Tips for the Writer With No Routine


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Years ago, I was a young journalist sitting in Ernest Gaines’ living room. He had just been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His Lafayette home was well-organized, tidy, and succinct. So was Mr. Gaines. The first thing he said was “you’re late.”

Despite our rocky start, I sat across from him with young writerly fascination. This man—son of sharecroppers, Stanford fellow, Nobel Prize nominee—had written A Gathering of Old Men, Lesson Before Dying, and now he sat before me, a wide-eyed, somewhat naïve journalist who had a stack of unfinished novels in her closet and a million more in her head.

I asked the question that is too-often asked: “What’s your writing routine?”

I’d been struggling with my own routine for years. Namely, that I didn’t have one. I hoped Mr. Gaines would say something like, “Oh, I just write when the spirit moves me,” since that’s what I did and no one else seemed to be doing it. Instead he told me that he set aside the same set of hours each day to write. The routine was disciplined. Controlled.

This is why I’ll never finish those novels, I thought. I have no routine.

It took me years to realize that not having a routine was my routine. I wrote when I felt compelled to write, which was often. When I tried to stick to a schedule, I worried more over the passing minutes than the story. But when I wrote only when compelled, the words were there. It might be 10 at night or 5 in the morning. It could be a Saturday or Tuesday. I may write for five days in a row and then not write for three. I wrote, though. Not all the words may have been good, but they were there.

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The reason I didn’t finish novels in those years had nothing to do with my lack of routine. It was because I was telling the wrong story. It wasn’t when I was writing (or not-writing), it was what I was writing (or not-writing).

We’re not all Ernest Gaines. Some of us are less organized, less tidy. As writers, we are as diverse as our stories. I wouldn’t write a publishable word if I had to schedule my writing sessions, and I know there are many writers out there—maybe even you—who wouldn’t write a thing if you didn’t.

We all select our words differently. And thank god for that.

Are you a routine-less writer? If so, consider these tips.

  • Never stop writing—even if in your head. When you’re not writing with pen and paper, write with brain and imagination. Mull over your creative ideas. If you don’t have any creative ideas, look for them. They’re all around you. Example: When I’m at the grocery store, I take a nonchalant glance at what the person behind me is buying. Then I create a whole life for them in my head. Then I look at what I’m buying and wonder what kind of story I’m telling. Basically, do some people watching. People are weird, fascinating creatures.
  • When creative lightning strikes, be ready. Carry a journal or notebook at all times.
  • Be productive. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. One feeds into the other.
  • Don’t out-talk your ideas. Routine-less writers are prone to share their Great Ideas with anyone who will listen—husband, wife, partner, co-workers, critique group, professors, so on. I’ve found that it’s better to share less and plan more. Instead of talking your idea to death, write it down. Work out the kinks. Make it yours. Don’t let the idea play itself out before you’ve even had a chance to sit with it.
  • Find your own footing. For a long time I thought there was something wrong with my approach because I didn’t follow the same routine as other writers. You’ll hear a lot of advice—write every day, write at least 100 words a day, wake up early, stay up late, utilize the weekends—but ultimately you have to do what works for you.

BLACKBIRD FLYErin Entrada Kelly‘s debut novel BLACKBIRD FLY from HarperCollins/Greenwillow is available now. She has published more than 30 short stories in publications worldwide, including Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was a finalist for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction and twice-nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In 2011, she was a Martha’s Vineyard Writer in Residence. Find her on Twitter @erinkellytweets, Facebook, and

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24 thoughts on “Tips for the Writer With No Routine

  1. jessiejohnson

    I work as a tech support help desk with a specific client list so its not like everyone and there brother calls in. Even though it can get very busy sometimes, there is actually a lot of downtime. This gives some of the agents that go to school time to do their homework and study at their desk. I use this time to write using the old fashion pen and paper way then at home I can type up what I wrote on my computer at home. Even on my breaks I am going over scenes in my head. When I do decide to go to bed, while I lay there I will go over a scene or two before falling asleep. I use heavy visualization for scene writing get it down on my first draft even if it is not pulling full description of the scene at least I have the gest of what I am wanting but hey that’s what first drafts are for so it doesn’t matter how crappy it is. But that is how I got into a routine by working at work.

  2. Esostrefis

    Its a hard task when it comes to a non native English speaker. Though I’ve learned that without discipline in writing you cant achieve what you yearn to. Despite knowing this fact, I’m still in my writing-sophomore years. I working on my writing skills to get used to contemporary literature because the literature I’ve read in college was basically Shakespearean and a little close late nineties. Plus I’ve got my graduation. So its just a long journey to accomplish.

  3. Robbinroger

    Inspiring story and common sense advice. How many of us – routine-less writers – actually take the time to type down how much more ‘productive’ we could be with a printed outline, a routine, and a deadline? How many of us use a notebook to jot down ideas spontaneously or record our ideas on a smart phone as we walk along? Your five bullet points more or less summarise a routine-less writer – (1) lots of ideas play out in the grey matter, (2) jot down (or make mental notes) when the creative lightning strikes, (3) reading other writers’ work – op-eds, book reviews, personal experiences which can inspire, (4) keep your story ideas personal and under wraps- don’t broadcast – don’t say it or in an excited inspired moment – don’t spray it – just type/write ideas down, (5) find the creative inner and outer balance that works best for you (personal or professional) -whether early in the morning, mid-day, late afternoon, late at the night – people, local or exotic surroundings, weather, seasons, snippets of conversations at Burger King, Goodwill, an art museum, or on a long flight. Watching a movie and/or reading the book- The English Patient, The Constant Gardener, whatever. Daydreams, fantasies, remembered bitter-sweet experiences from childhood on stormy, icy or snowy nights. Deceased parents whispering anecdotes to us in our dreams: Sieze the moment, live in the present, experience the moment – it may be the last one.
    Two examples from my own experiences: (1) 1990’s sultry summer Sundays evenings in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia on the Potomac River -watched 60 Minutes with the family – then went upstairs to the parental bedroom, switched on a reading light, opened the two windows, turned on a small fan, lay down on the bed with a comfortable pillow, started reading the Wash. Post and New York Times book reviews. Could smell the muggy river and lingering smoke from neighbours’ afternoon barbecues, feel a humid breeze blowing through the windows, and then – in the distance – the wistful sound of a passing freight or passenger train going north or south – the whistles echoing into the summer night. (2) rainy spring evenings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s: cool breezes carrying the scent of a blooming desert, the pungent smell of Arabian incense and cooking floating through the house windows from our Arab neighbours, the mixture of sand and dust blending with rare precipitation, the last prayer call of the day – Allah wa Akbar….
    It was these precious moments and hours in examples one and two when I felt inspired and stimulated to write: mental and physical reactions to literary reviews, books, scents, smells, noises, news reports, music, background sounds from the street -or outlining ideas for short stories with an all-American theme or Middle Eastern plot. WHY? – because my body was totally relaxed – but my mind was awake and stimulated by the total immersion ‘in the moment, the half-hour, the hour’. Not a routine – just a transcendental block of time (momentary flash or lingering story idea for several minutes or hours) – yes, indeed, a routine-less writer who finds his/her own way, on his own time, and in the moment. Each aspiring writer has his/her “routine” – simple, complex, or happenstance — it all depends on what works best for you.

  4. sabiacarioca

    This really hit home. I have struggled with the fact I simply am incapable of routines. Never have been able to keep to a regular schedule for anything. I work like a maniac then collapse. But as you point out, I’m constantly thinking, imagining, creating. Found your tip of not sharing my stories before I write them very useful Because you’re right, talking them out takes away the impetus to write them down. Thanks for making me feel less off.

  5. jchaisson

    For the past few years I’ve been using an erasable whiteboard with a calendar grid, which I’ve stuck on my wall right above my desk. Each day has a specific project I’d like to work on (not all of these are career-focused…many are personal projects like artwork or music, as well as blog post updating). I can think of these items in two ways: as that day’s assignment, or any day’s assignment that’s due by that particular day. I don’t expect to follow it to the letter, but it’s a good guideline and reminder of the creative things I’d like to do. I also reserve the same exact time every day for my fiction writing: 6:30 – 8pm.

    The trick I’ve found, if anything, is to use this as a guideline, but not as a strict one. If I miss a day for any reason–personal issue or just plain laziness–I remind myself not to feel like I’ve failed, but to get back on the horse the next day.

  6. djkfdm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I tend to berate myself every time I hear, “Write every day.” My schedule can be unpredictable at times, so it can be very difficult to write every day or even have a set writing routine. Weekends tend to be the best time for me to write, but they can even be unpredictable at times. This was very helpful and encouraging to me.

  7. shawnproctor

    I’ve never had a consistent writing routine either. Sometimes I just need to think through an idea before trying to write it. But, for me, when I’m writing a draft, a routine helps, just to know that I need to create x amount on x day. Then I can take a break and gather myself for the revision!

  8. tragill4

    Thanks for the article. I’m glad to hear your perspective. Was just reading about Blackbird Fly last night from a social media blurb about an upcoming signing. Looking forward to reading it.

  9. kim11568

    Writing for myself in my non-work hours is absolutely unstructured; because I write ad copy for my day job, coming home and forcing myself to write just makes my already-tired brain want to take an immediate nap. So I always have that notebook on hand – and Erin’s “Never stop writing—even if in your head” advice is something I’ve employed for years. Instead of the 21st-century practice of texting and walking into things? I’m the one imagining other worlds and walking into things. I’ll take it.

  10. RMartin

    I’ve never thought about writing something based off what people buy. Although I do enjoying watching how people dress and re-act in different situations which has given me some great ideas in the past.

  11. csinclaire

    The idea that people actually get something written without sticking to a routine is both encouraging and discouraging — encouraging to know it can be done (by some folks) and discouraging because I seemed to have missed that boat. I’ve been without a routine for years and I haven’t finished anything to speak of, so I’m pretty sure that isn’t my method. I’m afraid, if I want to complete anything, I’m going to have to have to break down and try the other way. I still find myself thinking “when” rather than “if” I’ll write my books (yes, plural; I probably have 50 plots boiling around in my head and file cabinet), but I believe I now must admit that I won’t live long enough to write all of them, and may not live long enough to write ANY of them, if I don’t change my ways. Clearly, “no routine” has gotten me nowhere so far. I applaud those who are young enough to test out this method long enough to see if it works for them, and still have a chance of turning something substantial. Me? I think I’m too old now to hope that waiting for the inspired moment will ever result in a complete manuscript. Too many years have passed, and I’ve wasted my privilege of working without a routine. I now must buckle down and be a traditional routine-bound writer if I’m ever to accomplish my goals. It is scary to think I may not do so at all, but it is my reality now. I’ll just have to make the best of it and try.

  12. Lydia Sherrer

    I feel like a balanced mix is good: I don’t just write when I want, bc then I’d hardly get any writing done. But, if I sit down to write and I’m really struggling, I’ll go do something else for a while and come back to it. When I do, things flow more easily. I also take advantage of it when I’m really into it and try to write as much as possible before I stop. I may have a 1000 words a day goal, but usually that works out with 300 one day, skip a day, then write 3000 the next day. I never stop at my word goal if I feel like writing more. I might as well get as much done as possible! Thanks for the post!

  13. Cryshudak

    I love this. I too thought there must be something wrong with me for not being able to stick to a routine, for dreading and worrying about the writing time and then talking myself out of the words. I would stress so much about the act of finding time to write that I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and write. Until I remembered my favorite thing about writing, what moves me to write is the unplanned inspiration of my brain subconsciously connecting the dots…even if it wakes me up at three in the morning.

  14. MJmich

    Your article definitely makes me feel better about not having a set routine for my creative writing. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that I need to do SOMETHING to spur myself on to get writing. Part of the problem might be that I write for “work” all day, so focusing on non-work writing in my off hours is tough. I’m going to work on changing that, but thanks to your article, I’ll probably be a bit more flexible!

  15. Jeri Baird

    Alas, I’m also a routine-less writer! I find that works for me IF I make myself write on most days. I don’t set a time or word goal – pushing myself to reach a certain number of words creates too much tension for me. I don’t enjoy revising bad writing!

    I write for middle grade and read avidly in that age range. I would LOVE to win a copy of BLACKBIRD FLY! I’m familiar with it from other blogs – it sounds amazing and is on my list to read! Best of luck to you with the release!

  16. LyricLemon

    I’ve always felt guilty about not having a schedule. I think some writers need them in order to stop procrastinating (especially when it comes to revision), but others don’t.

  17. ckwallis

    What a relief! There’s still hope for me!

    I’ve been ‘writing’ since childhood (40-some years ago), but decided to get serious about it just a few years ago. Almost everything I’ve read/heard emphasizes the critical importance of a writing schedule, either specific times or word goals per day or week. Unfortunately, my very irregular work schedule has meant a very irregular writing schedule. As a result, most of my writing sessions end with feelings of hopelessness (“with all this stop-and-start I’ll never get anything worthwhile written at this rate”), tempting me to abandon this pursuit until I’m a full-time retiree. However, reading your article I realized how much I’ve already accomplished without a regular writing routine. So, as of today, I’m not going to waste another minute fretting over my inability to establish a writing schedule–maybe someday I will, but right now it’s not that important. You’re so right, it’s the ideas and words that matter, not when they’re written.

  18. Chipmunk18

    Thanks for sharing your writing routine. Sounds like I have the same one – write when the urge strikes. If I can’t sit down and write when the urge strikes, I’ll keep mulling the idea or scene over and over in my head (almost to distraction) until I can get it down, either longhand or on a computer screen. I have a writer’s journal now that I keep in my purse so that if at all possible, I’ll jot down the thought so I can let it go. I even write in my sleep, sometimes. If I can remember it when I wake up, that gets written down as well. I do have at least one day a week where I have planned writing time. I meet with two fellow writers at a local Panera and we eventually get some writing done.

  19. kurtpatt

    Great article. My routine varies quite a bit since I teach college and my teaching load and schedule varies. Some days I have a lot of time, some days only a little. I enjoyed Erin’s tips to never stop writing, even in your head, and to always be reading if not writing. Those things really help me. I’m sort of semi-routine-less– but I am putting words on the page and Erin’s article and experience makes me feel good about that.

  20. Jenxian

    I do the same thing at the grocery store or sitting in traffic – I love to wonder about the lives of those around me. Thank you for touching on this taboo…its right up there with (gasp) not having an outline!

  21. M.L. Stover

    Awesome article! I totally resonate with this. Lots of great advice for those of us who don’t have a regular routine. And it’s so nice to finally hear someone say that I don’t have to have one! I feel more inspired already. ;o)

  22. AngelLindaM

    Great article….hit with me well. I have no set routine for writing, so was interested in reading this article. I always seem to be writing in my head when I’m out or even as a way to drift off to sleep at night (it’s relaxing!). Thanks for the entry into the drawing for the book as well….sounds like something my daughter would love to read 🙂


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