First, the results of a research study about the writing habits of famous writers. Then, the personality traits of the best poets and writers that stand the test of time. Which aren’t based on research.
Here’s what a reader asked about the personality traits of successful writers:
“Is it possible to learn to become a top writer or it is something that is a talent given just for few of us?” asked John on 5 Traits of Top Writers – What Makes Good Writers Good? “I’m not sure why but my thoughts are that it is more the second one. Writing is a talent that is give to only a few people.”
No way, dude! To be sure, some people are naturally talented poets and writers, just like some people are naturally talented horticulturists, hockey players, horse whisperers, high rollers. We all have natural strengths and abilities that feed a certain skill or passion. But, we all also have the ability to improve on whatever natural talent we have – or wish we had.
If you feel like you’re not a natural writer but you want to write, then learn. You WILL improve your skills if you actually try. Especially if you don’t give up hope. Imagine that you can be one of the best poets and writers. And, learn what personality traits will help carry you all the way to the top…
The Research on the Traits of Famous Writers
In a Northwestern University study called How would Einstein use e-mail? (or ‘On Universality in Human Correspondence Activity’) published by the journal Science, researchers found that famous poets and writers who wrote letters using pen and paper — long before electronic mail existed — did so in a pattern similar to the way people use e-mail today.
The researchers examined extensive letter correspondence records of 16 famous writers, performers, politicians and scientists. Einstein, Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Ernest Hemingway were among the men studied – and the most noteworthy result was that all 16 individuals sent letters randomly…but in cycles.
This study of human behavior determined that no matter what their profession, all the famous letter writers behaved the same way. Specifically, they adhered to a circadian cycle. They tended to write a number of letters at one sitting, which is more efficient; and when they wrote had more to do with chance and circumstances than the more rational approach of writing the most important letter first.
Dating as far back as 1574 for philosopher Sir Francis Bacon and as recently as 1966 for writer Carl Sandburg, the data for the 16 individuals included a list of letters sent and, for each letter, the name of the sender, the name of the recipient and the date it was written.
How does this relate to the personality traits of the best poets and writers? The famous writers were organized and efficient in their work. They were productive and successful partly because they batched their tasks.
Batching your work is an extremely smart way to be a more successful, productive writer. The faster you outline, research, write and edit your work, the higher your chances of being one of the most successful poets, freelance writers, published authors, or bloggers in the world today.
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8 Personality Traits of the Best Poets and Writers
I didn’t conduct a research study to determine these personality traits – though I have blogged about the research of personality traits in What an Introvert Really Looks Like: A Personality Test.
Rather, these personality traits are based on my own experience as a writer. I still can’t believe I’ve been supporting myself as a writer since 2008! And I explored a variety of different paths: freelance writer for magazines, contract writer for health organizations, ghost writer, blogging coach…and I keep coming back to blogging as a career. Blossom!
I’m not one of the best poets or writers, but I pay my bills. On time. With money to spare. And I know that these personality traits of the best poets and writers are time-tested partly because of the above research study from Northwestern University, and partly because writers NEED to have these characteristics to succeed.
1. Organized – the best poets and writers batch their work
This is the personality trait that the researchers uncovered in their study of the famous writers, poets, and scientists’ letters to their friends, family, and colleagues. The successful guys had a system for writing, which made them more efficient.
Productivity experts call this “batching.” It’s simply a system that allows you to do everything at once. For me as a blogger, this means collecting a dozen images at once, finding the best quotations from poets and writers at once, writing at once, and editing at once.
2. Selfish – the most productive poets and writers have boundaries
If “people pleaser” is a personality trait, then the best writers and poets are not people pleasers. They know how to say no, they close their door so they can work in peace, and they prioritize their writing.
The best poets and writers also simplify their lives so they aren’t too busy to write. This means saying no to friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, strangers, and their own children. Is this a selfish personality trait? It’s definitely time-tested. Look at Virginia Woolf.
3. Internally inspired – successful poets and writers are intrinsically motivated
They write for themselves, for their own personal reasons. The best poets and writers are driven (led) by their demons (experiences), and they want to spread the misery (help other people live fulfilling lives).
One of the key personalty traits to any type of success in life is intrinsic motivation. This is psychology jargon that simply means that if you do something for your own internal reasons and rewards, then you’re more likely to succeed.
4. Creative – the best poets and writers create new worlds
Or they share their perspective on the same boring old world. But their perspective is a breath of fresh air.
Do you wish you were more creative? Read books like Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything by David Usher. “Dream big, let the elephants run!” he says. Usher teaches people how to implement both freedom to create and structure (the “systems” and batching I mentioned in the first personality trait of the best poets and writers).
Sometimes the best way to learn creativity is to totally immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. “Take up one idea,” said Swami Vivekenanda. “Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”
5. Optimistic – the most oft-published poets and writers stay hopeful
In Writers Personality Traits – The Key to Getting Published, I shared that I suffered through most of October without a single magazine assignment (but, luckily, I was working on two previously assigned articles). Then, when I thought I wouldn’t meet my financial goals for the month, three editors emailed me four assignments within 12 hours! Four business days later, I had six writing assignments due.
So, another personality trait of the best poets and writers is having hope and faith that another article will turn up. If you’re not hopeful, then you won’t keep writing for publication.
6. Stubborn – the most successful poets and writers keep trying
“Writers need to be stubborn,” says publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant in Why stubbornness is a virtue. “Of course, it’s obvious why book authors and thesis writers need to. Their projects are long and time-consuming — I like to describe them as marathons rather than sprints — and they demand a great deal of sticktoitiveness.”
She adds that even shorter pieces can require stubbornness – which is why a list of the personality traits of the best poets and writers HAS to include dogged perseverance. “Certain interview subjects may be difficult to reach or may not give you the information you need. You may have difficulty finding the right lede (story beginning). You may be at a loss as to how to explain something truly complex in simple and plain English. You may have an editor who fails to give you enough guidance or feedback — or, conversely one who gives you far too much.”
7. Detached – the best poets and writers kill their darlings
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings,” said Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. But I think William Faulkner said it first.
Editing is tough work (that’s what those famous writer guys meant with the darlings quote). It can be really hard to see your weaknesses – and to delete or not use paragraphs or pages or chapters of your hard work. But you have to detach from your writing, and learn how to edit your own work.
If you don’t edit yourself well, read The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell.
Bell is a long-time professional editor of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as a teacher of editing at the New School in New York. She says self-editing is not only possible, it’s necessary, and it can be learned. Bell provides a slew of ingenious methods for viewing your work with fresh eyes – which will help you detach from your work and kill your darlings.
“The idea of detachment is crucial,” says Gray-Grant. “Don’t try to be the best writer ever, working on the most ground-breaking piece/book/thesis ever produced in the history of humankind. Don’t equate yourself with your writing. Don’t think that publication will solve all of your life’s problems. Madness that way lies.”
8. Trusting – the most daring poets and writers trust the process
In 57 Tips For Writers, From Writers, Marelisa Fabrega says Neal Bowers was told by his first creative writing teacher, Malcolm Glass, to “Trust the process and the reader.”
Glass had a “colorful metaphor of grabbing the tail of a wild hog as it runs by and letting it drag you through the thicket,” writes Fabrega. “Back when he first heard it, that metaphor didn’t help Neal much. However, he adds the following: These days, though, I often look back at those unplanned and unpredictable trails my writing makes through the brush, with me hanging on, and I think of Malcolm’s wild hog.”
Hmmm….what time-tested personality traits of the best poets and writers have I missed? I’d say curious, eager to learn, willing to be edited, open-minded, and willing to explore. What would you add?
8 Personality Traits of Poets and Writers – A Summary
A quick list of the characteristics I shared:
- Organized – the best poets and writers batch their work
- Selfish – the most productive poets and writers have boundaries
- Internally inspired – successful poets and writers are intrinsically motivated
- Creative – the best poets and writers create new worlds
- Optimistic – the most oft-published poets and writers stay hopeful
- Stubborn – the most successful poets and writers keep trying
- Detached – the best poets and writers can kill their darlings
- Trusting – the most daring poets and writers trust the process
And a bonus blurb for you…
On his blog Advice to Writers, Jon Winokur offers writing quotations and advice from the best poets and writers. Often, they reveal the personality traits of the author. Winokur – just today – posted James Kilpatrick’s Five Common Traits of Good Writers:
- They have something to say.
- They read widely and have done so since childhood.
- They possess what Isaac Asimov calls a “capacity for clear thought,” able to go from point to point in an orderly sequence, an A to Z approach.
- They’re geniuses at putting their emotions into words.
- They possess an insatiable curiosity, constantly asking Why and How.
All well and good. But you know what?
The bottom line is the act of writing. If you want to be one of the best slam poets, freelance writers, popular bloggers, bestselling authors, or New York Times journalists, you simply have to put your time in.
“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” – Mary Heaton Vorse.