If you fall into the latter group, don’t worry. There is no judgment here. But I would like to help you find a way to move past saying, “I want to write,” and be able to say, “I am writing [insert project here].”
The number one way to do that is to form a specific, daily writing routine.
Most great writers have a routine they follow. The magic doesn’t just happen sporadically.
Take Stephen King, for example.
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”
Or the great Maya Angelou’s powerful writing routine.
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.
Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write.
Or Kurt Vonnegut’s predictable daily routine, which he described in detail in a 1965 letter to his wife, Jane.
“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.”
Or the novelist Susan Sontag’s daily routine, which she wrote about in her journal in 1977.
Starting tomorrow — if not today:
I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)
I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)
Or essayist Anaïs Nin who writes about her routine in two separate diary entries in the 1940s:
I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.
I write every day. … I do my best work in the morning.
Or Hemingway, who famously wrote while standing.
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.”
My writing routine varies slightly depending on my workload, but it is more or less consistent each day. I am more productive in the morning, so I like to get most of my writing done before 1:00, then eat lunch, and then jump into other projects like consulting or business development.
Each morning, I have a cup of coffee or tea, but it tends to quickly cool without drinking much of it—there’s just something about having it there, the presence of it, that puts me in the mood. My music choice varies by day. When editing, I always opt for silence. I shut my office door to separate myself from the bustle outside. There are times when I struggle to produce, but those times are relatively few and far between—especially compared to when I didn’t have a routine in place.
So, how do you start a writing routine? Here are a few questions to get you started, from my book, The Editor’s Eye: A Practical Guide to Transforming Your Book from Good to Great.
- When am I most productive: morning, afternoon, or evening?
- Where do I work best (home, coffee shop, etc.)?
- What kind of environment do I work best in (loud, quiet but with music, silent, etc.)?
- What things distract me (housework, kids, Internet browsing, etc.)?
- Do I work well on my own, or am I motivated working in the same space as others?
Here’s what I’ve found most useful: Set time each day to write. You can take weekends off, if you want to. I usually do. But have a regular routine and stick with it. Commit to your routine for 30 days, and it will likely become an indispensable part of your life—something you need as much as food, sleep, and movement.
What does your writing routine involve? What tips can you share? Where do you struggle in sticking with your routine?
Note: this article was updated on 6/12/20 to reflect routines of more diverse writers. If you have a favorite writer’s daily routine to share, please add it to the comments!