“What’s the key to being a productive writer?” is the kind of question a struggling novelist will ask themselves before even worrying about the quality of their work. A good workflow is as elusive as inspiration itself, and has a ton of adversaries in these distracting times.
For the past few months, I’ve been trying to figure out what makes certain writers tick, and what makes others simply write, day in and day out, without bowing out due to mental or creative exhaustion.
A few common patterns emerged among the dozens of author interviews I’ve read in the past few months. While their artistic philosophy or their writing styles differ greatly from one another, most successful authors engage in two particular habits. One of them is expected. The other—Not so much.
1. Most successful writers do their work in the morning. For a practice that some have dubbed the midnight disease, it’s surprising to note that most famous authors aren’t the slaves of spontaneous inspiration, but instead, all write in the early hours of the morning.
Perhaps the most famous morning writer, Ernest Hemingway, mythologized the habit with his regimented and unwavering work:
“Nowhere is the dedication he gives his art more evident than in the yellow-tiled bedroom—where early in the morning Hemingway gets up to stand in absolute concentration in front of his reading board, moving only to shift weight from one foot to another, perspiring heavily when the work is going well, excited as a boy, fretful, miserable when the artistic touch momentarily vanishes…” (The Paris Review)
While it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to pump out a novel every week or two, writing in the morning helps you get your work over with. Instead of ruminating on your work all day, writing in the morning helps you go in with a specific focus untainted by the world around you.
“I find it easier to get up early in the morning, and I like to get through by one or two o’clock,” said John Dos Passos, author of the USA trilogy and one of the most famous authors of the early 20th century.
It’s also beneficial because it helps frame your writing within a single time and a single place. You aren’t overstimulated by the day’s experiences, and it helps relieve a stress that for most of you comes with the baggage of being human. Getting your artistic impulses out of the way helps you consider what you need to write the following day, instead of merely worrying about when you’ll write your work.
Another important part of writing in the morning is setting a time limit for when you’ll stop. It’s easy to think that you can get ten pages out of the way if you have the whole day off, but setting lofty standards—and inconsistent ones, at that—will dampen productivity in the long run.
Graham Greene wrote 25 novels and several short story collections, but even he set a fairly modest cap on the amount he wrote every day. “Five hundred [words], stepped up to seven fifty as the book gets on. I re-read the same day, again the next morning and again and again until the passage has got too far behind to matter to the bit that I am writing.”
Even at the height of their careers, masters of their craft will scarcely write more than a page and a half.
Alberto Moravia, one of the seminal Italian novelists of the 20th century, was extremely strict about getting his work over with before noontime.“that’s between nine and twelve every morning, and I have never, incidentally, written a line in the afternoon or at night.”
In a study entitled “Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal”, the authors suggest that people who aren’t sharper in the morning may actually be more receptive to abstract problems and not logical ones.
According to the study, “results showed consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day compared to optimal times of day but no consistent time of day effects on analytic problem solving.”
If you’re tired and groggy, start writing. You may surprise yourself.
For people who vow they aren’t morning people, you aren’t the only one. Feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir still stuck by a routine that gave her flexibility in the afternoon. “In general I dislike starting the day,” she noted. “I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one.”
2. I’m sure you may be able to guess what the second habit is. The truth is, it isn’t much at all. Many successful novelists do almost nothing in the afternoon. Well, maybe not nothing. But rarely do they worry about their work.
Irwin Shaw, highly-prolific playwright, screenwriter and novelist, was quite strict in his regimen. “In the mornings he won’t be disturbed,” stated his Paris Review Profile. “[H]is wife answers the phone for him. In the afternoons he abandons his typewriter for other activities.”
You’d think a writer would be too serious and brooding for activities, but the fact is, liberated mental activity helps the author as much as the written work itself.
Going back to Hemingway’s writing habits, it’s important to note that it’s not just what he does at his desk, but what he does when he’s not there. While some authors lead largely hermetic lives, many feel the need to get out into the world when they’re done with the page.
For example, Hemingway’s “self-imposed discipline”, which “lasts until about noon when he takes a knotted walking stick and leaves the house for the swimming pool where he takes his daily half-mile swim.”
Writers also love wandering. “My springboard has always been long walks,” said Thornton Wilder, playwright and author of Our Town. William Wordsworth mythologized walks through the English countryside, and recently, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami professed his love for jogging, and explained how it could improve the will of the writer. “Running taught me to have faith in my skills as a writer. I learned how much I can demand of myself, when I need a break, and when the break starts to get too long.”
Some even abandon their work and enjoy the morning and the night altogether. Honore de Balzac wandered around Paris, William Butler Yeats around Dublin, doing nothing but taking everything in.
I want to clarify that there’s a distinction between the author choosing to do nothing after work and the author doing nothing all day. In fact, walking around is a useful form of field work for the author. To take the world in without someone else representing it for them is key to basic sensory description. In his essay “An Apology for Idlers”, Robert Louis Stevenson argues that afternoon relaxation is not just useful, but essential to one’s education. “Suffice If a lad does not learn in the streets,” he argues, “it is because he has no faculty of learning,”
And in going on long walks, they may see the world with fresher eyes. “He may pitch on some tuft of lilacs over a burn, and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he may fall into a vein of kindly thought, and see things in a new perspective.”
Writers often have lofty goals, and have a big manuscript or theatrical production in their sights. Authors who temper their own ambition and limit their work are often the most productive and focused ones. So long as they get their fresh air. So if you want to write for a living, set that alarm early, get those work boots on, write tirelessly for a few hours, then relax.