U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Daily Routine of Writing

If you read this blog regularly, you’re aware that I’m writing a book on the culture wars. (It’s why “Culture Wars” is the number one label of this blog. If you’re a new reader, and you want to jump down that rabbit hole, scroll down and to the right and click on the label. Or, if you would like a brief synopsis of my generic thinking on the topic, and would like to hear my untrained radio voice, check out this interview I did recently with my local NPR affiliate.)
But this post is not about the culture wars. It’s about writing habits. As you all know, writing is hard. Writing a book is really, really hard. Many of you have written books and know this all too well. Many more of you will soon know how difficult it is.
Now that I am more than halfway finished writing my second book, I can reflect on what makes me tick as a writer. The most important thing for me is establishing a daily routine. In this way, writing is a job. It’s a grind. Yes, it’s sometimes exhilarating. In the end it’s extremely rewarding. But this does not change the fact that the process of writing is a struggle. Struggle. So let’s share how we deal with this struggle.
This set of quotes by famous writers makes clear that productive writers establish daily routines. Now, unlike those of us in academia whose daily lives are overloaded with all kinds of other professional duties, including teaching and service, these writers seem to have no responsibilities other than writing. (How wonderful for them that they can enjoy hours-long lunches with friends every day!) Still, I think the main message—that writers need a daily routine—is a good one.
With that, I will briefly describe my daily writing routine, if only to induce you to do the same. Take note that I am on sabbatical right now, so I’m able to dedicate a good chunk of my professional time to writing—in ways that I’m unable to do during typical semesters. I’m not necessarily a fast writer, but I’m reasonably productive because of my routine.
My routine: I try to write 6-8 hours per day, 5 days per week. So I treat writing like a 30- or 40-hour workweek. I do my best writing in the mornings, from 8 until noon. Then I write for an additional 2 to 4 hours after lunch, depending on how it’s going. If I’m not writing during my designated writing times I feel guilty. This is what it means to treat writing like a job. For me, it’s as simple as that.
I have friends who write in spurts, who stay up late at night when they feel inspired. That sounds great, but I’m not like that. Yes, I have better writing days than others, days when I’m more inspired than others, but mostly I just sit at my desk for my allotted time and grind out the pages. Nothing glamorous.
Where do I write? I mix up my environment so I don’t get bored. Sometimes I write at home. Sometimes I write in my office on campus. Often I write at a coffee shop, because I like white noise.
How do I write? I do everything on my computer, including taking all of my notes. When I begin a chapter, I take about a week or two to review and arrange my notes. I also read a few books to shore up my foundation and re-familiarize myself with the specific chapter topic. Then I write that chapter until it’s done. I start that process over again when I finish a chapter.
What helps me write? Living life normally. For me, this means daily exercise, spending a lot of time with my family, and drinking good beer. If this all sounds banal, that’s because it is. That’s the point. From my experience, productive writers weave writing into their daily lives.
(Also, I turn off the internet—email, facebook, twitter, USIH Blog—while writing. Easier said than done, but crucial.)
Of course, I realize everyone has different habits. So let’s hear them. I’m genuinely curious.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Let me stress that this is my sabbatical routine. Another conversation is how to get writing done during usual semesters, when teaching, committee work, etc takes up so much time. During usual semesters I try to write two days per week, not always successfully. Summers are really important to being productive.

    I also recognize that having a tenured job is a huge privilege and that many of you are eking out livings as adjuncts who teach 4 classes or more per semester. I am absolutely amazed by friends who continue to write in such circumstances.

  2. “I have friends who write in spurts, who stay up late at night when they feel inspired.”

    I feel my ears burning. But I’m an owl to begin with, so for me it’s probably a chicken-and-egg question.

    Anyway, Andrew, I have a question about your writing habits that you didn’t address: do you write in a linear or a non-sequential manner? That is, do you start with the first chapter and finish with the last chapter, or do you write out of sequence. I am definitely in the first camp, though that can have drawbacks. I’ve always found this one of the most interesting questions about writing, at least the kind we do.

    Oh, another question pops into my head. When you’re writing, where are your sources? Is everything you need digitized in the form of notes on the computer, or do you have books and articles by your side? I am definitely one of those old-fashioned types whose desk disappears under a pile of books when he’s writing. I posed the same question to the dissertation group back when I was running it, and everyone else did that, too. I was surprised. I figured I was the only one doing things the hard way. I’m curious what other readers answer to those two questions.

  3. This is a timely post for me. I am developing a new writing routine after having the unusual luxury of time off during this past summer. In that period I finished my book mss. I had a few extra weeks to get things done (thank goodness) due to starting a new job in mid-September. …Indeed, since that new job is a staff position, I appreciated Peter Webster’s link above. I’m feeling squeezed and wanting to be efficient.

    My new writing routine is shaping up to be a early morning, pre-work/pre-commute phenomenon. Although I’m on a half-train/half-driving commute schedule, I can’t write while on the train. Chicago’s public transit system is not spacious enough to use my laptop. I can read on the train, however. I can’t underestimate the usefulness of that time for reading, for preparing myself to write.

    Returning to the morning, I try to wake up about 1.5 hours before my spouse and the children. When that is possible (it isn’t always because our one-year old daughter has inconsistent wake-up times), I can squeeze in about 75-80 minutes for writing. It’s not my desired block (I prefer 3-hour chunks), but it’s the best I can do presently. If I’m really inspired and if I’m feeling sufficiently worked out (bodily), I can tack on 45-50 minutes during my lunch break. If I’m super-duper inspired, I could maybe get in another hour after the children are in bed. But since I’m waking up early as it is, that’s dicey.

    So, altogether I *maximally* have 190 minutes per day to devote to writing, M-F. Most days–on a regular day—it’s about 80-100 minutes. That’s enough to get some serious work done over the week.

    I have time to write this comment due to some unusual time space at work. But that is space for *typing*, not writing. I can’t use varied sources in this little block. And I’m often interrupted. So this is just off-hand typing for me. That’s frustrating space because sometimes I could do more. But it can’t be planned.

    @Varad: I have mix of digital and book sources when writing, but I do all of my writing, like Andrew, on computer. My Zotero database is with me at work, but I like to dive in and out of books to double-check references. So I do have stacks of books with me when writing. This summer I had 4-5 books in my bag at all times (along with laptop and sundries), carrying them between coffee shops and home.

    On your other question, I wrote non-sequentially this summer and it annoyed me. I finished two chapters at the end, returned to finish up two at the beginning. I was bummed with how some of my themes were inconsistently emphasized through the mss. You plan your themes, of course, but changes occur as you write. Some things bubble up, and others slip down the stream. So I would have preferred to write sequentially to have let them develop naturally and in order.

    One last thing: I do keep 3X5 notecards beside my bed, and in my book bag, for when I’m inspired but without my laptop. So I sometimes have folded up notecards with old notes in my pockets and in my bag, waiting to be transferred to ZOTERO or to whatever article on which I’m working. The thoughts on those notecards are not always used, but they make me feel better for having them–for not allowing the inspiration to slip away.

    – TL

  4. What is this daily routine of which you speak? I do not know this tradition…but I’m going to learn it, for sure.

    I guess I already am — my work rhythms are on a semester schedule now. But once I drift into Dissertationland — like Disneyland, only it’s all line and no ride — the schedule will have to be more strict as the deadline becomes more distant.

    As to inspiration…I’m all for varieties of religious experience if that’s what floats your boat, but I’m glad to say that I stopped believing in muses, inspiration, and the writing genie a while back.

    More recently, though, I stopped believing in my writing. I think I’m finding my way back to confidence, but it is Not Easy. It’s just a normal phase of growth, I think — what used to pass with me for “good enough” just isn’t good enough any more. As the complexity of the problems I’m trying to address in my academic writing increases, the flaws and failures of my own work become more apparent. But when I can manage to silence my inner critic for a few hours at a stretch, I can get some work done.

    In the past, it has been helpful to have multiple outlets for my mind to work through its material. At one time I was keeping a personal blog, and blogging here, and doing Facebook, and doing Twitter — just a regular torrent of language. Like hydraulic mining — blasting away whole mountainsides for a handful of gold. Lately, though (in a complete inversion, BTW, of the history of gold mining techniques in California), I’m finding that less is more — so I’ve retreated from a lot of “writing venues.” Gone is Facebook, gone is Twitter, defunct is my personal blog.

    I think this is something like taking a deep breath before the dive into the deep blue sea. Perhaps in Dissertationland I will meet my old friend from the American Lit survey, the chambered nautilus.

    …Year after year beheld the silent toil
    That spread his lustrous coil;
    Still, as the spiral grew,
    He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
    Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
    Built up its idle door,
    Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

    Picturing a long writing project as the slow accretion of a lustrous coil of thought seems like the right way to approach the task. Whatever it takes to get it done — though I would prefer to change “year after year” to “month after month.” We shall see.

  5. Thanks for all of the comments all. Since Varad asked some specific questions I’ll address them.

    1) “do you write in a linear or a non-sequential manner?” Both. On my current book, I wrote Chapters 1 through 3 first, sequentially. These chapters are broad, synthetic, and set the historical stage for the rest of the book, so I thought it important to tackle them first. But since then I have written Chapter 7, 6, and am about to begin Chapter 9. I then plan to write Chapters 4 and 5 (which are shorter and of which I have chunks written), and finally Chapter 8 (which I’m putting off because I am the least confident in my ability to write it). I wrote 7 and then 6 first because I was most excited to write those, most confident in my knowledge about the topics. I think it’s important, early in a large writing project, to work on the parts you feel best about. Writing the last chapter, about which I am least confident, will be easier with the comforting knowledge that it’s my last chapter. I will then write the introduction and conclusion last.

    2) “When you’re writing, where are your sources?” I take copious and careful notes while researching so that I don’t need to consult books while writing. Everything is searchable on my hard drive (and backed up, of course). I like this because my writing is more portable. I can go write in the coffee shop with nothing but my laptop.

  6. Great conversation! A few thoughts:
    1. I note that Andrew says he does his best writing in the morning, and that he still requires himself to write in the afternoons for a couple of hours. But why do the afternoon writing at all, if your best writing is in the mornings? I just write in the mornings, and when I reach the moment when I suddenly feel,ugh, then I get up. This means that by the time the next morning rolls around, I am very eager to get back to my writing. I go to the library or do computer-based research, or read a book and take notes in the afternoons if I have the time available, but I don’t write. I love the joy of coming to the writing freshly every morning.
    2. Re the writing sequentially question, one practice that suits me is to tackle the toughest chapter first. This is so that I have the longest amount of time (before the book is final) to master that chapter. I will do the first draft, very rough, then set it aside, and then come back to it when I am ready. But this way I have fresh eyes to work on it several times (with months of time in between) over the course of writing the book, and thus this toughest chapter becomes, I hope, the strongest. Also, it is usually the toughest for some pivotal reason. Cracking the back of that chapter early on can make the rest of the book better sooner.

  7. How I wish I were a morning person. Alas, I am not. I work best in the evenings and at night but the world starts up at 7am everyday when I need to be up and getting ready to get my kids off to school. I need to teach 4 courses per semester and don’t always get to schedule those. Most of my writing happens after my house goes quiet around 9pm but I am not able to do as much as I feel I need to each night because the morning comes rather quickly. Without a family I would (and used to) work until 3 or 4 in the morning and get up at 9 or 10. This is no longer an option and my writing has suffered in quantity.

  8. Andrew, thanks for this great post and discussion. Reading the comments above, I realize that I am a writing pragmatist, in the most general sense of the term. I do what works for me at that time in my life.

    When I was on fellowship and writing my dissertation, I would bounce back and forth between writing and research. (This is also how I wrote chapters–I was usually working on two chapters at once and if I got stuck on one I would bounce over to the other one; this kept me working, kept me fresh,and helped me make analytical connections I might not have otherwise made.) In those periods when I was primarily writing new material, I would write for several hours in the morning, then spend the afternoons reading or running errands, and then go back and write some more in the evening if/when I felt inspired. For some reason, I have always found it very difficult to write in the afternoons, unless I absolutely have to do so.

    When I was in my first full-time job, where I taught all four classes two days a week, I would spend the other three days sitting in my office and writing (or, in that case, revising my dissertation into a book). Eight or ten hour writing/revising days were not uncommon.

    Now that I teach five courses per semester and I am in the classroom five days a week, it is hard to maintain either one of these schedules. For the most part, I don’t get nearly as much writing done as I used to. But earlier this semester I had a major contracted article due, so I ended up being like Tim and getting up very early in the morning or staying up very late and writing furiously for an hour or two. The words I was putting on the screen were not very good, but then I took a weekend–seriously, 12 hours a day for two days–to revise it into something that wasn’t terrible. This is similar to how I did my book index a year ago, and I figure that will be my new routine from now on, as long as I am in my current position.

  9. The upshot of this conversation is, as I expected, do what works for you.

    Brian: That you continue to produce at all while teaching 5 courses is admirable, to say the least.

  10. Andrew, thanks for this great post, and thanks to all the commenters for this good discussion.

    I’m an ex-academic and independent scholar who has the luxury of deciding how much time to give each day or week to writing my book, though I agree that whatever routine one decides on, having one is essential. However, for many years, like most people I assumed that the routine meant that I had to write every day, come hell or high water.

    To my disappointment (and guilt), this conventional wisdom didn’t work well for me: I’ve discovered that I write better if I have a varied routine. I thought I was the only one (more guilt) who was that undisciplined until I invited Charles J. Shields, a biographer (Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut) and a prolific academic, to write a short guest post on my blog. It turned out that he, too, prefers to vary his routine by writing only every other day while doing book-related tasks on alternate days. I adopted this simple formula, and now I’m both guilt-free and more productive.

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