The 7 Habits/Commandments of Highly Effective Writers

by Ethan Gilsdorf


Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace was a blast. For me, and for many of my students and colleagues, the weekend was a like an injection of hope, promise and writerly love. The busy and action-packed weekend energized us. The joint enthusiasm of hundreds of writers encouraged us. Were you inspired? We hope so.

But those days are gone. It's been almost three weeks now since the Muse. We're back home, sitting in our bat caves and mom caves and hobbit holes. Staring at blank screens and pages, and trying to make good on all that promise. It's tough to keep up the momentum and keep writing. Believe me, I'm the king of procrastination. If there was a land where abandoned first drafts went to die, I'd be the evil genius ruling over that realm with an iron (and ink-stained) fist.

But before I get all grumpy and dejected on you -- and these days of rain and clouds here in Boston aren't helping -- I wanted to tell you some key principles, half-baked ideas, and axioms of magical thinking that may help with your writing. At the Muse, I presented an "Hour of Power" session called "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers." In this session, I attempted (in 60 minutes) to examine, discuss, and debunk the myths, dreams, and tough realities of becoming a writer; to map out realistic action plans for making the leap to a full or part-time commitment to writing; and to find concrete strategies to combat those evil demons that defeat writers.

My original idea was to outline my thoughts as "Seven Habits." But as I began to formulate my ideas, they came to me -- from on high, no less --  in the form of "Commandments." So, hopefully without offending the religious at heart, I give you this somewhat scattered and manic recap of that hour. May these seven commandments help re-inspire or re-commit yourself to your craft and your goals, get you over that next hump, and extricate yourself from the next of patch of creative quicksand you may find yourself wallowing in. I can feel myself wallowing in one right now.


Habit 1: Thou Shalt Not Fall Prey to Writerly Myths

First of all, you should not, must not become a writer in order to become famous, seek fortune, or become powerful. This will not happen. Don't go into writing to make money. Also, don't get seduced by the idea that you have to drink, suffer or self-destruct to create art. (All that prose you wrote while drunk or stoned will be revealed as a crap it is the next morning.)

And yes, while inspiration can sometimes strike, and writing can come clear and easy, most of the time, you won't be inspired. You won't be visited by any "Muse." Mostly, writing is hard work, not you sitting there as angelic forces move your pen for you.

Debunk all these myths. Don't fall for them. Be clear about why you write -- hopefully, because you love to.


Habit 2: Thou Shalt Have Clear Goals

What are your goals? What does success mean to you? Is it getting your work published? Or becoming a competent writer of stories, essays or poems? Perhaps you want to write a memoir and stick it in a drawer, or self-publish it to hand if off to your children. All of these are fine goals. Do some soul-searching and think about what you truly want to accomplish.

Then, come up with a realistic plan. Don't hope to be published in The New Yorker this year if you've barely begun your journey. Perhaps this year you take classes at Grub Street or dedicate a night a week to your writing. Then, in a few years time, you might be ready for literary recognition. At first, it's important to aim low with your goals (e.g. get a poem in any literary magazine); when you're ready, then aim high (e.g. publish in your "A" list lit mag) once when you've put in the requisite time.

You don't want to discourage yourself by aiming too high too early. If you say "I want to write and publish my novel in one year" you are bound for failure. I suggest developing 1 month, 6 month, 1 year, and 2-3 and 5-year plans. Pick achievable goals that you can have success at. Be realistic and dream big.


Habit 3: Thou Shalt Make Sacrifices

What is the sacrifice you will make to welcome a commitment to writing into your life? Writing takes time. So where is that time going to come from, in your already insanely-packed day? You have to give up something: television, video games, watching sports, that Sunday dinner with your evil in-laws (OK, that wasn't so hard, was it?). So think of a strategic way to free up that time.

For some of you, you might need to make physical space in your house to make writing happen: renovate the attic, or carve out a little office in your basement next to the washer and dryer or in the tool shed. Whatever works.

Another trick is to throw money at your love for writing. Woo it. Invest in tools like a new computer, conferences, classes, or residencies. You may need to sacrifice your family vacation and buy yourself a week in a cabin by yourself to get that novel drafted. Think of it as an allocation of resources to make your commitment to writing real.


Habit 4: Thou Shalt Diversify

Many writers only work in one genre -- which is fine. You need to be proficient in at least one form. But don't put all your fragile eggs in one fragile basket. If you're a novelist, work on that novel, but also have some secondary or tertiary projects on the side to turn to when the wheels of fiction get stuck in a rut. Work on many projects. Novelists should also write poems, and op-eds, and personal essays, and book reviews. Be versatile.

I began my writing career as a fiction writer, switched to poetry for 10 years, then discovered journalism and personal essay. Twenty years later, I'm an established nonfiction writer, but I'm dabbling in fiction again. Let yourself be open to the idea that you can have several tools in your writerly toolbox, several writing modes, and that your interests and focus might drift.

Instead of placing all those eggs all in one basket, shoot those eggs into the world in a shotgun. Shoot often. Use several guns. Some of those eggs will stick. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?)


Habit 5: Thou Shalt Not Psych Thyself Out

It's easy to say "I can't write. I have writer's block." But I suspect that "writer's block" often gets used as a convenient excuse. To my mind, that "block" is simply "fear." That's OK. We all fear a project when we begin. Or we fear rejection. Or writing badly. Or we fear success. The key is to recognize that "fear voice" in our heads and get used to living with it. I still encounter this fear on a daily basis. But I know what it sounds like by now, and I know I will keep hearing it. It won't defeat me. I say to myself,  "Oh, hello there Fear Voice. I hate you." And then I keep writing.

Also: Don't set up ideal conditions for your writing -- such as, I can only write when I use a black Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine rolling ball pen on lambskin vellum at dawn during a lunar eclipse after all the dishes are done in my kitchen. Rather, learn to write anywhere, anytime: on a cocktail napkin at a bar, on an airplane, on your iPhone. Perfect conditions never exist.

As for rejection, get used to it. You will -- and need to be -- rejected dozens and dozens hundreds of times. That's the name of the game. Get used to rejection. I once papered my office in rejection letters. These are your badges of honor. Embrace them! And steel thyself. Develop a boot camp mentality. It is persistence and resilience that is rewarded in the writing career, as well as so-called "talent."


Habit 6: Thou Shalt Network Like a Slut

Did I really say "slut"? OK, I did. But what I mean is this. In #5 above, I said that a writer's persistence and resilience is rewarded as much as how "good" a writer is. But the dirty secret of successful writers is that they continually put themselves "out there." The more they do that, the greater chance they have of being successful.

Unfortunately, sometimes what determines whether you are a success is who you know and whom you meet. So get out there and network. Go to literary events and readings and conferences. Be part of the community, and participate. Not invited to be part of a reading? Create your own event. Talk to your local library/art gallery/dive bar. Get out the gingham from Grandma's attic, get the cows out of the barn and put on a show. No writer sits around waiting to get calls to suddenly join the literary life. You have to make it yourself.

So be social (not always easy for us introverted writers, I know). Put yourself out there in terms of work, too -- be prolific, send stuff out, keep at it. And be professional. Professionalize your writerly self. Get a website. Start a blog. Print some business cards -- and hand those suckers out like a slut (your phone number is optional).


Habit 7: Thou Shalt Commit Thyself

Give yourself deadlines and be accountable to those deadlines. If you suck at following deadlines or are generally un-self-disciplined, find a writing partner, a writing coach, or a writing group and have that peer pressure (or fear of letting down your peers, or wasting your money) be a motivation.

Remember the AIC Principle. What is "AIC"? AIC = Ass in Chair. You have to log the time at your desk -- hours and hours and hours -- to create good work. There is no other way.

Another way to commit yourself is to take yourself seriously. Self-present as a writer. Call yourself a writer.  Someone asks you what you do? Don't say "stockbroker" or "exotic dancer." That's your boring day (or night) job. Say: "Writer." What's that? Don't be shy. Speak up. "I'm a writer."

Finally, to be a writer is to cultivate a writerly mind. Read a lot. Observe the world. Take note. And scribble notes. Eavesdrop on conversations. Steal lines of dialogue you hear on the sidewalk. Write down the color of the leaves. That maple out your front window was one shade of green when the leaves first budded in April; now it's May and the color has deepened. Soon, the a new green of June will come. How do you know this? You stop. You sense. You write it down. To be a good writer is to have something useful to say. And to get to that place, you have to teach yourself how to see.

Good luck with your work.

And remember a final writerly morsel of advice: Habit 7.1: Thou Shalt Proofread Thy Work. Always.

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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by Ethan Gilsdorf


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