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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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The seven habits of highly effective writers

(in honor of Stephen Covey, 1932-2012)

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere




Our established ways of doing things. Our modes of behavior that have become fixed through repetition.

We probably couldnít get along without them.

Good habits save us time, help us organize our lives, and enable us to focus our attention on more important or pressing matters. Bad habits do pretty much the opposite.

Stephen Covey defines habits as "the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire." He explains: "Knowledge is the theoretical paradigm, the what to do and the why. Skill is the how to do. And desire is the motivation, the want to do.

"To make something a habit in our lives," Covey points out, "we have to have all three."

Knowledge, skill, and desire. Itís a winning combination, one that gives us power over our lives and that determines in large measure our productivity and effectiveness.

This same combination applies to writing. From my observation, people who effectively communicate their thoughts and ideas have developed seven good habits. They do the following:

1. Write with purpose. How can you achieve your goal if you arenít sure what it is? Clear thinking is the foundation of clear writing. The problem is that "writing is Natureís way of letting you know just how unclear your thinking is." To overcome this natural fuzziness, try this technique for focusing your material: Write your purpose in a short, simple sentence. For most types of business writing, use this purpose statement to begin your document.

2. Know the audience. Effective communicators are people who know their audience. Every decision they make Ė word choice, tone, amount of detail, document length, approach, and persuasive strategy Ė is based on their knowledge of their reader. To write effectively, write with your reader in mind.

3. Attend to detail. Writing can be immensely rewarding and satisfying, but it will always entail a certain degree of tedium, of grunt labor and slow, methodical work. From knowing the rules of grammar and correct usage to understanding the nuances of your topic, take the time to get the detail right.

4. Compose in stages. Effective writers donít expect to write perfect copy in the first draft. They understand the value of capturing the natural flow of their thoughts in a rough draft, setting their draft aside, and revising it after some time has passed. Allow yourself the freedom of an imperfect first draft, and always take the time to revise.

5. Work with an editor. Even the most skilled writers need an editor. Language is too complex and communication too multi-leveled for one person to make all the right decisions every time. Next to reading, the best way to develop your writing skills over time is to work with a good editor.

6. Write regularly. Is there anything that invites procrastination more than the act of writing? Because it demands mental energy and concentration, writing always seems like a good thing to do tomorrow. Effective writers, however, tend to be disciplined. They write nearly every day and, if possible, at the same time every day. Many prefer to write in the morning, that time of day Henry David Thoreau called "the awakening hour," before they become preoccupied with the incidentals of their daily routines.

7. Know when not to write. Effective writers understand the limitations of written communication. They know which issues are best communicated in writing and which are best communicated in person. They appreciate the openness and flexibility of give-and-take discussions, and they understand the value of person-to-person, face-to-face contact.

As you can imagine, effective writing is not something learned in a day or a week. Effective writing is achieved by developing and maintaining good habits over a lifetime.




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