Writing Habits

Recently, I’ve been reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The ideas in it are fascinating. Basically, a habit is a routine that happens in response to a particular cue and leads to a particular reward. Habits are shortcuts for our brain, ways of transforming everyday tasks into automatic ones. In Duhigg’s book, he explains how it works and how certain people and companies have used this built-in system to improve or create new habits. 


I’ve been considering how significant habits are in terms of our writing practice. When I teach writing, I am asking students to form better and more useful habits, for example by considering their audience before they begin to write. Audience is the biggest factor in figuring out *how* we should right—what language to use, what format, how long our sentences should be, how we should organize our ideas. Every choice we make in writing needs to serve as a means to better communicate with our audience; therefore, we have to know and consider our audience before we begin. I ask my students to think about audience at the beginning of each class, each exercise, each assignment with the goal of creating in them the habit to think about their audience when they start writing outside of class. If we do it often enough—cue=have to write, routine=consider audience, reward=message communicated effectively—then it should become a habit, an automatic response, that will serve my students in all the writing they do for the rest of their lives.


The other habit that I try to cultivate, though time constraints often prevent the success of the routine in the classroom, is reading aloud. Most people don’t proofread their work. The effort of writing is so significant that they cannot be bothered to take the time to make sure their writing is correct. They just want it to be done. But we know that errors in writing can lead to mistakes in work, confusion in your audience, and a less successful end result, not to mention how they impact the writer’s credibility. People do think less of you if they believe you can’t spell correctly. Reading aloud is the simplest and most effective way to find and correct basic errors in our writing. Our eyes lie to us all the time. The vision we see of the world is a creation of our brains. Our eyes are constantly moving, they have a blind spot in the middle where the nerve connects to the back of the eye, and we can only focus on a very limited picture at a time. What we “see” is a smooth, stationary compilation created for us by our brains. So, our eyes cannot be trusted to show us grammar errors on a page; our brains are too good at always showing us what we *want* to see rather than what is.


Our ears, on the other hand, are not as deceptive, and our tongues even less. When we read aloud, our tongues trip when we run into errors or awkward language, our ears hear grammar mistakes that we might otherwise overlook. The physical act of speaking changes the way in which we experience the language and allows us to use more than one sense to check our work. Making reading your own writing out loud before sending it is the single most important habitat people can cultivate in order to improve their writing.


Writing habits will ideally look like this:

Cue= Message to transmit

Routine=               1. Consider audience

                                2. Choose method (face to face, phone, email, etc)

                                3. Organize message

                                4. Write

                                5. Read out loud

                                6. Send

Reward= Message communicated successfully. Audience does what you want them to do.