7 “Bad” Writing Habits To Keep, According to Author Mary Roach

Bestselling non-fiction author Mary Roach — By Bill Holsinger-Robinson (IMG_2509) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How-to guides for journalism can often be insufferably filled with rules to follow. Which is why bestselling non-fiction author Mary Roach’s keynote address at Boston University’s 2016 The Power of Narrative conference was so darned refreshing.

The bestselling author of titles like STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadaver, GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex delivered with trademark humour a talk on breaking these so-called rules of writing: The Seven Bad Habits of Highly Effective Narrative.

Here are my interpretations of those seven habits, along with some illuminating quotes from Roach.

  1. Promise things you can’t deliver.

Don’t limit yourself from the outset. Set the bar high, and then try to reach it.

“Say yes to things.”

2. Be unprepared.

Don’t lock yourself in so tightly to a plan that you can’t be flexible or recognise potential new directions.

“I don’t always know what the story is.”

3. Get in over your head.

Don’t immediately exclude yourself from a story simply because you don’t have the expertise. Sometimes the learning process can become the story.

4. Sweat the small stuff.

Details, details, details. The smallest detail could end up focusing your whole narrative.

5. Be disorganised.

Story/book proposals or outlines can change. Give yourself the freedom to change, add to and remove from that initial idea.

“Embrace the chaos.”

6. Litter your prose with scientific jargon.

Be selective, but don’t be afraid to use jargon or technical language in your writing; it could be a valuable part of the story you’re telling.

“Sometimes the language of jargon is so rich, and can be narrative.”

7. Act your shoe size, not your age.

Keep your sense of wonder and excitement; it keeps your writing fresh and gives you a connection to your readers.

“If it takes maggots or farts to get people interested in a certain subject, so be it.”


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