Writing Routines that Work

If you’re familiar with even a handful of author biographies, then you know this: There’s no single recipe for becoming a writer. For every party-loving Fitzgerald, there’s an Emily Dickinson who stayed at home. There’s the self-taught Ray Bradbury and the PhD-holding Toni Morrison. There are atheists, church-goers, world travelers and home state loyalists. At the end of the day the only constant seems to be, to borrow an often repeated phrase: “writers write.”

Sounds simple, but anyone who’s forging their way through a manuscript knows how easily jobs, family obligations, self-doubt, or something wholly unexpected can get in the way. Setting up a routine, knowing when and how to get to the page, having strategies for carving out space and quiet: these are the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer. Try one (or several) of these time-tested writing routines and discover your most productive self.

(Do agents Google writers after reading a query?)



the-office-of-mercy-novel           ariel-djanikian-author-writer

Guest column by Ariel Djanikian, who was born in Philadelphia and
currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and
daughter. Her writing has appeared in The L Magazine and The Paris
Review Daily. THE OFFICE OF MERCY (Feb. 2012, Viking) is her
first novel. In a starred review, Booklist called it, “[A] horrifically brutal,
compelling debut. . . . A grim muse on a future with shades of The
Hunger Games, Djanikian’s first offering should attract readers voracious
for this popular subgenre.”  Find Ariel on
Twitter @ArielDjanikian
and at arieldjanikian.com.



1. Write two hours a day

It’s a goal that many of us have, and it’s a worthy one: make writing a part of your daily routine. If you can do more than two hours, that’s wonderful, if you can only do less, that’s okay too. The trick is to write for the same amount of time every single day, and to be dogmatic and consistent about it. Another strategy that gets repeated a lot—even in fiction!—is to write five hundred words a day. See the writer-protagonist in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, who dutifully writes his “daily five hundred” for twenty years, uninterrupted by love or war.

(How to pitch agents at a writers’ conference.)

2. Write when you’re hot

Practice pays off, but if the daily grind really isn’t your thing, then follow your instincts. Write when you’re ready to pour whole chapters/stories/volumes out onto the page. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent his career considering the behaviors and thought processes of creative folks: writers, scientists, comedians, mountain climbers, visual artists, musicians, chess players. The common link? An emphasis on entering an “ecstatic state” while engaged in their chosen art form. With that in mind, while you’re on a hot streak, and can feel yourself engrossed in a project, go with it, and keep on going.

3. Use a Playlist

I have several friends who swear by this method. Just like you’d do for an exercise routine: make up a playlist of your most inspiring or mood-specific songs, enough to last the duration of your writing session. Music may even affect your work in ways you didn’t expect. As Dan Chaon said of his 2005 short story collection, You Remind Me of Me: “I notice whole passages…that were strongly affected by some of the stuff I was listening to as I wrote, bands like Sparklehorse, Red House Painters, The Innocence Mission, Julie Doiron, Yo La Tengo, Idaho, The Eels.”

(Read some great advice for first-time novelists.)

4. Keep a notebook (or take notes on your smartphone)

This is a good option for those on the move, and for those who write best in short, quick bursts. These days, there’s a temptation to share your brilliant thoughts in real time. But hold some back. Carve out a secret world for yourself where your ideas can incubate, amass, connect, and flourish.

Most well-known notebook keeper and advocate? Joan Didion.

5. Work in your head

This is the anytime/anywhere solution. Just don’t forget to (eventually) record your ideas in a more tangible form! “I can write anywhere,” Hilary Mantel has said. “I long ago learned to write and polish a paragraph in my head.” On a similar note, see this lovely piece by Silas House, on the importance of always maintaining a writerly view of the world.

6. Wake up early / Stay up late

These methods are flip sides of the same coin, with a shared goal: solitude. Discover those odd hours when the world is mostly quiet and still, no ringing phone, no self-replenishing inbox, etc.. Because when it comes down to it, writing is between you and the page. The knowledge and the story are already inside you; everything else is a potential distraction.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

7. Read for inspiration

Most writers read voraciously, but this is different. When you’re in need of a refreshing burst of language—or perhaps when you’re hunting for a certain voice or point of focus—it can be incredibly helpful to surround yourself with other people’s books. Mary Gordon has stressed the value of this pre-writing ritual: “There’s a funny period before I really get started in a work—you know how dogs run in circles until they can figure out the exact spot where they need to lie down? I’m kind of like that until I can find the writer whose tone of voice really gets me going…A favorite poem or prose passage can be the perfect tuning fork.”



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8 thoughts on “Writing Routines that Work

  1. TomiLWiley

    This is a very helpful column – and so are the comments! I’m excited to read Ariel’s debut novel and see how these pointers blossomed into a book for her.

  2. Misty

    #6! Try waking up early if you haven’t yet. I’m tellin’ ya– fresh out of that REM sleep, theta brain waves crashing into your semi-consciousness. There’s never a more creative time– at least for me.

  3. j4london

    Great tips. I’d add setting a timer for your writing session. If the timer goes off when you’re in mid-sentence, consider using Hemingway’s tip of stopping right then–which will mean you’ll know exactly how to start the next writing session.

  4. Debbie

    Your first novel – how exciting! I love the title; it would be so interesting to see how it evolved. I’m guessing the world is the “office”…and I’m sure the “mercy” is the focus. I’d love to follow the journey.

  5. Katie

    Ariel, your book sounds amazing – congrats on a wonderful debut! #6 and #7 are the two routines I most relate to. Reading fills me with joy and courage to write miscellany of my own, and being alone is truly the only time I can create great work (IMO).

  6. DanielJayBerg

    Thanks for sharing these routines.

    With respect to #6, I have fond memories of staying up early to write one novella. Now that I have pre-schoolers/toddlers, the best writing time for me has become nap time.

    Best of luck!


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