For decades I’ve been preaching it to myself and others: writing routines don’t have to be long. Devote just an hour every day to writing, even if you cannot get beyond a few words, or you’re writing nonsense. If you can’t write a word, at least read or think about your writing.
Don’t underestimate the power of an hour.
Just do it. It works. I wish I practiced what I preached more regularly. But I fully believe it nonetheless.
The Power of Routine
Doing the same thing the same way every day is an absolute must for many successful writers. Some require quotas of themselves—a certain number of words or pages per day—but many put the emphasis on the input rather than the output. As Leo Tolstoy put it, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”
Routine seems to be more important than the nature of that routine. It just has to happen regularly, every day or almost every day, even if “it” is only an hour.Sometimes the writing flows. In fact, the more often you spend an hour doing nothing but facing a blank page, the more often that hour goes by quickly, and the easier it is to write.
Carving out even a little time for writing day after day after day, virtually guarantees that you will write something eventually. It virtually guarantees that you will be a writer, through the sheer act of writing. And over time you will even become a better writer.
If I write a page a day for a year, I end up with 365 pages. They may be rotten pages, incoherent pages, but they are pages. And we all know that having something to work with is enough motivation to keep going. The hard part is having something to work with.
The Best Writing Routines
For me this hour has varied depending on where I was in my life. In graduate school it often hit midday, on the days I didn’t have classes. When I was the mother of young kids, it was whatever time my babysitter arrived—usually sometime late in the afternoon. When my kids were in school it was often mid-morning, as soon as they were all safely out of the house and before I started my paid work. And now that the kids are grown, that hour is usually first thing in the morning, just to make sure that it takes precedence over everything else.
Whatever the time of day, carving out that hour was key. This is hardly news. Lots of writing advice tout the benefits of writing just one hour a day. We also know it doesn’t take large swathes of time to create. Wallace Stevens famously spent most of his life as a insurance company executive, and still managed to write some of the 20th centuries most memorable poems.
“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”–Leo Tolstoy
Length aside, the value of regular writing routines is also cliché. A random (and unverified) web search suggests that many of our most esteemed writers, living and dead, had rigid writing routines. When those writing routines took place, and how long they were, varies widely, however.
Some authors get up before sunrise and write for hours before returning to bed or going on with their day. This kind of routine works well whether you have a traditional 9-5 job or just like to get the writing out of the way.
Kurt Vonnegut supposedly woke at 5:30 and wrote until 8 a.m., followed by breakfast (of champions, presumably!).
Harumi Murakami apparently gets up at 4 a.m. and works for 5-6 hours. (Apparently he’s an early-bird and goes to bed at 9 p.m.)
Creatures of the Night
Other writers prefer working when the rest of the world sleeps. Most famous perhaps was Honoré de Balzac. He was in bed by 8 p.m., only to wake at 2 a.m. to begin writing. He worked straight through to 8 a.m., napped until 9:30, and went back to writing until 4 p.m.
Balzac’s routine required abundant cups of coffee. For other creatures of the night, booze and other arguably unsavory substances provide fuel. Jack Kerouac, who wrote from midnight till dawn, comes to mind. So does Hunter Thompson, who reputedly rose at 3 p.m. each day and sustained himself with Chivas Regal, cocaine, marijuana, cigarettes, coffee, junk food, and similar substances before, during, and after his writing ritual, which ran from midnight till 6 a.m.
Quite a few writers stick to pretty traditional business hours, though many cut out of work by early afternoon. Stephen King reputedly writes 3-4 hours every morning, starting at about 8 or 8:30. and tries to get six pages done in that time. Susan Sontag apparently got up no later than 8 a.m. almost every day to write, telling friends not to call till lunchtime.
Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, consistently stopping at a place where he knew what was going to happen next. Maya Angelou got up around dawn and wrote until the early afternoon. Alice Munro writes every morning, 7 days a week, from about 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. John Updike wrote every weekday morning.
Some writers split their writing into shifts. Balzac once again provides the classic example, breaking up his bouts with his early morning nap.
Simone de Beauvoir started her day with tea and launched into writing bout about 10 a.m., continuing until about 1 p.m. Then she took a break to visit with friends and picked up again from about 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.
Mark Twain would start writing every day after a hearty breakfast and not stop till dinnertime. Charles Dickens rose at 7, ate breakfast at 8, and was in his study to write by 9. He stayed there till 2 p.m., breaking only for a brief and usually solitary lunch.
Jane Austen rose before the rest of her household, organized the family breakfast, and settled down to write until mid-afternoon dinner.
Is An Hour Really Enough?
My quick web search also showed that many of these writers—even the ones writing articles touting the one-hour approach—consistently carved out considerably more than an hour a day.
Knowing that is not the kind of motivation I need to get that hour back in my life. Experience suggests that there is likely more power in two hours, three, four, or more. Even so, I still believe in the power of that single hour. Not only is it a start, but once you find a way to carve out an hour, you may be surprised to find how often that hour turns into two hours, or three, or four.
And then there’s J.K. Rowling, whose solution to not having lots of time to write is reportedly just writing whenever and wherever she can.
When it comes to writing routines, I don’t think there’s a secret . If you want to be a writer, you just have to write, and write regularly. No getting around it.