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Monday Master Class: How to Schedule Your Writing Like a Professional Writer

October 15th, 2007 · 88 comments

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The Pain of Writing

Students hate paper writing. It’s not the writing itself that’s horrible, but instead, being forced to write when you don’t want to. Is there any worse feeling than staring at a half-completed term paper at 2 AM?

The solution is simple. Schedule your writing better. But the specifics can be tricky. What’s the best way to schedule writing? Clear out a full day? Do it a little bit at a time? Work at night once you’ve finished all of your other work? I could give you some answers that sound right, but (for now) forget about me. Let’s see what the pros have to say…

How Professional Writers Write

Professional writers spend most days of their adult lives writing. For those among them who specialize on long form non-fiction, their writing is not that different from the types of research papers that plague college students. Assuming that these writers do not want to spend most of the days of their adult lives hating what they are doing, it stands to reason that, over time, they have figured the least painful possible way to schedule a large amount of writing.

With this in mind, I dug up interviews with the following masters of long form non-fiction:

  • Ted Conover
  • Richard Ben Cramer,
  • Jonathan Harr
  • Jon Krakauer
  • Michael Lewis
  • Susan Orlean
  • Richard Preston
  • Eric Schlosser
  • Gay Talese
  • Calvin Trillin.

I went through each interview extracting any discussions about the writer’s habits. I’ve aggregated and analyzed this data to provide you with a snapshot of how professional writers schedule their writing. At the end of this post I will discuss how to apply these observations to your own student writing assignments. Notice this advice is applicable beyond just students. Anyone who has to regularly churn out writing — be it a blogger or a part-time freelancer — can benefit from the habits of the pros.

When During the Day Do Professional Writers Write?

Nine out of ten writers discussed when during the day they write. All nine worked in the morning. Four also worked during the afternoon. Three worked during night. Only one worked in all three times. Several writers described the afternoon as a mental dead time useful only for exercising and, maybe, editing.

When During the Day Do Writers Write

At What Time Do Professional Writers Start Writing?

Five out of the ten writers provided a specific start time. The latest was 8:30 am. Four other writers who didn’t give a specific time said, in so many words, “in the morning.” No writer described starting their work in the afternoon or evening. Several did mention that they might also be efficient working very late at night (and sleeping through the day), but that this seems incompatible with being a productive member of society.

When Do Writers Start Writing

Where Do Professional Writers Write?

Six out of the ten writers answered this question. All six described a silent, isolated location, free of distractions. Specifically, they provided the following answers:

  • Office in the garage with no window
  • An old tenant farmer’s house
  • A 9×9 cubicle in the basement
  • A small redwood cabin, 100 yards from the main house
  • A bare office
  • A home office with no phone or Internet

It should be noted, however, that the magazine writers among our sample admitted to being able to write in almost any environment — a trait learned from crashing deadlines on the road. Jon Krakauer also mentioned that his dream was to write in the morning in an isolated cabin, and then spend the afternoon’s climbing. He is yet to realize this dream.

Observations…

The most striking observations from this study:

  1. The writers work in the morning. They often start very early in the morning.
  2. Five out of ten of the writers described a little ritual before starting their morning writing. A surprising number of these rituals focused on The New York Times.
  3. The writers drink coffee. Lots of coffee.
  4. The writers write in isolation. If they didn’t have families they would push this even farther. Many discussed having no e-mail or phone in their workspace. One purposefully used a “shitty old laptop” to avoid temptations like solitaire. Gay Talese rigged his home office so it could only be entered through a separate outside door.

How to Apply this Advice

If you are a student — or an amateur writer or blogger — here are some simple rules for emulating the habits of the professionals:

  1. Spread out work on an assignment over several days. Coming at it fresh increases its quality.
  2. During these days, get up early. Probably earlier than you are used to. Say, around 7 or 8 am. (This means these days will be weekdays, probably early in the week so you can avoid temptations to party the night before).
  3. Have a mini-ritual to jump start the day. It should probably involve coffee. Breakfast. Maybe the morning paper. Don’t take too long.
  4. Go to the most isolated place possible.
  5. To get your mind ready to think, review the last pages you wrote.
  6. Work for two or three hours. Then stop.
  7. Follow this habit regularly. Don’t write during other times. Don’t write in public places. Don’t start writing the day before.

Interestingly, without knowing it, I stumbled across many of these same scheduling habits during the fall of my senior year at Dartmouth. At the time, I was balancing my normal student responsibilities with the writing of the manuscript for my first book. The method I used: I got at 8 AM, every weekday morning, brewed a cup of coffee and wrote for 1.5 hours at my desk — all without leaving my room. After I was done, my real day could begin. It worked beautifully.

What writing habits work for you? What habits do you need to abandon?

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88 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Schedule Your Writing Like a Professional Writer

  1. Rebecca says:

    I have two habits to add to this list, mostly gleaned from working on really BIG papers:

    1- If you sit down at your specified time and are drawing a blank, get a new document/piece of paper and freewrite. Write ANYTHING, even if you just write “I have no idea what to say” over and over. Ignore spelling and grammer. Write stream of consciousness. Just get something on the page. Eventually something will click and you will start to come up with ideas that are more useful. But staring at a blank page is intimidating. You can always delete/throw out what you wrote later but you have to start somewhere.

    2- The folks over on PhinisheD.org got me hooked on cycling. This is where you set a period of time when you will work and then a set break time. This could be 20 minutes of work and 10 minutes of break (during which you can surf, check email, whatever) or some other combination where you are working 65-76% of the time. This has 2 effects; first, it is far easier to say “I’m going to sit down and work for X minutes” rather than to say “I’m going to work for 2 hours”. Second, human beings need a break periodically and scheduling it ensures that you get it. (I personally can’t work for an hour and a half straight without needing to get up, move around, rest my eyes, etc.) The key here is to be strict about the time; you need to really WORK for the first time before taking a break.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Rebecca,

    Good additions. I saw your #1 show up a lot in those author interviews. One author even used the term “vomit out” to talk about their first stab at a piece. The cycling sounds interesting…will check that out.

    – Cal

  3. MC says:

    Great advice, though should have read this about a week ago.

    You say mornings? I dont really know morning except those that are dark ones, must do something about that :)

    Great stuff!!

  4. Sam Davidson says:

    This is great advice, and it’s always good to hear what the pros have to say. I am also a morning writer. I try to squeeze in an afternoon session every now and then, but most of those end of being unproductive. It’s far better to write for 3 meaningful hours than 6 mediocre ones.

  5. Thank you for this useful information.

    Btw, when do writers read?

  6. Dusty says:

    Hey, some of us have this junk called homework. It’s work that you do at home. Actually, you might not do it. Lucky you :-)
    But if you go to sleep around two because of that stuff, you’re not going to get up at five to write.
    In a few years, I’ll kick out homework for ever and ever and ever and maybe some more ever. Until then, Saturday nights are so much better for writing.

  7. Great piece of research, really enjoyed discovering how others work.
    A couple of things I personally do; have a clock that chimes on the hour, it’s a great way to get you back on track if drifting.
    Don’t get hung up on the opening lines, start a new piece a paragraph or two in with the bare facts of what you are trying to write, before you know it you’ll have the opening lines ticking over in your mind.
    And if you are working on a longer piece of writing the famous “how to get kick started next morning” tip from Hemingway is to finish mid-sentence so you have something to get up and running with.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    @Bharatiya:

    That’s a good question about when writers read. My assumption: all the time. But it didn’t seem to come up in the interviews I looked through.

    @Dusty:

    Homework until two!? You haven’t spent enough time on this blog :) We maintain a naive optimism here that with clever enough strategies and self-awareness, even the hardest course load can be rendered managable. But I hear you: you have to find the times that work then make it happen.

    @Craig:

    Good stuff. Pulling from my own personal bag of tricks I would also throw in: unplug the Internet from the machine you are using.

  9. Stutz says:

    Only issue I see is that for full-time students, weekday mornings are usually occupied by classes. Unfortunately, they’re usually forced to write in the evenings and on weekends.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    @Stutz:

    Definitely. It’s even worse for people with real jobs. Sometimes, the answer is to just move earlier. I wrote at 8:30 as an undergrad because I didn’t often have class before 10. Leo over at Zen Habits writes at 4:30 am, because he has (had) a real job. And he’s crazy. :)

  11. Coleman says:

    Any mention in those articles of when professional writers do research? Do they write every day, or are some days just research days? And how do they do their research?

  12. Study Hacks says:

    @Coleman:

    They talk a lot about it. The main thing I notice: they do a *lot* of research. A New York Times Magazine article, for example, can take between 6 – 12 months of work. They mention iceberg model. Even though only a small amount of information might make it into an article (the tip of the iceberg) it has to be supported by a mountain of understanding. Also, when profiling people, especially for book projects, they try to become a part of the subject’s life until, eventually, they start acting natural even with the journalist hanging around.

    All of this happens before writing. I’m not sure what they do when multiple projects overlap.

  13. Justin says:

    In Key West, Hemingway used to write in a room over his garage, which was only accessible from a small bridge from the main house. (Currently it has a regular set of stairs, for tourists.)

    He followed a strict schedule of writing every morning and drinking every evening at his local bar, and then writing down all the good stories he remembered hearing the following morning.

    A good life.

  14. Mark Colless says:

    Brilliant. I work as a full-time business analyst and am studying my masters part-time. I have found the mornings to be most productive for my work/ study routine. At home I’m an early riser (say 0500) and manage to get at least an hour if not two of study. I plan my work day so I don’t have too many writing tasks in the afternoon — I even have a cut-off at around 1400. Time after that is saved for meetings or emails. The only *true* writing I’ll do is notes for the next day.

    Of course I’m at the whim of my clients if they decide to meet during the morning however, I’ve also gotten into the habit of blocking-out periods in my calendar when I’m most productive.

  15. gs says:

    what if you have a baby at home who wakes up at 7AM? i have to write elsewhere or get up at 5:00 and start writing. i say this because like most of the writers you cite, it does seem morning is the best time for me. something about that peak energy level.

  16. Study Hacks says:

    @gs:

    Leo over at Zen Habits solves the kid problem by waking up at 4:30. Stephen King used to hide in the boiler room. Short answer, I imagine: writing is hard with little kids around. But still possible!

  17. Ray King says:

    Such a productive research well reported!

    The timing is important. I have found out that when writing on some occasion it becomes compulsive to have to write all that fills your mind at the time. It could take several hours to do this, against the recommended 2,3 hours. So set your time appropriately with sufficient tolerance; there is no knowing when you will be in this frame of mind while writing.

    It also happens that fresh ideas flood your mind relating to even other issues you have written about or are yet to write about. At such moments I usually switch over to my jotter to record the substance of those ideas, usually in challenging style so as to provoke serious thought as regards when I RETURN TO CONSIDER THEM, with the end of winding myself back into the original frame of mind, at least. Like some Writers that I know have observed as well, it is difficult or time-consuming to try recall those ideas in scope and detail if you suspend attending to them in preference for concentrating on that you are currently working on.

  18. Roman says:

    Oh, I wish I could be the professional writer ( When I start writing I can’t find any appropriate words…

  19. Mike S says:

    Great article! I find that I usually get the most writing in by starting between 5:00 and 6:00 AM. The challenge is to timebox the wake up and read the NY Times preparation ritual so that enough time is left to actually crank out a reasonable amount of work before the kiddos wake up, or before it’s time to head out to the day job.

    I find it interesting that the aggregate result of your research very closely aligns to the writing philosophy taught by an adjunct professor at my local community college. He also writes in the morning with lots of coffee, and he is a strong advocate of free writing. He published a book about his writing techniques that you may find interesting – http://www.amazon.com/Write-Better-Get-Ahead-Work/dp/0595120199. And no, I don’t get paid and he doesn’t know I’m promoting his book :)

    Last but not least, I have found that the best way to both beat writers block and to get better at writing is to just do it. Actively examine what hack is best at getting you started and make a ritual of employing that hack every time you start out. I usually do best with a blend of freewriting and outlining. I’ll just dump out a bunch of sentences and phrases, then start rearranging them and expanding on them until I have a strong enough base to work from. It works for me, but of course each writer needs to find his own hook to get him engaged.

  20. Study Hacks says:

    @Mike:

    Great insight. I too was surprised by how much consistency there is between different writers and their habits.

  21. Love2write says:

    A previous boss told me that a writer should expect to produce no more than 500 words of GOOD text per day — even though a writer might commit a lot more words to a page in a day. That helps a person estimate how much time is needed to complete an assignment or story.

  22. Pingback: Baby-Parenting.com
  23. Interesting idea, and very helpful for students; I am not a formal “student,” but I do write, and I agree that the “jump in and start” thing is very important. When I was an art student, one of my professors had a similar approach. If a student was reluctant to get started drawing, he would throw their paper onto the floor and stomp it until was scuffed and dirty and no longer pristine. “There,” he would say. “Now it’s not perfect and you don’t have to be afraid of ruining it.”

    I noticed your list of “masters of long form non-fiction” includes only two women. I wonder if the results would have been different if you had been able to find more women writers. I am wondering specifically about the scheduling aspects.

  24. Brandon says:

    “Is there any worse feeling than staring at a half-completed term paper at 2 AM?”

    I couldn’t agree more!

    -Brandon
    StudyorFail.com

  25. Leo Valaunt says:

    Thank you for the information on the habits of some writers. What it comes down to is “Time Management”. It’s difficult these days but it can be done. Consistency is the key.

  26. Maribel says:

    I’m a native Spanish speaker. I hope you don’t find my English very strange.
    When I was writing my first dissertation I first tried to wake up early but it didn’t work. My mind is blank in the first hours of the morning (I’ve never been an early riser) Everyday, two or three hours after I woke up I began to feel that my mind finally cleared and I began to be productive. So, the first hours were extremely unproductive and I could say a loss of time. So, I decided to wake up late and begin to work after lunch (and I worked until 1 a.m.) Curiously, my mind is more clear and productive in the afternoon than just after I woke up. I envy all of you who can get up early and write, but I’m thinking that probably I’m not the only one that cannot write just after getting up.

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