The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe

The Top 10 Habits You Need to Become a Successful Writer

January 06, 2022 Zena Dell Lowe Season 2 Episode 19
The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe
The Top 10 Habits You Need to Become a Successful Writer
Show Notes Transcript

S2 E19 – The Top 10 Habits You Need to Become a Successful Writer

I recently read an article about the mystery behind Tom Brady's greatness. He wasn't "born" great. He became great by establishing good habits and discarding bad ones. He's great because he's disciplined.

Most writers are just wannabe's who never actually become published. The difference between those who fail and those who succeed boil down to a few key habits that go a long way to helping a writer achieve success. Here is a top ten list to get us started for the new year.

1. Writer's Write, Right?
2. Set a realistic timeline goal
3. Set up a realistic plan to achieve that goal
4. Establish a regular writing time
5. Establish a regular writing place
6. Resist the temptation to edit
7. If you see holes you need to fill later, keep a separate list
8. Accountability and Feedback
9. Read
10. Have a life outside of writing

It's hard to set up these habits, but it can make all the difference to your future. Take the time to plan these things now so that you can work for the long term payoff, rather than the small gains of instant gratification.


WHAT'S NEXT? Join us next Thursday for a new episode. Subject TBD.

 NEED HELP? The Storyteller’s Mission online platform is your go-to place for help with all your writing needs. Sign up for one-on-one COACHING, get a SCRIPT CRITIQUE, or register for one of our  ADVANCED CLASSES ON WRITING today!

 TOPIC REQUESTS?  If you have a question or a specific writing related topic that you would like Zena to consider addressing in a future podcast, SEND AN EMAIL to We’d love to hear from you!

SPECIAL THANKS to CARLA PATULLO for the original music used in the intro and outro of this podcast. To find out more about this amazing talent, go to

Support the show


S2 E19. The Top Ten Habits You Need to Become a Successful Writer



Published January 6, 2022



INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story. 



TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Welcome to our first episode of 2022. And if you're like me, you are setting some goals for yourself, you're trying to figure out, what do you want to accomplish this year? And how are you actually going to do that? And I want to be of service in that area. Because I think as writers, we have to set goals and then we have to create a plan to help us achieve those goals. 



MAIN IDEA: So what I wanted to do is actually start the year by looking at this question of what do writers actually have to do to become successful writers? What are the top 10 things that you need to do in order to establish a successful writing career? 



PRESENTATION: Now, before I launch into this list, I want to take a moment to talk to you about an article I read recently about Tom Brady, because I really think it plays into what we need to talk about today. The article is entitled, "Beneath the mystery of Tom Brady's greatness is a modest secret: self-discipline." This article was written by a gal named Sally Jenkins, it's for the Washington Post, you can find a link to it in the notes section of this podcast. And the whole point of this article was trying to understand the mystery about Tom Brady's success. Why is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time? What is it about him that is made him so dang great? And what people are tempted to do is assume that he was just born great, that he was born some sort of prodigy, like a three year old that the world bestowed greatness on. But that's actually not the case. The fact is, according to this article, what makes Tom Brady great is his discipline. He is disciplined. 



All of us as people are made up of habits. We are the sum of our habits. And when we allow bad habits to take over, they dramatically impede our path to success. 



Problem is is that bad habits are insidious, they creep up on us until we don't even know the damage that they've caused. And good habits are really hard to A.) establish and B.) to keep going. They say that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, but we can break the habit in one day. That's how crazy it is. It is so much harder to establish a good habit than it is to break that good habit. And yet, we have to break bad habits, which means that we have to learn something called self-control and self-discipline. 



Research indicates that self control actually has a huge impact on success. In fact, there was a study done at the University of Pennsylvania where they measured college students' IQ scores, along with their levels of self control when they entered the university. And then four years later, they looked at the student's grade point averages and found that self control was twice as important as IQ in earning a high GPA. The self control required to develop good habits and stop bad ones serves as a strong foundation for overall work ethic and productivity. It's a muscle. You have to exercise it. You have to practice flexing your self control muscle and you do that by A.) Breaking Bad habits and B.) establishing good ones. So what I'm talking about today is that very idea. 



Now, there's a couple of things I want to share here, about Tom Brady, that really made an impression on me personally.



The first one is that in this article, it asked, "If you were offered $400 now, but you could have $550 if you waited three months, which one would you take? The quick cash now? Or would you wait and take more money later?" And most people would take the money now. For one reason, is that they would look at the 550 and denigrate the value of it versus the quick cash now. $550 when you could take $400 now? Like, is the $150 really worth waiting three months? But that's the key, here, that we have to get behind. 



We have to understand two things. First of all, we have to delay our gratification. And second of all, delaying gratification doesn't mean a huge payoff. It means incremental, small, teeny, tiny payoffs that add up. And that's the part that's so difficult for people to get behind. 



So again, going back to Tom Brady, one of the stories that they told in this article that I found just fascinating was how Tom Brady had an opportunity during the offseason to participate in some sort of golf extravaganza with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in Florida. And on the day in question, it was hot and rainy. And a couple of hours before tee off, Charles Barkley happened to see Tom Brady in the parking lot of the golf club. And Tom Brady was running sprints. Charles Barkley said, "What are you doing?" And Tom Brady replied, "I'm trying to win the Superbowl." Now think about this. That is something that sets him apart. I mean, he is running sprints in the parking lot when he is supposed to be participating in this golf thing, because he's looking ahead to the future. 



Now, here's what's interesting. There is a scientific term for this, for people who have an inability to reject immediate gratification in favor of long term gains. It's called Delayed Reward Discounting. And what that means is that people who are unable to delay the reward tend to discount the value of whatever it is they would be getting if they waited and worked for it and got it later. In other words, they perceive something as being less valuable the longer that they have to wait for it. And therefore, they tend to take the immediate gratification, because they see that as being more valuable than whatever it is that they would get if they waited. And they're not entirely wrong in the sense that the payoff is very, very small. Tom Brady has actually said that, "The more good behaviors you have, the better things turn out, it's just that people don't have the discipline to repeat those behaviors." Part of the reason for that is because the daily reward is so small. It's about incremental improvements over time. So, Tom House, who's Brady's throwing coach, has said that what separates people like Tom Brady from the rest of us, is that they try to get better every day, not by 20%, but by one or 2%. And most of us aren't willing to give up what we could have today, for a one or 2% gain later. But if you're willing to pile enough of those two percents together over 20 years, well, they can turn into seven diamond rings. Look at Tom Brady. 



So again, one of the most relevant predictors of long term success is a person's ability to delay gratification, and to commit to self discipline, to habits that are established today, with the long term in mind. That's what we're talking about here today. 



THE TOP TEN LIST: So when I give you this top 10 list, what I'm proposing is that these are habits that you are establishing with the long term goal in mind, the long term payoff, but you do it every single day. And if you can do that, then your chances of having a successful writing career improve dramatically. So what are these top 10 things? 



Well, number one, writers write, right? 



You simply have to commit yourself to writing. You have to write. You will not become a writer if you don't write. The problem with most writers is that they talk about writing, when what they really need to do is write. So write, write, write. However, that isn't quite clear enough in a weird kind of way, because we actually need something more specific.



So this is where I'm going to say number two, set a realistic goal. And what I mean by that is you need a timeline goal. 



For example, I'm going to finish my screenplay in 10 weeks, or I'm going to finish my novel in six months, or something like that. But it's got to be a realistic goal. It can't be something that is unrealistic. For example, I think NaNoWriMo is a great thing for trying to get a first draft done in a month, but the chances of that first draft actually being good, are very, very slim. So even there, you would have to commit to taking a significant amount of time to rewrite whatever it is that you accomplished in that month. The benefit of NaNoWriMo is that it gets everything out on the page, because you can't rewrite until you have something down. But it doesn't work for everybody. And the truth is, I don't think it's a great goal to be a person who just tries to pour something into one month a year. And that's the only time you're actually trying to get anything down. It's a daily habit, in and out every day. So you have to set a realistic goal, a timeline goal of when you want to get what finished. 



And sometimes you have to work backwards. Okay, if you want to finish this in three months, then how many hours a day do you need to write, or how many pages a day do you need to complete in order to meet that goal. And by the way, it can differ according to the project that you're writing, and how much time you actually have available. So there are some times where I can only commit to writing my fiction projects one day a week, and I'll set aside four hours to write for that particular day. So I'm only writing once a week, because that's all the time I have, which means, in that timeframe, I have to figure out how many pages do I need to complete in order to make that four hours productive. So sometimes, that's the way it's going to be. On the other hand, when I'm working as a writer for hire, I might have 10 weeks to complete a screenplay, which means I have to be writing on that every day. But I'm still gonna set aside the four hours a week for my independent project that I'm not getting paid for. So that I can keep that habit up, even though I'm writing full time the rest of the time, or whatever the case may be. So you have to figure out by working backwards how much time you're going to commit to something or how many pages you're going to try to accomplish in that particular writing time available.



And then number three, you set a realistic game plan in order to accomplish that goal. 



That leads me to number four, which is that you need to set aside a regular writing time.



It's one thing to come up with a realistic game plan and goal, it's another thing to actually set aside a particular time of day to write. And you have to schedule it. You literally have to put it on the calendar. And by the way, you should also limit your time. I once had a client who had set aside four hours a day to write, but then it turned out they would only write one hour a day. They would waste the rest of their time. And they said they were so frustrated with themselves. And I said, "Well, you're giving yourself too much time. The truth is, if you limit yourself to that one hour, instead of wasting all that time, you'll get right to business. You've just given yourself too much time to write, and you're not ready and you're dawdling and then you get frustrated with yourself for doing that. But if you limit your time to one hour a day, now you don't have the dawdle time. It's probably a more realistic goal for you right now." And that client did that. And lo and behold, it worked. So limit your writing time, but set aside a particular time and then put it on the calendar. Make it an appointment that you cannot miss. Make it realistic. You might not have four hours a day. You might only have 15 minutes a day, you might only have 30 minutes a day, whatever you can do, do it. And it's better to set yourself up for success than failure. So better to start small and add time to it than to start big and feel like you're failing. 



Okay, number five, establish a regular writing place. 



Now, this is just as important as having a regular writing time. What happens is, if we don't have a regular writing place, we get distracted. And by the way, wherever you put that regular writing place, it should be free of distractions. You should make sure that you turn off your phone or set it to do not disturb. You should make sure that you don't have a bunch of other things around you. You need a place that is just for writing where you're not going to be distracted. I don't understand people who go to coffee shops to write. I can't imagine that they get anything done. I mean, if I hear other people talking, it drives me bonkers. Now, there isn't one right way or wrong way. If you're the kind of person who gets a lot done in a coffee shop, well, more power to you. I can't do that. Nevertheless, I would imagine you would want to get the same booth at that coffee shop, whatever the system is, we are actually all ritualistic. And part of our ritual is our place, our writing place. So figure out where your writing place is going to be and be consistent. Go to that same place over and over. If you do that, I promise you, you will be more productive in the time that you are allotted to write. 



Number six, resist the temptation to edit.



You want to leave the editor at the door. The editor has a role. But the role of the editor is not in the creative process. You have to give the creative, the Muse, time to work, which means you also don't want to go back and rework what you've written. I really, really recommend that, if you're a writer, that when you sit down, you start from where you left off. You don't go back to the very beginning of that chapter that you were writing and start over. If you do that, you will edit. You will rework it. I know this from experience. This is probably one of the hardest things for me, because I'm a perfectionist, and I want to get it all right. But then I slow myself down, and I actually sabotage myself, and I need to keep moving forward, keep moving forward. Because here's the thing, I'm gonna have to rewrite it anyway. This is just the first draft of just trying to get it down so that then I can go back and make it better. But I will spend all of my energy reworking something and never make any progress. It's really, really hard for me to resist the temptation to edit, but it slows progress. And it stifles creativity. Because when we have the editor hat on, we're not as good when we write, because we're not in the creative moment. We're not tapping into the muse. We're the editor. So check the editor at the door and resist the temptation to rework things. Get through it.  Keep moving forward.



Number seven, if you see holes, or realize that you've missed things and you're going to need to include things later, keep a separate list. 



Just keep a separate list next to your desk and just jot it down quickly so that now it's out of your head, and it frees you up to keep moving forward. Because here's what happens to me. If I don't write it down, I'm afraid I'm gonna forget and then I obsess on it. So this way, I'm able to actually accommodate whatever it was that I realized I needed to address. But now I can just realize I can incorporate that later. And now I'm free to move forward with the material. 



Number eight, you need accountability and feedback. 



Now, one of the best ways that I know how to get accountability and feedback is through a writers group. If you have a writers group, the writers group can read your work, they can give you feedback and direction. You need people that are able to speak into your writing and help you improve. But you also need a reason to meet deadlines. See, what happens is a lot of times we self impose these deadlines, which is great. But because we're the only ones that know about them, we miss them. This is why it can often be so helpful to be a part of a group activity rather than an isolated activity, whether it be exercise or spiritual development, or what have you. If you are part of a class at a gym, then guess what, you're more likely to show up because there's other people there and it holds you accountable. If you are in a Bible study, and you have to do a particular homework assignment or read a particular chapter, you're more likely to do it because other people will expect that you have done that when you show up. And it just makes you more accountable to doing it. Now, you don't have to have other people. It just helps to have them. 



So if you don't have accountability in a writers group, then that means you need to find it somewhere else. You need to have a fellow writer that you both set goals and you check in with each other so that you can report to them and, "Okay, here's where I'm at, I'm on target." Just knowing you have to do that, it's a psychological trick that helps us be better about meeting those goals. If we alone are the only ones that know these things, then we're likely to let ourselves off the hook. Now as far as feedback, if you're not part of a writers group, then you're going to have to get your first readers. These are people that would read the first draft of your thing. Or maybe you'll have somebody like me, a writer's coach, or maybe you'll get a script critique or something like that. But that means you're paying for it, which is fine. But if you have first readers, I think it would be more advantageous to send it to your first readers first, and then see what they come up with for your rewrites. Go back, rewrite it. And now send it to somebody like me who gets paid to read it, because you want it to be as good as it possibly can be. But you need to have accountability and/or feedback. 



Number nine, read. You have to be a reader. 



If you are a writer, you must read. It doesn't matter what you read, it just should be good. Because when we are reading other people's material, it helps us be better writers. I am a better writer, when I am also reading on the side. So that's part of my discipline. I don't go to bed at night until I read. That's just part of what I do. I have to read before I fall asleep at night. And that makes me a better writer during the day. 



Number 10. You need a life outside of writing. 



And this is really important. You'd think that that wouldn't be part of it. But it is. Because if all you're doing is writing, you will burn out. So this means you should have regular exercise, you should have regular fellowship, you should have a regular day of rest, you should have time that you're devoting to your personal development and self care, you should have hobbies, you should have entertainment time. Don't feel guilty about watching certain programs are doing whatever. You need to have a life outside of writing. You also need to be present with the people that God has put in your life. And a lot of times what happens to us as writers is we get so caught up in the story, we're in our own head, and we're not really present with those people. But that's not healthy for them or for us. Now, my advice to you is if the Muse won't shut up, then otter it. Get on otter. That's a voice translation software that I use all the time. I get on otter, I talk it out, it'll transcribe it. And then I have those notes. But then I get it out of my system. And I might say to somebody, "Hey, give me a few minutes, I just need to go record something on otter." I'll go do that, get it out of my head. And now I'm able to be present. Sometimes that happens. So we accommodate those things. But you don't want to not have a life outside of writing, or you'll be a pretty sad writer. 



The other thing is, it's what happens in our lives that gives us our meat. That's where we draw from, that's the well that we draw from. So we need to be in relationship, we need to be having experiences and adventures, we need to be experiencing the full gamut of the human emotions. We need to have full lives so that we can have rich stories. 



CLOSING REMARKS: You are the sum of your habits. So as you enter this new year, I encourage you do whatever it takes to get rid of the bad habits and to establish good, healthy ones. Do it now. Do it now, and start working towards that one or two incremental improvement every single day. And you will be well on your way to a successful writing career. 



CALL TO ACTION: In the meantime, if you do have something that you would like help with, please do check out the website I offer critiques for finished projects and I also do coaching. So if that's something you would be interested in, please do check it out. I would love to be of service. 



OUTRO: Thank you so much for listening to the storytellers mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.