5 Writing Habits That Could Be Destroying Your Creativity (and Income)

Is your creativity being crushedBy Andrea Wren

Do you write to the pace of a snail? Do you find it hard to maintain a flow? That used to be me. When I first started out in writing, it could take me one week to write one article. It was hardly a financially viable way of working and it meant less time available to pitch to other markets.

I was writing with dusty old habits learned in my formative years. They needed clearing to make it possible for me to earn a living, and write with speed and confidence. Because spending every waking minute tapping at the keyboard doesn’t count as a reasonable work-life balance.

I decided to analyse the way I worked to discover what was slowing me down. And once I’d done this, got my life back, and had time to look for more work, I found another welcome bonus: my creativity was enhanced.
Not only could I accept more commissions, sure of meeting my deadlines, my writing was a better standard. So I thought I’d share with you the five bad habits that were obstructing my work and creativity flow. Not that I’ve got on top of everything, but no one is perfect.

Habit 1: Being a slave to the squiggly line

I admit. I was terrified a typo would slip by unnoticed and give the editor a fright. Which meant I used to constantly correct spellings, grammar and typos as I went along. But then I go through my work with a nit comb anyhow afterwards, while reading aloud, so was this really necessary?

Spell and grammar-checking as you work your way through a piece of writing has got to be the number creativity killer. There’s nothing that will gag your muse quicker than making sure it’s “happy” and not “harpy” in that sentence with each line produced.

Turn spell-check off until you’ve finished your planned session of writing. Don’t bother yourself with the red wriggly line until the end.

Habit 2: Being an ever-ready editor

Like with spell checking, if you’re constantly re-reading your work after each paragraph, you’ll spend twice the amount of time on it. I used to edit obsessively, chopping and changing every few words. What a waste of energy.

Now, I wait until I’ve completed a few pages and then reword sentences or rework paragraphs as I need. I get the essence of what I want to say onto the pages first before I do any editing at all.

Set yourself a limit of a couple of hours, or several pages, and write without censorship until your self-allocated time is up.

You might even just try a few paragraphs at first, until you feel more liberated and confident with this new habit.

Habit 3: Mapping it all out

Do you always map out your ‘beginning, middle and end’ before writing? Or even go as far as producing a long-hand draft first?

It was back in my university days when I realised what a time-waster over-planning was. So as a freelancer, I’ve always just started writing.

Of course, I may have my research before me, but I’ve become so skilled at starting at the beginning, the structure comes together almost instinctively. Some structuring may be needed sometimes, but over-structuring is just not necessary.

If you’re working with a free flow frame of mind, you’ll find the words you need tumble out in the direction you want them to. So just start writing. When you do your final editing, you can then move paragraphs around to fit if the structure seems a bit skewed.

Habit 4: Not paying attention

I’ll be honest here — this continues to be my number one bad writing habit. It’s the one I haven’t totally conquered but I’m thoroughly aware of. It slows me down and cramps my creativity.

But when I do manage to keep out of Facebook, exit my email, and stop doing “crucial” searches on the web, I find my writing flows with ease.

When I am being A Very Good Girl, I turn off my browser and set a time before I will check my email again. Then I achieve more. So, my advice here (that I should listen to more) is do one thing — your writing.

Habit 5: Forgetting to take time out

When you’re desperate to get things finished, you can work until exhaustion – chuffing away like a clapped out stream train on a disused railway.

Being on a deadline can be a creativity crusher. But not taking a break can be more so. Your head and brain need respite to let more ideas in, so give it a chance.

I’m lucky to have dogs that force me on walkies, so I have to leave my desk, and wandering by the river kicking up the earth, that’s when some of my best light bulb moments strike.

Add some planned breaks into your day. Go to the park, sit on your doorstep and listen to the birds, dance in your lounge, do whatever gets your mind into a state where it can amble along under no pressure.

Take time out and let your inspiration seep back in.

Andrea Wren is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in the UK. She launched her career with The Renegade Writer, writes for publications such as the Guardian, and blogs about writing and other things on Butterflyist.com, a site which inspires people to push their comfort zones. You can find her ebook ‘The Ultimate Guide to Landing the Big Commission’ here. Follow Andrea on Twitter via @thebutterflyist.

Stick figure by Andrea Wren.

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36 comments… add one
  • Number four is definitely my downfall! ~Eden

  • I’m most often hung up with a combination of #2 and #3. My bad habit is trying to write a piece in my head before actually writing it.

    • I’m not familiar with that as a bad habit. I always just start writing and often without any idea of where it’s going, but it seems to work out!

  • Cheryl Rhodes

    #4 is my biggest downfall minus the Facebook part. I have dogs and horses that keep me on the move forcing me to take breaks.

    I don’t get hung up on spell check or editing as I go. My issue is deciding when its done and to stop tweaking and hit the send button.

    When starting off an article, I often copy the email I sent the editor into the Word doc. Sometimes I already created a working Word doc when I wrote the query and made notes. I copy those in too. Now I have a good start on the article with this unedited document from my notes. Then I go from there. I can probably finish the article the same day and then I’ll edit the next day, maybe get another source to quote, and figure out how much more I need to add or delete from the article.

    Sometimes its not what you write, its just write something, anything to get started and then it flows easier once those words are on the screen.

    • Cheryl – it’s a good idea to copy the query into the beginning of your document! I sometimes do that too – provides structure!

  • Lauren

    In my early years, or college years to be exact, #3 & #4 seemed to be my biggest downfall’s when it came to putting down insightful and meaningful words while staying on task. I found that the more I attempted to plan out what I was going to write the less I wrote and the closer I got to deadlines. The closer I got the more stressed I got and the more my writing suffered. When I would finally get started I found that my next issue was staying in my train of thought and not breaking that train of thought for something more interesting but 100 x’s less important. Now I turn off the phone, close facebook, and shut the door and just write and continue to write until I start blabbing and get off topic. Great post, totally agree with your methods!

  • LOL I love that you wrote about the squiggly line! That made my day! I am sure it made everyone else’s, too!

    I generally don’t pay attention to it if I cannot see anything wrong with what I have written. If I am in doubt as to the correct spelling of a word, I consult the dictionary. That’s about the only time it serves me well.

    The squiggly line is not always right, either. More people should be made aware of this fact.

    • Aha yes – the squiggly line can be wrong! You especially have to be aware of it if writing from the UK for an American audience, or vice versa!

  • Jen @ Daycare In Demand

    Such a great reminder! I always try to tell myself that you can’t edit before it’s written. Just get it down first, and fine-tune later. Once you get in the habit of knowing it doesn’t have to be perfect right out of the box, it’s much easier to sit down and start writing.

  • I’m guilty of #4 myself! I often look up stuff online while I’m in the middle of writing. I tell myself that I’ll just find what I need and go back to my article, but then before I know it, I’m visiting other blogs, checking my email, or reading stuff on Facebook. Tsk, tsk.

    • I have to say, I feel like I’ve developed attention deficit since the day I got online. It’s a modern day affliction, and so hard to undo!

  • I’m guilty of 1 and 2. It never even occurred to me to turn that darn spell check off. And it seems like every new paragraph I write requires me to go back and read the entire piece from the beginning. I will admit though, I do a lot less editing on the back end.

    • Also, you may even find that you want to change some focus by the end. Then you have to go back yet again! So it does pay to wait 🙂

  • Billie J. O'Neil

    I’m really just getting started with my writing…so, thanks so much for the tips!!

  • #4 you pointed to is something that most of us are victim of. For writing a new piece, I need to research and during researching content, whenever I find something interesting to read, I just forget about my writing ( not always 🙂 but sometimes.

    I will follow your tip.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • I’m a huge proponent of editing as you go. I find that I spend significantly less time editing afterward if I work to put out a finished product the first time.

    That email thing gets me every time, though. It causes me physical pain knowing that there’s a message that I haven’t checked. 🙂

    • I think if if you find it saves time, and it works for you, that is great. Although I’m not saying wait until the very end of writing, just a little into it. For me, editing as I go definitely eats away my time.

  • Hi, my name is Erica and I’m guilty, guilty, guilty of #4 and #5. When I knuckle down and just churn it out, I blaze through projects. But when I wander, I end up time-crunched and working myself to death to meet the deadline. Not good.

    Good reminders ? thanks!

  • Excellent advice, Andrea. I, too, am fortunate to have two dogs to pull me away from my desk at random intervals. Nothing like a good game of ball with your dog to clear out the cobwebs and give one time to think.

    • Thanks Lori! Yes, dogs are brilliant for cobweb clearing. And much better than children, as they sleep between walkies, rather than whine!

  • Wow, I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of absolutely all of these. I do think getting distracted is my worst sin.

    Also, I think you forgot the word “one” in this sentence: Spell and grammar-checking as you work your way through a piece of writing has got to be the number [one] creativity killer.

    See, I can’t stop myself! 🙂 Great piece.

  • Yay! I love you all….I am so easily distracted and thought it must be my lack of desire to do this writing gig my father so detests (yeah, there’s nothing worse that getting distracted and then following it up with a good session, procrastinating about what an awful person you are for doing such a thing 😉 )

  • Haha Willi! It was, of course, done on purpose to see if I could catch anyone out 😉 You get the eagle-eyed prize lol 😀

  • Francesco

    I’m guilty of all of them. Especially number 4.

  • Christy

    Thanks so much for this sound advice! I see myself in #1 and #2. Always thought I was a slow writer, but maybe I just need to be more disciplined about getting my thoughts down before editing. Perhaps, it all boils down to too much self-scrutiny.

  • Scott McGlasson

    There have been times in the past, usually when doing out-of-town visits to older relatives that don’t cotton to that there internet, where I find myself with no web access and/or no cable/sat TV. In other words, electronically cut off.

    During these visits, especially if it’s an over-nighter, I feel an almost physical compulsion to find a piece of blank paper and start jotting down…anything. Notes on a story, passages of dialog, whatever. It’s like a pressure main that must be relieved.

    I have yet to find a successful way to recreate that compulsion withing the confines of my own castle.

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