7 Habits of Successful Writers

Writers write.

When we want continuous improvement, writing daily is priority one. When we don't know what to write about, we observe people, places and things. We don't delay writing by talking about what we will write someday or by gratuitously criticizing what someone else has written.

Writers listen to or eavesdrop on people exchanging information.

Listening helps to pick up the rhythm of speech, dialects, and dialogue in their natural settings. Writers listen for the feelings behind the words and observe body language or mannerisms to present genuine differences among the peoples they write about.

Writers ask questions.

Rudyard Kipling said that his "six honest serving men" (what, why, when, how, where and who) taught him everything he knew. By asking questions, we explore various angles of a topic that might otherwise be missed. Learn from curious children who are eager to learn about everything; their favorite word is "Why".

Writers read everything -- books, magazine articles, devotionals, newspapers, newsletters -- to glean ideas that can be expanded into articles, blogs or books.

Using Kipling's six serving men, writers look for unanswered questions and think of different aspects of the problem, incident or solution. We look through the lens of our culture, past experiences, and present situation for relevance to our target audience.

Writers reflect on what they read. 

When we think carefully about what we read, we often find ideas in what someone else has written. We notice how other writers put words and phrases together, begin and end paragraphs as well as the way ideas flow from one sentence to another within paragraphs. Reflecting on what we read allows us to connect what we read to our experiences. Therefore, the observant reader becomes a better writer.

Writers set goals and establish deadlines.

How many words will you write today? What are you going to write - an article, a book chapter, a devotional? How many will you write in a week? When will you finish? Where do you want your"masterpieces" to be seen - online, in newspapers, newsletters, magazines or books? What subjects will you write about? Are your goals and deadlines where you see them daily?

Writers prioritize.

Since each of us has the same amount of time, it is important to determine the best use of our time at any given moment? Schedule your writing time and keep these appointments with yourself. The time you set aside to write is just as important as prior arrangements you make with others.

Successful writers (1) write daily, (2) listen actively, (3) ask questions, (4) read widely and often, (5) reflect on what they read, (6) set goals and establish deadlines, and (7) prioritize their time. When you do these things consistently, you will be well on your way to living the writer's life.

The Oxford Comma Explained

What is the Oxford comma - also known as Serial comma or Harvard comma?

The 'Oxford comma' causes much debate whether it should be used or not. But do you need it to be grammatically correct or is it unnecessary and distracting? Here is a guide to explain what the Oxford comma is and how to use it with examples.

The Oxford comma adds clarification when placed before conjunctions such as 'and' / 'or' in a sentence that lists of 3 or more elements (words, phrases or clauses):

- I'll have a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

The comma after 'and' isn't really needed here, so it would be optional whether you use one or not.

- For breakfast he had cereal, toast and jam and coffee.

This clunky sentence, while omitting the comma, is grammatically acceptable. But as 'toast and jam' are a unit, it would be better rewritten:

- For breakfast he had cereal, toast and jam, and coffee.

More clarity may be needed for the following examples:

- Her presents consisted of perfume, jewellery, a black dress and shoes.

Are the shoes black as well as the dress? If not, a comma should be used after the 'and' and before 'shoes'.

- Her presents consisted of perfume, jewellery, a black dress, and shoes.

The next example poses even more problems:

- The last-minute attendees were Sally and Peter, Tony, Clare and Steven, Lesley and Graham and Max.

Sally and Peter, and Clare and Steven came as couples, Tony came on his own, but did the last three turn up as a couple and one person, and if so who was which? Whichever is appropriate, a correctly positioned comma would avoid confusion:

- The last-minute attendees were Sally and Peter, Tony, Clare and Steven, Lesley and Graham, and Max.

- The last-minute attendees were Sally and Peter, Tony, Clare and Steven, Lesley, and Graham and Max.

Who uses it?

Many style guides, including the AMA, APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, and Elements of Style by Strunk and White, advocate using the Oxford comma.*

Whereas, the Associated Press, The Economist and the New York Times don't require journalists to use the final comma unless it is needed for clarity.*

There is more standardised use in the US (unless you follow the style guides mentioned above), than in the UK, Canada or Australia. Also, a few years ago, the Oxford University (after which the term is named due to the use by their writers and editors) decided to drop the general use unless it avoids ambiguity. Here is their official statement:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write 'a, b and c' not 'a, b, and c'. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used - especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by 'and'...

Why use it?

It helps to avoid ambiguity and makes lists easier to understand. I personally only use it to avoid confusion, as shown in the following:

- The team consisted of three teachers, two scientists and a sociologist.

Are there three or six people on the team? If this sentence means to say that there are six separate people, then an Oxford comma would clarify this:

- The team consisted of three teachers, two scientists, and a sociologist.

Otherwise it's not obvious because it could mean there are three teachers who are scientists and a sociologist.

Leaving out the comma doesn't make a difference where the elements are short and it's easy to work out the relationships. But the consensus shows that the preference is to use where clarity needed, and of course if you follow a particular style guide.

*Correct at time of publishing.

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