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Patricia Anderson, PhD

Writing from a Success Model

Copyright 1999 by Patricia Anderson



Success. Who doesn't want it?

In an achievement-oriented world, writers, perhaps more than anyone, crave success. We want our words to be read, our ideas circulated, and our names recognized. In short, we want to be published.

Often we want this outcome so fervently that we tend to forget that it's not an overnight phenomenon, something readily attained by a few and unfairly denied to others. Success in writing is like success in most other endeavors: It's an ongoing process based on fundamental principles of effective living.

No one knows these principles better, or has articulated them more thoroughly, than the well-known motivational speaker and best-selling author Stephen Covey. Written a decade or so ago, his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has retained its currency. What follows is my interpretation of Covey's 7 Habits as they might apply to—and motivate—aspiring authors.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Being proactive means taking responsibility for our own lives. As Covey puts it, learn to opt for "be" not "have." Don't think: I could write if only I had more time. Or if I had a quieter place to work . . . if I had more education...if I had enough money to quit my job . . . if I had a nanny for the kids . . .

Instead of focusing on what you don't have, be the kind of person who is organized enough to set aside a period of time in which to write regularly—even if it's only one hour a week. Be determined enough to shut out the noise of the world and hear your own voice from within; be a constant learner, both from experience and from books; and be resourceful enough to work with and around the economic and domestic realities of everyday life. If you want to become a successful writer, you approach that goal from inside yourself. You, not the world, must realize your dream to write.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

The idea here is not just to have a goal but to have the right goal. Ideally, the mission as both a human being and writer accords with, to use Covey's words, "correct principles" and the "deepest values" of being and doing. When they start out, many writers' goal is to have written. They look forward to the day when their words are in print and their faces on book jackets. They imagine the signings, book reviews, and public appearances. Of course, it's okay to fantasize about your first interview with Oprah—as long as the fantasy remains separate from the goal. Rather than wanting to have written, you want to be the kind of writer who produces quality work—whether that means the finest literary novel, clearest how-to guide, or most romantic Harlequin romance. If being a quality writer is the goal, then what you do follows: you learn, refine your craft, write, rewrite, and (sigh) rewrite . . . The interviews and signings will follow in their time.

Habit 3: Put First Things First Prioritize—manage yourself and your life. Set priorities, organize around them, and discipline yourself to follow through. Covey has noted that most people—and, in my experience, many aspiring writers—claim they lack discipline. But this is not in fact the true problem. If you find that life gets in the way of writing, then you haven't internalized Habit 2—you are not yet living the life of a writer. To make the change is easier said than done, of course. Covey suggests planning by the week rather than just day by day. If writing is truly a priority, then somewhere in every week—full though it is with jobs, family obligations, homes that need cleaning, and social commitments—there is space for writing. This likely means saying "no" to some lesser priority. "The key," says Covey, "is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities." In other words, live your dream.

Habits 1 to 3 are habits of independence. They must be the firm foundation on which habits of "effective interdependence" are built. "Private Victory precedes Public Victory"—Covey's truism for effective living is right at the heart of successful writing. Habits of personal and creative independence are the writer's greatest assets.

But like most other endeavours in life, writing in the end is not a totally isolated activity—if, that is, you want to be published. Here, then, are the remaining four interdependent habits, loosely translated from Covey to fit the writer's situation:

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

At some point, whether eagerly or reluctantly, writers seeking publication must submit their work. And littering the route from submission to acceptance are those all-too-familiar rejection letters. Few writers have not had the experience of rejection—it's part of the business. At the same time, it can set up a frame of mind in which agents, editors, and publishers are the writer's natural enemies. Not only is this dispiriting but it can lead to writing blocks and defeatism. Why write if it's only going to lead to rejection? The way out of this mental dilemma is to think win/win. You may not yet have an agent, editor, or publisher, but your likelihood of getting one or the other will be greatly enhanced if you remember that we're all in this business together. We all want to be the kind of people behind quality books. Agents want to sell them, editors want to acquire them, and publishers want to produce them. Your job is to write and (you can bet on it) rewrite them—to be yet another vital link in the book trade's win/win chain.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

From the standpoint of the effective writer, this translates as empathy. Think about your readers, who they are likely to be, what their interests are—what moves them. Then, constantly reaching to expand that understanding, you write and (yes) rewrite. As Covey expresses it, you now "can present your own ideas clearly, specifically, visually, and most important, contextually." That is, when you deeply understand your readers' concerns, "you significantly increase the credibility of your ideas" (or theme or plot or characters)—and, I would argue, the publication potential of your writing.

Habit 6: Synergize

Synergy is creative cooperation. It brings together such unique human traits as imagination and self-awareness with empathic communication and win/win motivation. Covey cites examples of the positive effects of synergy in nature, family life, business, and the classroom.

But what does it have to do with being a successful writer? You've been somewhat isolated for a year now—focused, disciplined, empathic with your intended readership—and now you have a finished manuscript in need of a publisher. When you finally get that publisher and/or agent, you are definitely going to need synergy to produce and promote the quality book to which you are jointly committed. In the meantime, think synergistically as you put together your book proposal. Aim to produce a model of imaginative and empathic communication, an aware expression of the distinguishing features of your work, and a fair representation of your strengths as an author. And as for your proposal's underlying motive—what else but win/win?

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Sharpening the saw encompasses and enables the other six habits. It's a matter of balance. To be effective we must attend to all the fundamental facets of being human: the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. The imperative for us all is to take the time to renew ourselves in each of these areas. According to Covey, the principle and process of comprehensive renewal is "an upward spiral of . . . continuous improvement."

The driving force behind renewal, he emphasizes, is conscience, that fragile but clear voice that tells each of us the right thing to do. Learn, commit, and do—then repeat the process over and over again—says the voice of conscience. Learn your craft, dedicate yourself to it, and do it with passion, says the conscience of the effective writer. Then do it again and again—with ever more refined craft, greater dedication, and deeper passion.

There are of course countless successful writers, past and present, who have never read Covey. Nor is his the only possible success model for writers. But Covey's 7 Habits is a valuable corrective to overly romanticized notions of the writing life. Like virtually any worthwhile endeavor, writing for publication demands a lot more than high hopes and waiting for inspiration. By all means, dream the grandest dreams you can conjure. Just be sure to act on them, to live them—and then (sigh) to rewrite . . .

"Writing from a Success Model" is based on Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

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