Improving Writing and Publishing Habits

In every aspect of life, we tend to pick up bad habits much more readily than good ones:

  • When we hear others complain, we tend to become complainers ourselves – even if the complaints that we heard spoiled our good moods. We applaud positive reactions to adversity, but those reactions don’t spread the way that complaints do.
  • In golf, it’s natural to lift the head up too soon, hoping to see a beautiful shot, but when the head comes up early, inevitably the shot isn’t worth watching. We must train ourselves to overcome such tendencies. The more we practice the natural tendency, the worse the bad habit becomes.
  • After hearing others swear, we tend to unconsciously curse in similar circumstances. But when someone stubs her toe and says, “Oh dear, that smarts,” this gentler reaction doesn’t spread the same way. It takes a conscious effort to develop this milder habit.
  • A common mistake in chess is to focus on what you’re trying to do, and to overlook what the opponent is trying to do. It generally takes many losses to retrain our brains to overcome this natural tendency.

The same is true with writing and publishing:

  • If you aren’t well versed in the rules of writing, the more you write without learning the rules, the more you will continue to develop poor writing habits. Even if you hire an editor, the fewer mistakes you make in the first place, the easier it will be to perfect the manuscript. And editors themselves make mistakes, so you must know the rules in order to spot the editor’s mistakes.
  • Every writer has a unique style. Some elements of style tend to work better than others, and often the natural tendency isn’t best. For example, it’s natural to tell what happened instead of show what happened, but showing is often more effective. We can become better writers by identifying our natural tendencies and determining which ones we must consciously work to overcome.
  • When we see other writers complaining – which is all too common – about sales, reviews, and so on, it spreads negativity to others. And complaining in public adversely affects the author’s image. We must strive to maintain a positive outlook and behave professionally.
  • A natural reaction to a critical review is to take it personally and respond to the review with a comment, but this often turns out to be a mistake. If you learn that it’s a mistake and understand why, and have this in mind when checking your reviews, you may be able to profit from overcoming your natural tendency.
  • Authors tend to publish their books without a plan. It takes a lack of sales to convince most authors that a marketing plan may have been necessary. If you’re aware of this, you may invest the time to put together a marketing plan prior to publishing.

In physics, inertia is the natural tendency of an object. According to Newton’s first law of motion, objects tend to maintain constant momentum. That is, once an object is set in motion, it tends to stay in motion naturally according to its inertia; that’s why it’s hard to stop a boulder that’s rolling down a hill. If instead the object is at rest, its momentum is zero, and so it tends to stay at rest. It takes a net external force to overcome an object’s inertia.

You have natural writing and publishing tendencies. You must work to identify them and overcome any that may inhibit your chances of success. Following is a sample of some things to look for:

  • Not checking spelling, vocabulary, or rules of grammar while using a word or rule that the author is unsure of (or at least take the time to write * check * to remind yourself to look into it later).
  • Not thinking through contractions, like seeing “it’s” as “it is.” This helps to avoid confusing words like “it’s” with “its,” “they’re” with “there,” etc.
  • Not checking for potential homophone mistakes, like using “their” when it should be “there,” “our” when it should be “are,” etc. (You can easily find such lists on Google, then use the find tool in Word.)
  • Not checking for consistency in tense, person, number, etc. (Of course, there may be reasons to change them. For example, you might be writing in the present tense, but need to describe an event from the past.)
  • Telling the reader what happened in a situation where showing the reader would work better.
  • Not putting enough time and effort into editing.
  • Repeating words, as in, “I wrote this this word twice.” This is especially common when one word appears at the end of one line, while the other word begins the next line. Search for “the the,” “that that,” and other common words (but without the quotes, of course) to help find some of this repetition.
  • Not joining a writer’s group or approaching it with the right attitude to make the most of it.
  • Not writing with a specific target audience in mind. It’s a very common mistake to try to write for too wide an audience (like mystery, romance, and suspense combined together) or to write a book for which an audience will be quite a challenge to find (e.g. there isn’t a browse category for it at Amazon).
  • Not realizing that writing, like singing, is an art that takes some talent as well as time and effort to develop and master.
  • Expecting everyone to compliment your work. Criticism and complaints are very common, so we must expect it, and some of the criticism helps authors grow as writers.
  • Finding faults in others, but not looking for them in ourselves. How often do we have advice for others, but not follow the same advice ourselves? And how often do we get upset with or ignore advice from others, instead of considering whether or not it may have merit? And how readily do we give advice, versus how often do we seek it?
  • Not researching similar books to learn what kinds of covers, blurbs, writing styles, storylines, and characterizations tend to attract your target audience.
  • Not researching similar books’ sales ranks to see whether or not the book idea may be worth the effort.
  • Formatting a book without using similar traditionally published books as a guide, and without learning basic formatting concepts like how to make different headers for each chapter, how to use Roman numerals for front matter and Arabic numbers afterward, and what to do about widows, orphans, and rivers.
  • Formatting an e-book without learning about common issues, like which characters are supported, how to properly size and compress pictures, and how to modify and use Word’s styles.
  • Not designing a cover and blurb that instantly identify the book’s genre to potential shoppers.
  • Not learning about marketing and how to brand a name or image.
  • Advertising the book openly, rather than working to get discovered. For example, “You should check out my new book,” versus waiting for the question, “So what have you done lately?”
  • Not contemplating where to meet and interact with your target audience.
  • Underestimating the value of meeting people in person, letting them discover that you’re a writer, and charming them with your personality.
  • Not developing a following over the course of several months prior to publishing.
  • Thinking that Facebook and Twitter provides a complete marketing campaign.
  • Not coming up with a marketing plan prior to publishing.
  • Not thinking hard about how to create buzz for your upcoming book.
  • Not making it easy for readers to contact you.
  • Complaining about sales, reviews, etc.
  • Not staying positive throughout the writing and publishing process, and beyond. Strive to not let negativity bring you down.
  • Expecting to be an instant success.
  • Expecting writing, publishing, marketing, and sales to all be easy.
  • Giving up too soon. Be patient and constantly strive to improve.

Millions of books are available.

Only the top couple hundred thousand sell at least a book per day, on average.

Most self-published books feature one or more of these natural tendencies.

Make your book stand out by identifying your natural tendencies and striving to overcome those that need improvement.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a professional tennis player instead of a writer. You come on the scene with a great serve, strong forehand, and weak backhand. What’s going to happen? Everyone will try to hit the ball to your backhand side. You can lose many matches with your weak backhand, or you can acknowledge that you have room for improvement and strive to become a better player.

Find your weak writing and publishing ‘backhand’ and work to improve it in order to become a more successful author.

Remember, bad habits are easier to get and harder to overcome than good habits.

Look for great habits that you see in others to find other great things that you could be doing. Remember that you must consciously work to overcome your natural tendencies.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers