A bottle of whisky within arm’s reach may make you a great writer. It is not what made Jack London a great writer.
London had a reputation for drinking heavily, as did many famous writers. But what allowed him to write classic books such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang was not alcohol-infused bursts of creativity. It was his habit of writing 1,000 words. Every. Single. Day.
Contrary to the tortured-genius myth, most famous writers were highly attentive to their productivity, using “tools” that we associate with athletes and business leaders. They set daily goals. They followed meticulous schedules. They ferociously shielded themselves from distraction. All to perform at their best.
In other words, writers – the good ones, at least – are creatures of habit.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.WILL DURANT
Of course, this is not limited to the literary world. Most successful financial writers keep their own set of habits. One could argue habits are even more important for financial writers as they grapple with the added pressure to simplify complex topics and help people secure their futures.
Compiled from interviews and articles, here are seven habits of some of today’s best financial writers as told in their own words. There’s no guarantee these habits will make you a successful writer, but they can make you a better writer.
1. Write, write, write…
“I found that if you want to become a better writer there are two things you have to do. One is to read really good writing and most of us try to do that. But the second thing is to write a lot, and so I made the commitment… that I was going to write for an hour a day, every day for the rest of my life.” – Barry Ritholtz
Writing is no different from any other discipline. It requires dedication. The more you do it, the better you do it. Consistency is the key to progress. You won’t write by waiting for inspiration to strike, any more than you will lose weight by waiting for the desire to workout. By writing every day you can make it feel as second nature as a morning cup of coffee, to the point you feel bad on the days you don’t write.
You may be blessed with all the writing talent in the world. But it won’t amount to much unless you dedicate yourself to the work.
Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.JAMES BALDWIN
2. Read, learn and let ideas marinate
“If you want to become a better writer, the two biggest things you can do are to write more and read more.” –Jason Zweig
“Ninety percent of my week is reading and going for walks, which is where I do most of my, quote-unquote, “writing.” It’s where all I’m… just thinking… piecing ideas together… and speaking with friends on the phone who are in kind of similar fields [but] have expertise about these things that I don’t… It’s just trying to piece together different ideas over time so that maybe once a week, one of them sticks enough that you can write a thousand words about it and publish it.” – Morgan Housel
Reading is part and parcel of writing. Immersing yourself in the work of great writers translates into better writing.
What Housel illustrates is that writing is also a practice of thought, letting ideas sink in and then come together as you sketch out mentally what you want to write.
You read to learn how to do it. And you learn new things so as to connect ideas, whether they come from reading a 1,000-page novel, watching a documentary or listening to a podcast.
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.STEPHEN KING
This includes criticism of your own work. Zweig framed criticism not as a personal sleight but as a learning opportunity when he wrote: “Every criticism is a chance for me to correct a mistake, improve my reporting, or to learn something.”
3. Schedule time to write
“When I’m in the process of writing a book, the 5:00 a.m. wake-up time can go on for months. It’s something I learned from my mother, who received her master’s degree in educational psychology when my brothers and I were in grade and middle school. She would get her work done before anyone in the house was awake. So, I get up. I let the dog out, make the coffee, let the dog back in, feed him, and then sit down at my computer and type.” –Jean Chatzky
Time is not found; it is made. The simplest way to turn writing itself into a habit is to schedule it on your calendar. Make writing a daily appointment. Block off thirty minutes, one hour, two hours – whatever you can do. Use this time to do nothing but write with no distractions.
4. Never worry about what the “market” wants
“The funny thing is that the blogosphere, i.e the market, has its own opinion. Some of what I thought were my best posts generated little or no reaction. Some posts that I thought were simply clever observations, or short takes on topics, garnered a ton of hits. The point is that I have very little insight into what is going to work when push comes to shove.” –Tadas Viskanta
When you first open a blank page, the goal isn’t to write a masterpiece. Just let the words flow, without judgment, until you have a first draft. Don’t worry if the words are good or not. You can perfect it later through editing and revising. And never worry about the possible reception of your work. Much like the stock market is to an investor, public opinion is something you cannot control. So, why let it influence what you write? Follow your own voice and style. Often, when you try to write in a way you think everyone will enjoy, you end up doing the opposite.
5. Allow yourself to be vulnerable
“Your audience will connect with you more when you become a human being with interests outside financial matters.” –Josh Brown
I’ve said that writing is form of relationship building. Money is an emotionally fraught topic. People want advice from someone who understands. One of the best ways to relate is to show you are human. Let your interests and personality breathe in your writing. Tell us how your hopes, fears and experiences shaped the way you think about money. Write less like a textbook and more like a pen pal.
6. Create a reserve of writing
“A tip I read somewhere that I wish I would have followed: Have pre-written posts in place in case you run into a tight spot and have nothing to post.” –Carolyn McClanahan
This habit pertains to those who write a financial blog or column. Especially, if you are just starting to write. Before you first publish, create a reserve of posts while you then work on what comes after. If you can stockpile posts, you don’t have to work under the pressure of a deadline, which can lead to mistakes and half-baked ideas. This gives you more time to think and the freedom to dedicate more time to your bigger ideas.
7. Leave some water in the well
“Life is all about variety; any job gets boring after a while. I love writing books, I love doing finance and writing about it; I also love my grandchildren and enjoy spending two or three months a year traveling. The trick is to do all the things you love — and don’t do too much of any of them.” –William Bernstein
William Bernstein’s sentiment echoes Ernest Hemingway’s famous concept of keeping the momentum by never letting ideas run dry. Hemingway stopped writing when he knew what would happen next in the story. As he explained elegantly in his memoir, A Moveable Feast:
“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
Yes, write a lot. But remember moderation in all things. Writing will not fulfill every emotional or physical need. If your life is balanced with other things you love or inspire to do, you’ll come to your writing desk happier and more energized.
This is a subjective list. Each writer has inspired me personally in some way. I know there are many great financial writers out there who have their own interesting writing process. So, if you have a favorite habit that you learned from another financial writer, I would be grateful if you shared it in the comments section.
I’ve heard other reporters say, “Oh, that’s just service journalism,” as if serving our readers by helping them make better financial decisions were somehow beneath the dignity of people who cover, say, professional sports…or Congress…or the White House.
All of this is to say that doing the important things adequately will serve you well. This is true whether it comes to avoiding the worst of the coronavirus pandemic or in your financial life. Too many people, spend too much time, searching for perfection when good will suffice.
Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.
The challenge of the task slightly exceeds your skill set. You are pushed out of our comfort zone. The magic ratio is about 4% harder than you are comfortable with. You want to stretch yourself—not snap.
You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?