The Writer as a Creature of Habit
Successful writers are often assumed to be those with good work habits, but identifying good work habits in writers is no simple task. After all, writers’ habits can range from the admirable to absurd, and what works for one may not work for all of us.
To understand the habits of writers, there is no better place to watch them than a public writing space.
Their Natural Habitat
Whether you’re sat at a table in a public library, or a café frequented by writers, once you lift your gaze away from your own page or screen, other writers’ curious work habits are difficult to ignore.
A survey of the writing room at the library where I frequently work is a case in point.
While some writers arrive early with the hope of scoping out a specific desk or table facing a specific direction, others appear content to arrive at any time and work in whatever space remains. But writers’ habits extend well beyond where and when one writes.
The Pencil Ritual
One writer who frequents my library — a spry woman in her sixties sporting a pixie cut and jewellery chunky enough to anchor a small ship — starts her writing day by holding a pencil at arm’s-length from her face.
For the next five minutes, she slowly brings the pencil back and forth to the tip of her nose.
Throughout this curious ritual, she never takes her eyes off the pencil. She then places the pencil on the table and starts to write, but never with a pencil (she writes only on a laptop).
Does her pencil ritual help?
I can’t say for certain but she spends the remaining hours of the day writing at a fast and furious pace, breaking only for lunch.
Habits of the Famous and Infamous
In some cases, a writer’s habits are notable enough to become part of their public identity and legacy.
Prolific twentieth-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote much of his work lying down.
Truman Capote was also a reclining writer.
I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.
Maya Angelou paid monthly for a hotel room — stripped of all decorations — but never slept in the room. It was reserved purely for writing, which she did at the desk, not reclining in bed.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that he did push-ups and sit-ups “all the time” (or at least in between the regular Scotch and water.)
For other writers, habits and vices merge.
But are any of these habits replicable or even recommended? And what can you learn from them? Likewise, does a writer’s choice of pen, font, drug, desk or bed really matter?
Establish a Routine; Don’t Fret the Milestones
Like visits to the gym and well-intentioned exercise plans, establishing a writing routine is a good habit to adopt.
After all, one of the most difficult things to do is to start a writing project. If you allow weeks, let alone months, to go by before you turn the idea to words on a page, you’ll lose the thread and forget your inspiration.
Of course, some writers are more disciplined than others. I once met a writer who wrote everyday from 5:00 to 7:00 am before going off to her day job at a local transport authority to compose memos on rising fuel costs and labour disputes.
Thanks to her daily writing routine, however, she managed to publish eight books before taking early retirement from the transport authority at 56.
Minutes Become Manuscripts
But how much can one write in just a few hours per day?
When fully immersed in a project, historian Anthony Grafton claims to write 3,500 words per day, usually before noon. Grafton also claims to maintain this rate of production at least four days per week.
At that rate, one could reasonably turn out a book in two months. But is it wise to set such lofty goals?
What’s a Realistic Goal?
Setting daily milestones is a way to stay on track, but it’s also important to be realistic about what you can accomplish.
After all, if you’re working full-time, only able to write at the crack of dawn before work, or you’re writing in a household teeming with young children, 3,500 words per day is likely to be unrealistic.
As a rule, if you set milestones, make them realistic ones — and don’t feel bad if you occasionally fail to meet them. Life will inevitably get in the way of your writing schedule, at least sometimes.
A Precious Space
For many writers, a designated writing space — whether it is a room at home, a desk at a local library or a table at a local pub or café — is an important part of their writing habit.
Having a specific space designated for your writing can help you return to your work more easily. Of course, we don’t all have the means to rent a studio, or hotel room, or even maintain a separate office in our home.
Major cities have notoriously high rents and space is limited, and it’s not unusual to meet successful writers who work out of converted closets or from a small desk shoved into the corner of a bedroom.
While having a designated writing space may be important, being overly precious about where you writes will also to the detriment of the work.
Tools Don’t Define the Trade
For many writers, a specific pen, brand of notebook or type of paper becomes a ritual. For others, it’s the screen not the page that matters.
Whatever your preference, knowing your tools is important, but writing is rarely contingent on them.
Great books have been written in prison on scavenged scraps of paper, or composed under the censorship of regimes so oppressive that the works had to be committed to memory in order to survive at all.
In other words, while a writer’s tools may be important and can support good writing habits, you can become too dependent they become impediments.
Select your tools but don’t turn them into objects of worship.
After all, is the right shade of your notebook or the weight of a pen important enough to determine whether or not you have a successful writing day?
Habit Dictates Success
Writing habits can tend to the curious and obsessive, but it’s the very fact of having a habit that typically marks the difference between writers who publish regularly, and those who don’t.
When writers’ habits border on the absurd, obsessive or superstitious, they can impede progress, and the habit can become more important than the resulting words.
Good writing habits, in other words, should take the form of structure not stricture!
This is a guest post by Cait Etherington. Cait has over twenty years of experience as a journalist, communications consultant and editor. She also works as a ghostwriter and has published eight nonfiction books (so far!)
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