was definitely lacking in the chilly late spring morning.

    He looked at his bare feet, one sitting on top of the other – trying to keep its mate warm. He’d crawled out his window and onto the tiled roof to smoke a joint, not thinking of the temperature. Now he was perched in a semi-comfortable position on the pitched section, and was reluctant to move lest he miss the sunrise. So, his toes would have to suffer. Such was life.

    He wondered if Liza would like his feet. If she ever saw them that is. So – if she saw them, what would she think of them? He examined his toes more closely. They were long and knuckly – and instead of the second toe being longer (which his sister had always told him, was attractive), his third toe reared it’s head above all the others – in sort of a pyramid. ‘Ugly fucking toes’ – he thought to himself, and raised his eyes once more to the misty orange glow of the rising sun.

    The shame of ugly feet. It wasn’t the first time he’d felt it. If things were going well with a girl, Sasha could bank on his toes messing things up. ‘Putting his foot in it’ perhaps. He smiled to himself wryly. He knew that his reluctance to ask Liza out had nothing to do with his feet, and yet, it was convenient to shovel all his shame and fear into the very things he could conceal inside socks and shoes. He could blame them for all the missed opportunities “if only I had nice toes – she’d like me, I’d have gotten that job, I could write that book, I could capture those moments and trap them on the page. If only I had nice toes, dad wouldn’t have died, and Mum wouldn’t have been so so so sad.”

    His thoughts were starting to run away with him. This was a familiar sensation. It happened to him whenever he made a pact to sit down and write. The thoughts would all come at once – a tsunami of thoughts, and memories, and images and feelings. They would sweep him away and he would be lost. It seemed the only time he could write with any clarity was when there was no time to write. On the tube, when he needed to change lines, or in a café, after he’d paid for his coffee. That is when the clear thoughts would come.

    The sun was up now – glowing weakly in the London sky, and offering little warmth. He thought of his toes again. “Socks” he thought.

    • Manojkrishna Eswaramurthy

      Hi Nathy, i really liked the way the store builds up. Nice use of language. Reading it again and again, just to make my story flow as yours. Thank you. Keep writing.

    • Nathy Gaffney

      haha – just realised I wrote about attitudes of fear, not positive attitudes I can cultivate. Note to self – read more thoroughly. Hopefully all is not lost though – as I wrote anyway and that’s a good thing 🙂

    • Susan W A

      hahaha indeed. : )

    • Michael Mahin

      but it feels real. fear creates empathy. we all get it.

    • Susan W A

      This is truly engaging, giving me a lot to consider about writing a story. Don’t we get preoccupied with crazy minutiae sometimes, causing our mind to disconnect from reality for a moment?
      “Socks” he thought … liked the ending.
      15 minutes of practice? Nice job creating this scene!

    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks for sharing, Nathy. This is great! I’m feeling a YA novel or story. I wanna hear where it goes!

  4. Inderjit Singh

    Dr IS Kalsi, (Doctor of Philosophy) What do you expect from such a one with a non-medical doctorate in store. et, I have some fetish for writing. I’m good at developing stories. Yet, I’m awfully bad at finishing these abruptly.

    This is the basic flaw in my psyche.

    Why can’t I finish a story? It’s so because I’m never satisfied with my product. I want my writing piece to be perfect like that of any world famous writers. Having read those great writers is also a draw back.

    Fear of criticism is also another stopper. I know, I have my own style, a subjective one. I love to write in first person mode. I also know my limitations. I can’t write 20, or 2000 stories like many others. My out put won’t go beyond twenty-thirty beautiful stories.

    Oh! How to start the publication of just a single story. Once that comes into print, I get familiar with the process, the rest would be a cake walk.

    But, where to start with?

    A million dollar question!

    • Michael Mahin

      Finishing is hard because it forces us to confront our failures and weaknesses. It helps me to remind myself that writing is not about product, but process. Here’s a link to another post I did that you might find useful about getting into the “process” mindset.

  5. LaCresha Lawson

    Great article. Writing is courage.

    • Susan W A

      Thought-provoking phrase, LaCresha. Many possibilities.

    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks LaCresha. It is courage isn’t it. Is it courage because it requires trust?

  6. Susan W A

    Thanks very much for your post, Michael!

    three positive attitudes about writing

    1 being
    2 seeing
    3 freeing

    1 think
    2 brink
    3 link

    1 imagine
    2 impossible
    3 impressive

    1 blank
    2 crank
    3 thank

    1 admire
    2 aspire
    3 climb higher

    1 inspiration / imitation
    2 narration
    3 jubilation

    1 creativity
    2 proclivity
    3 expressivity

    1 cogitate
    2 percolate
    3 articulate

    1 write?
    2 right!
    3 write!

    1 15 minutes a day
    2 the Write Practice way
    3 emboldens you to say,

    1 “I
    2 am a
    3 writer!”

    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks Susan! Fun poem. My fave stanza is – cogitate. percolate. articulate. !

    • Susan W A

      me, too.

  7. Ashok Choudhury

    i still don’t know when i suddenly started liking asha. but something inside me just drives me to day while we both were sitting in a park i told her ‘ have you ever discovered the similarities between us. you know we both have a rich, aggrieved father who has a story to tell, both of our mothers are look distanced and sullen, but then we both love both of them so intensely. you always talk about your father and how he really had to fight all the burnt of a partition, worked hard and recovered so fast . the same i talk about my dad’ how he lost his father when he was just 17 with such a large family to take care but how he really made it doing all his duties so responsibly.we hardly talk about our mothers because we think it may really disturb their stoic, silent images that we carry in our minds. so we prefer to remain silent. the best thing is i have not stopped you talking about your mom’ and you never even asked me to tell something about my mother. doesn’t it look strange? not even this. that day though we went to different market with our class group’ , the next day when i gifted you a black t. shirt , you just went inside your room’ and came with a black t shirt, you told you bought for me from the market yesterday and we both laughed looking at the same color’ and felt more surprised that both the fabrics’ are so same by look n’ feel , well i would remind you of something else ,…remember? the movie we saw that tuesday night , we both didn’t like it and the choke late i brought for you , you just saw and exclaimed ”wow! it’s my thing …how do you know?”…and to this i said i picked it just like that out of the whole lot there; and, yes. the best thing is when we both laugh we have dimples almost of the same size in the same place. well forget all that now, didn’t you tell me the other day that you love beaches and hate mathematics, i found myself saying same here’ though silently inside me; just think of today’s morning only ; when i proposed you if we would meet at the zoo-park , you said , my god, i was just about to call you and tell you that only and would you believe me ?… the moment i entered the park i was just thinking of the best spot close to the lake , so that we both sit coolly and just found you already there …what a oneness !.. don’t you think we are sort of soul mate’? …i asked little apprehensively thinking if asha’ would ever mind my overdrive. to this her simple reply was: no you are wrong. we are the sole-mate! …that was the first time i looked confidently into her eyes and said , you know what we are?…what?… we are love!

    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks for sharing Ashok

  8. Holly Brandt

    Sometimes I don’t know where to begin, I mean the story ideas are present in my mind, but I have a difficult time trying to originate it. Sometimes I find myself fighting with the infamous ‘writer’s block’ before I can even start to write anything down, not a single word, but I know that with a little thing called 1. Motivation and apply myself, I can accomplish virtually anything and I know how much pleasure I do get out of writing when I can start writing. I guess I have to light a fire under my ass at times in order to move. I always anticipate that if I just start to write ‘anything’ down on paper, maybe it won’t be good enough, however, I need to just write, no matter what because what I think isn’t sufficient enough, someone else may say ‘oh wow, that was pretty good. The second positive attitude is 2. Determination, and to me that means having the willpower, and I believe I do. I just have to let them words flow out and not be so insecure about my words, because that’s what I do. Determination is the key to move beyond that. Now number 3. Courage, because I know with that I will be well on my way. Then I can succeed in doing something that makes me feel euphoric, along with great joy. Writing is very pleasurable to me, so now it’s time to break out of my shell that’s been holding me in for so long.

    • Michael Mahin

      i struggle with being good enough too. I find solace in the many things I’ve read about great writers who also struggled with this. writing is rewriting. seems like you and I just need to get over trying to be good the first time and trust the process. NANOWRIMO helped me do this- it just forces you to write because there’s so little time. it’s a good way to get the internal editor to be quiet!

  9. Nancy H Everhart

    Her name was Joyce and my grandpa often called me by her name after she passed away. The pain of losing your only daughter, your oldest child, I never considered until I was a mother; must have been devastating to Grandpa. I looked like Joyce, so it made sense I guess that he would often call me by her name.
    To me she was beautiful and she spent many hours putting on makeup and styling her hair to get everything “just right”. I would watch every minute in amazement; she was a master at it.
    She had many girlfriends and talked on the telephone for hours on end with each one. Laughing hysterically was typical during her conversations. I guess she and I have that in common; the desire for cherished girlfriends and the laughing. Always laughing, it’s the best medicine.
    She had been married and divorced two times by the time she passed away at age 26 from a fatal car accident. I heard something about a man that was drunk hitting her. Her girlfriend in the car walked away unscathed.
    She left behind her family, a word that would haunt me all my life, family. My brother and I, her father, two half brothers and her grandmother; whom we called Nanny, as well as the man that was all set to become husband number three.
    She was an artist; I found out later while searching through her secret belongings in the cedar chest up in the attic. Fine sketches in pencil or charcoal of ancient women, with satin draped across them as they lay on the delicate yellowed paper, looking off in the distance. She was good at it too. She was creative and we made homemade Christmas ornaments together and set up the detailed train city under the tree, each year.
    The memories are many for a woman that lived such a short life. As one day crosses over into another I miss her and wish she was still here; wondering who she would be and what our relationship would be. I don’t really know if it’s her I miss or my fantasy of what it would have been like, had she not died and left behind this five year old girl.

    • Michael Mahin

      very nice. and poignant. love where it went.

  10. Michael Mahin

    Thanks Jessica! The trick is believing in yourself, but somehow balancing that self-confidence with a knowledge that you’re still growing as a writer and person. It’s hard to stay safe and be open to criticism at the same time. I struggle with this myself. Thanks for joining in the conversation.

  11. Stella

    Think my three positive attitudes would be 1) free writing without caring what I ‘should’ be writing, 2) a growth mindset instead of a success/failure mindset, and 3) consistent practice whether I feel like it or not. Of course, all are easier said that done. Would have liked a longer section on ‘How to cultivate a positive attitude’. That was where the article started getting interesting, but then it ended.

  12. Rhonda Flack

    My endless struggle is with physical pain and fatigue from the pain medication! No two days are alike and frustration leads to the sense of never finishing anything because the words are lost through the flow of time. If I work to done I will suffer the next few days, which leads to frustration – a cycle I am unable to get out of – yet

  13. Lucas

    For me, writing is an accidental pleasure. Then the more you write, the more you have some people with the same thoughts with you, understand what you say, feel what you think, share with you the concerns. Having time, writing is a way for me to express my mood, my heart. I write honest things, like talking to a friend, a confidante, something that I hardly have in my life.

  14. Prisqua

    The 10 minutes or so I spend in the shower each morning, I write a couple of novels … in my head. Once I get to the computer or notepad I have a big nothing.

    Writing requires discipline and I am lacking that at the moment though there has been a few improvements. Besides my university assessments, I’ve been writing blog posts to catch up on all the things I keep putting off. I read my words over and over and never find them good enough, until I finally hit the ‘publish’ button. Then I am supposed to share but I rarely do because I’m afraid it is ‘that bad.’ When I got back the draft for one of my assessments, I was surprised to get 14.5/20 and when the professor said ‘oh, you were short of just a few points for a distinction’ I thought he was mocking me.

    I’m not alone though. Just in my classes, I’ve noticed there are not many people who want to share what they are writing, ever. Some even leave the class to not have to share anything, which is kind of sad. I don’t leave the room, but if I don’t have to share to a crowd, I usually don’t.

    In semester one we had to write something every week in our journal. I enjoyed the feedback on each piece. I am fearful of feedback but once I read it, it makes so much sense and it allows me to work on what I missed. Critiques are important. I know that. When I got my TV pilot reviewed, my downfall was the on-the-nose dialogue which I didn’t understand. I thought my dialogue were great. I thought they were funny. I organised a live read, where I got even more feedback and sometimes it hurts. Attacking my beloved characters is hurtful especially when I thought I was being smart writing this or that, but I got it. The actors reading my script were right.

    So I don’t get why I am so afraid because without writing, without feedback, there is no writer in me, but I am a writer. I can. I will. I am.



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