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Should We Work Like Novelists?


The Habits of a Writer

As I continue to clear out my queue after my end-of-semester blogging hiatus, there’s another article to mention that recently caught my attention. The fantasy author George R. R. Martin, it turns out, writes his books using Word Star, an ancient word processor that runs on DOS (see the screenshot above).

“It does everything I want a word processing program to do and it doesn’t do anything else,” he explained.

Martin is not the only fiction writer with idiosyncratic rituals surrounding his work. Neil Gaiman, for example, famously does much of writing long hand, and Stephen King is very particular about his desk.

This interests me because fiction writers are the epitome of deep workers (to make any progress, fiction writing requires your full concentration), and many of them, like Martin, Gaiman, and King, seem to rely on unusual but well-honed habits to get them into this mindset.

A natural question arises from this observation: Should those of us who work deeply in other fields follow their example?

This has been on my mind recently. In my pursuit to improve my ability to work deeply, I’ve paid a lot of attention to issues like scheduling (e.g., blocks versus lists) and tracking (e.g., milestones versus hour tallies). Like many knowledge workers, however, I’m  haphazard about the physical details that surround this work. I don’t have a special location or special tools I always use. I don’t have a head clearing ritual or hike to a hidden glen to tackle my knottiest problems.

But the more I hear about the habits of professional deep workers like novelists, the more I wonder if I should.

One of my goals this summer is to experiment more with the intensity piece of deep work (as I introduced in a recent blog post), and working with depth-inducing  habits and rituals of the type described above should be part of this experimenting. With this in mind, if you’ve found any such behavior useful in your own (deep) work, let me know about it in the comments.


Unrelated note: My friend Laura Shin, who writes from, and has been nice enough to feature me in some of her articles, just published an ebook, The Millennial Game Plan, which collects the best of her writing. She touches on a lot of issues we like to discuss here.

46 thoughts on “Should We Work Like Novelists?”

  1. One key to being a productive writer is to have workaholic parents. The fact that you grew up watching adults who were always busy means that, unless you rebel, you’ll behave much the same. But alas, that’s not a choice we can make and having that inclination ourselves is more than just a matter of choosing. It’s a Catch-22. It takes self-discipline to exercise self-discipline and delay gratification.

    If you want to see that hilariously illustrated, check out the “marshmallow test” videos on Youtube. Will the kid eat one marshmallow now or wait a few minutes and get two? Writing is like that. Working on that book now only brings a reward months later.

    –Michael W. Perry, Lily’s Ride (young adult novel set in post-Civil War NC)

  2. My “deep work” is academic or contract computer programming. To do something new, innovative, and difficult I have to get in the “zone”. I’ve called it this since I started coding in the 80’s. It’s a period of intense focus and productivity that lasts between 3 and 14 hours on a good day. I get in the zone and beautiful code flows from my fingers. An intense high.

    But… as a child of the 80’s and a computer fan for decades, I am also an avid gamer. For me computers are both the central workplace and the living room… I don’t watch TV with my family, we play video games together. Thus, for me, the PLACE can’t change much; it’s my desk, it’s got a big honking computer on it, and that’s where I work and that’s where I typically play.

    I have to CHANGE the place without moving, and for me that means rebooting into a different operating system image. When I am playing, I have a boot image that has all my games and is optimized for video performance. My browser bookmarks are gaming related. If I reboot into my work image, it has only programming tools, MATLAB, terminals, etc. My browser bookmarks there are language reference documents and StackOverflow. In the morning of a day when I have “deep focus” time set aside, I read the news on my gaming boot until my second cup of coffee, then I reboot into my working setup and get to work. Even the background color of the computer desktop is different. One color means “play time” and the other means “work time”.

    The end of the “work day” is when I back up that day’s work and reboot into my personal, recreational operating system where my games are.

    This rock-hard separation of work and play works for me, but I’m a weird bird. YMMV

    • I would guess that’s why WordStar works. Not because it’s the most amazing writing tool ever created in the history of mankind, but because it’s so different that it’s an unmissable signal to do something different.

  3. Thanks for the post Cal.

    1) One of my favorite books is by choreographer Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit. She connects habits to the creative process. Her chapter on “ritual” is superb. She recommends small rituals that trigger other critical activities. For her the ritual is getting in a taxi.
    2) I enjoy my habit of preparation in the morning. Step on the scale (ritual) – yoga — breakfast – prayer, meditation, and reflection. Then I go on with my day centered and hopefully reproducing the simplicity of my morning routine.
    3) After 35 years in management/leadership, the most effective and satisfied people I see have habits, rituals, and particular ways of arranging their work areas.

  4. SciFi writer Robert Sawyer also uses WordStar – here’s his excellent explanation:

    Focused work goes better with focused tools. WordStar was the last word processor that was truly aimed at writers. Untold wealth awaits the small software shop that will build an up-to-date writing application with WordStar’s word-juggling tools, updated to include useful features (research notes and reference database, etc.). Everyone writes, and those who take it seriously will be happy to climb a bit of a learning curve.

  5. I’m a mathematician, and for me the biggest thing is staying off the computer. I try to do all my writing longhand and my reading on paper.

    It can be difficult when writing long papers to keep things in order, but I find this is a feature, not a bug: I have to think more carefully about the organization, and I have to keep refining and condensing. I batch type, so when I am sitting at the computer I am only typing, not thinking.

    Similarly with looking things up: I work off of the physical papers and books I have available. If I have a question whose answer I suspect exists in the literature, rather than go to the computer, I try to work it out myself. If I still feel the need to look it up at the end of the day, I make a note. I try to sit on these notes for about a week, before I go to MathSciNet or arxiv to start looking for things. Often, the things I wanted to look up either got resolved or turned out to be irrelevant by that time.

    When I work with collaborators, I have to work in a more conventional way (writing back and forth from TeX file, going back and forth to the computer to look things up), so I have a basis for comparison. The work done conventionally has more scurrying about into dead ends. It is often stronger in content in the end (I work with smarter people than me after all), but the concepts are muddled and the writing is ugly, in comparison to when I think things through totally on paper.

    I try to keep journal-style notebooks as I am working. My model here is something like the early years of Quillen’s notebooks, although I am lucky if I can achieve 1/10 the clarity or depth of those.

    I don’t know if there is any inherent problem with working on the computer, but it is a serious problem for me. Working with the computer handy keeps me from really thinking things through myself: it’s too easy to hope that someone else has written the answer someplace. It also keeps me from really grappling with tough issues: it’s too easy for me to pop over and check my email or the news or whatever. So much so that I have been experimenting with keeping the computer out of my reach entirely: I try to leave my laptop at the office if I know I will be working seriously at home, or vice-versa. I am finding that even having the option of distracting myself on the computer is distracting, and that knowing there is no computer available eliminates a buzzing in my head that I didn’t realize was there until it stopped.

    The computer is great for some things – looking up papers, reading interesting blogs! – but, at least for me, not for working.

    (Although, looking back over what I have written, I have to admit that the other expectations of my job, together with my own human frailty, conspire to make the system I describe above more ideal than reality much of the time.)

  6. Cal,

    I can relate to the use of a special word processor. I recently downloaded an open source word processor to avoid supporting Microsoft even tacitly. And, I have been trying for some time to find a email program that looks like the ancient word processor in your post.

    In terms of rituals before deep work, I wrote the following in my most recent post ( : A practice I have found helpful is to “do nothing” for a few minutes before starting any concentrated time of work. Different thoughts come: “You should send this email, or don’t forget this appointment.” If the task is small, I do it right then. And, if not, I write it down to do later. Then, I remind myself that what I’m about to do is all I need to worry about for the next however many minutes or hours.

    Thanks for the post,


    • Hello Blake

      Just a word up- we met the other day in GG. We spoke about the IL. I happen to love this blog, and I am happily surprised to see you reading it as well.


  7. I use a technique that my mentor and I have developed over the course of 20 years together.

    It’s simple to learn and simple to use. Most importantly, it’s quick to use and get into the mind state you are talking about.

    I’m currently using it to develop a product for a billion dollar company. I distilled 8 years of work and understanding by physicians, nutritionists, and other health experts down to a weekend of learning and I know their systems better than they do now.

    Keep in mind that I’m just an ordinary guy. I have no formal training in their disciplines. I don’t need it. I am trained in learning and applying concepts. Knowledge work at its core.

    The technique involves meditative practices that haven’t been used like this before. We took the inspiration for them by studying famous thinkers like Edison, Da Vinci, Galileo, and directly related here, several novelists including Lewis Carol who saw “movies” of his books and wrote down what he saw in a daydream. Of course, this was before movies were even invented.

    Your physical space may be important, but you’re looking in the wrong place. The physical places in your mind need organizing. That’s where you do the work. Great thinkers often have messy desks. Their minds are always clear when they do their best work though.

  8. For writing I use IAWriter (full screen) to get into flow . For editing, rewriting, organising I use Scrivener. It would be interesting to write a blog post showcasing fiction/non-fiction writers workflow.

  9. Not sure there’s any merit in copying the habits of novelists. Procrastination is an occupational hazard facing most writers and the successful ones become almost superstitious about whatever mechanisms they can use to beat it. The thing is: they’re personal. Using Wordstar. Writing by hand. Having a special desk. Those things work if you’re George R.R. Martin. Neil Gaiman. Or Stephen King. There’s nothing magic about any of them. But they work for those writers. Me? I’m a big believer in Carol Dweck’s work on the importance of growth mindsets vs fixed mindsets. This does way more for me than a desk or an operating system…

  10. You could also work like an artist. Tom Sachs and his “Ten Bullets” comes immediately to mind: His habit of “knolling” is a very important part of my end-of-working-day routine.

    My favorite ritual to prepare myself for beginning work in my studio is to finish up my household chores by sweeping the floor. Many artists have similar ways of cleaning the mental slate.

    I also think of my studio as my sanctuary. I don’t do anything that is not related to drawing or painting there.

  11. Eight comments, and only three of them seem to have been written to add value to the discussion vs. to promote the author’s own website. Cut it out, guys, it’s irritating.

    In any case, count me among those who has a very different experience writing longhand than on the computer. I find that longhand works best when I need to rethink something, to reimagine what my argument is and how its pieces fit together. (Longhand, and talking out loud; I spend a lot of time wandering around my neighborhood explaining things to myself, like a crazy person.) Often what I write starts out like a journal, or a letter to myself or a friend, explaining why I am stuck, and then begins to transition into sentences that I can use–sentences that are better than what I would have written on my keyboard, I think. On the other hand, at a certain point the thoughts start coming so fast that I want the computer to get them all down in time.

    For me, the most helpful thing was getting rid of the internet at home (I also don’t have a smartphone). I batch the internet in much the way that the mathematician who posted above does.

    • What do you mean by “written to add value.” I’m not trying to be thick, I was just thinking to myself how much I prefer the comments section on Cal’s site to others I’ve seen.

      Particularly: Daphne’s post, which eventually led to an interesting Atlantic piece (; Andrew, who linked to the Quillen books, which I’d never heard of; and Mark, who linked to another deep work piece.

      The other discussions on personal routines were interesting enough though.

      • No objection to any of those; I was talking about a whole slew (which I think have actually now been removed) that were a transparent excuse to link to the commenter’s own blog.

        Maybe the reason why the comments here are better than at a lot of other blogs is that such comments are eventually removed.

        • Ahhh yes. The self-promoters. I can’t stand those either.

          The spam protection on Cal’s site seem to be pretty good, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they were deleting these types of posts. I’m all for free speech, but it’s great when we can have these types of curated communities.

  12. I do miss WordStar.

    My take on this is that the writers are trying to reduce distractions and irritants to a minimum. A recent post over on brainpickings noted that we can lose focus in as little as 2.8 seconds. With WordStar, for instance, not having to reach for a mouse or trackpad meant you didn’t lose focus.

    The control key on 80s keyboards was where the caps lock key is on modern keyboards, making the control key easy to reach with the little finger of your left hand. Most WS commands used the control key in one or two (occasionally, three) commands.

    I point that out because it meant the commands, once learned, could be used as automatically as typing. Muscle memory took over from having to be aware of anything but the work itself. Rearranging a sentence or a paragraph was as easy as typing.

    I should also note that the image at the head of this post is of a “beginner’s screen” and that the menu at the top can be gotten rid of so you have the whole screen for your work. It was monospaced type, like courier, and with a few dot commands at the beginning of the file (e. g., for double-spacing and page length) you could get a close approximation to a standard manuscript page.

    A fountain pen writing on smooth paper can make hand writing almost effortless. You can write for a long time before your hand begins to tire or ache.

    The desk, too, matters. I envy Mr. King his perfect desk. Most standard desks (~29”–30” high) are too high for me and become uncomfortable after an hour or so.

    All small distractions and irritations, I grant you, but working to eliminate them makes them that much less likely to interrupt your work.

    One more example (again, with a starting point at a brainpickings post): B F Skinner noticed that he kept getting out of his chair while trying to write a paper. After paying attention for a bit (he was, apparently, very big into self-monitoring), he realized that his chair seat was uncomfortable. He took a knife to it and dug out the offending foam, then taped it up and afterward could write for much longer at a time. (Note that that was long before ergonomic chairs.)

    Dare I say that WordStar was the Aeron chair of its time? A bit ugly, somewhat fussy, but once it was set up just right, you didn’t even notice it anymore. No distractions, no irritations, just the words.

    • You hit on a lot of the reasons WS was a terrific tool for writers. I was considering an investment in Scrivener. Have you used it, and if so, do you think it’s worth it?

      • Aaron,

        I use and love Scrivener, though for years I used Word and added macros that (somewhat) mimicked WordStar’s commands. Since I was limited to single-letter commands, it didn’t completely recreate the WS experience, but it helped.

        Scrivener is more of a writer environment than just a word processor (though it does have a full screen feature that reduces visual clutter when you need to focus on just writing).

        Have you tried the trial? It can be fussy and overwhelming at first, but — like WordStar — once you know it and have it set up, it can make a writer’s work much easier. I consider it a trusted system (to use David Allen’s phrase).

        Best of luck with your work.

        • Thanks! Downloaded the free trial, and so far so good. You’re spot on in terms of it being a “writer’s environment,” and hopefully it will help streamline some of the editing/re-writing habits I’ve picked up over the years. Any suggestions with Scrivener on particularly long projects (35,000 words +)?

  13. I’m a software developer, now with more project management duties than strictly technical duties, but I still insist on setting up all of my computers and workstations the same way. I don’t want to have to think about where keys are on various keyboards that I use or where to double-click a given shortcut. I can quickly recreate the essentials of my work environment so that I can concentrate on the task at hand.

  14. Microsoft Word is evil for writing first drafts because it gets you into editing mode too early. Auto correct and underlining the spelling and grammar errors switch one from creative mode to correcting mode too early.

    I do most of my drafts on paper — preferably on an outdoor reclining chair, cat permitting. If only I could read my own handwriting later…

    For high level thinking, I like big sheets of paper: 11×17 works nice. Making blocks of text/diagrams on a wide sheet gets me out of linear mode. I can work in the order that thoughts come to me vs. the order they need to be in the final product.

    I find that nagging editors also get in the way of creativity when writing code. Integrated Development Environments are great for maintaining big code that has grown over multiple years. But to get started I love working with something simpler like vi or Notepad++. I just spent the last couple weeks relearning java and building a photo manipulation applet using just Notepad++ and the command line tools that come with the JDK. No IDE. No Eclipse. No makefiles or ant scripts. No debugger — just System.out.printf when needed.

    Yes, I fumble-fingered many times on the command line. And yes, looking things up on Oracles’ poorly maintained web site is a bother. But it’s still better than dealing with the distractions and mental overhead of a full featured IDE.

  15. as an overly connected and highly distractable knowledge worker/writer (thesis and more creative stuff), I’ve been vaguely wondering for a while now if there were some sort of portable word processor, without Internet connectivity. I considered a netbook with the wifi ripped out but still don’t need access to all the possible stuff I could put on it, and wanted a full keyboard as well. the problem for me with specialized software is that it’s still resident on my lovely Mac and irrevocably connected to the internet, which means that despite all the willpower/Leechblock functionality i can muster, there’s always a way to outsmart myself and procrastinate from deep work.

    thanks to your post I finally looked into it, and one possible solution I’m about to try is this: a portable word processor, cheaper than most netbooks, the Alphasmart Neo2 (eg, see or just enough to type lots of words (I often work in cafes, and even at home and university I would welcome the ritual of turning to an entirely new environment that is ONLY for writing. I considered longhand, but this way I don’t have to do the double-duty of transcribing to computer). uploading to the laptop later, I’m thinking, would also give the side benefit of second-layer editing. we’ll see if that’s better or worse than than the more circular process I usually use to write, whereby I edit as I go – I end up with a closer-to-finished product but doing so can also break the flow, distract, and sometimes just leads to blockage. anyway, a new experiment I’ve long wanted to try – I can report back later.

    • When I draft things out longhand, it’s my draft zero. There are usually big chunks missing, lots of crossing outs (some of which subsequently gets resurrected) and it’s not written in order. Typing it in to the computer (to make draft one) means that the wording is quite heavily edited: I don’t ‘transcribe’ it, I reword it.

  16. Dear Cal,

    If I may just say–and I understand that you might not be that receptive to the opinion of a random stranger on the internet–but in light of your recent posts I think you may want a little outside perspective.

    I think you must an extremely intelligent and hardworking person, but even people of your caliber can get caught up in perhaps insignificant details–I wonder if perhaps worrying about the idiosyncrasies of a handful of famous authors is a very refined form of procrastination. I wonder if maybe you would be better served to “let go” every now and then of your ambitions rather than zero in on little things like someone’s preference for a certain desk or word processor. Perhaps that would give you more of the creative energy you need to do your research.

    I’ve seen over and over again that only two things really matter when you build a successful career: the merit of your product and the steps you take to sell it. Your energy is very precious; I don’t think you want to waste it on insignificant stuff.

    The previous commenter who mentioned that superstition is what leads certain successful people to credit their desk or word processor for their success–artists are superstitious. She might be right.

    • SB,

      It depends on what the work is. Any work that is dependent on a person working / being in a mental construct of some sort, as novelists, programmers and coders, and (I assume) mathematicians do, distractions and irritations that knock you out of that mental focus state can mean lost hours (or days) trying to regain an almost-grasped idea, if they ever can.

      Imo, anything that can be done to keep that focus is not trivial in the least.

    • “The merit of your product and the steps you take to sell it.”

      One part of Cal’s portfolio of “products” could be described as deliberate work applied to career building. This blog (and content like this piece) is one of the steps he takes to sell it.

      He’s not procrastinating, he’s converting his bite-sized thoughts into hits, and hits into potential book-buyers.

  17. Novelists are no better focused than the rest of us. They suffer the usual temptations, email and the net, and can go in and out of concentrations like any of us. Some very good ones parallel process.
    But the best ones turn off email and the net while they are writing, else they cannot consider themselves to be serious writers.
    A good little book on craft that has helped me in fiction writing is George Leonard’s “Mastery.” His working metaphor is the martial arts, but the building of craft toward mastery is the same for many fields.
    I particularly like his notion of “working the plateau.” One works the plateau of craft, not worrying much with bumping up to a higher status. If a higher level happens, well nice, but if it does not happen then it is still nice. The master knows and loves his craft.

  18. Cal,

    Consider Gall’s law. If you wish to create a more complex ritual to ease the process of slipping into deep practice, don’t start by trying to create one from scratch, use the normal things you do, which do work, as your clay.

    Mine is my Kaweco fountain pen; a no-line, brown, A5, moleskin notebook; headphones with music; and a quiet, public place like a library. Someday I may have the hand-built log cabin in the mountains with a personal library and outdoor hot spring; but when I do, it will be with my pen, notebook and music.

    My two cents,

  19. Peter Drucker was an early expert on management and knowledge work.

    He was into effectivity and efficiency: efficiency being doing things right, and effectivity being doing the right things.

    He observed that highly effective knowledge workers had one thing in common: They all had a highly systematic approach to their work.

    The other commonality was that their systems were all different.

    The point is that it takes careful experimentation to find out what system works best for you.

    The basic distinction that can be made that some people are listeners, other learn best through speaking, i.e. explaining things aloud, maybe even to themselves, others are readers, and again others are writers.

    Personally, I thought for many years that I am a reader, but I found out a few years ago that I am really a writer: I learn best if I re-write something in a manner that is visually appealing, well-structured to serve my own thinking and easy to re-read. Unfortunately, this is also relatively time consuming.

    E.g. when dealing with a math heavy text, and I find that some derivation is too short for my taste, I re-write it with enough detail so I can very easily follow it later.

    I use my notebook with Texmaker for that, and sometimes squared paper with a fountain pen, and other times blank paper with pencil, depending on my mood.

    The point is that I think there is little merit in simply copying the habits of famous writers, like using WordStar under DOS, but that it’s of paramount importance to find out how your own brain really works and tailor your working habits to the way your brain really works.

  20. Some important lessons from a human computer interaction course that are applicable to writing as well:

    1) Design so that users (readers) get queues about what they should do (expect).
    2) Always think about the user (reader) perspective.
    3) Users tend to give more and better feedback when shown a hand drawn sketch of a user interface on paper compared to a running prototype.

    The effect in #3 was observed in scientific experiments, but underlying causes are hard to prove in a mathematical sense. The best guess was that users did not want to create a lot of trouble for the interface designer, and suggesting big changes to a running prototype might cause a lot of work, whereas big changes to a paper sketch could be made in a matter of minutes.

    The guess seems plausible, and if that is something slightly more general that could carry over to editing as well: as writers we’re less likely to make changes that cut major parts of a text or force us to completely rework a section/chapter that appear finished.

    Beyond the ritual aspects, WordStar would help with making things seem less polished since they are outright ugly, and that would make writers do more and heavier editing which would improve quality. I write a lot of my text that doesn’t contain a many equations in a full-screen mode using Remington Noiseless as font. I’m not too concerned whether it’s all imagined benefits or not, the important thing is that I show up for work and start writing and editing.

    David Hewson is another writer who has a blog where he sometimes posts about his work environment. He has also used a type writer font, and seems to do a lot of his writing in Scrivener.

  21. By far, the most important habit that I’ve used to help me focus is meditation. You don’t need to be an “expert” at it – you just need to do it. But it’s not something that come may come easily – if you find it difficult, I suggest starting at 5m and adding 1m a day until you hit 15-20m. And it may take about 8 weeks before noticing any effects.

  22. I’m now trying to write a fiction book. The thing is – the only thought I’ve put into it has come from a dream. I’m not saying I don’t like that. It’s just that I only saw a random scene and now I’m writing the entire into and I’m not sure how I’m even going to get there.. any ideas?

    To concentrate all I had to do was remember what I saw. Sadly I spent too long pondering whether typing up a dream was a good idea or not (to turn it into a book ) and in the meanwhile lost some focus about the dream I just had. Half and hour passed before I actually got to work.

  23. John Ralston Saul often writes his novels in isolation, he goes to a northern town deep in Iqaluit and spends time in a cabin without any distractions just concentrating on his work.

    I also use an editor that only edits and does nothing else, Sam, written by Rob Pike. Other people who use Sam: Ken Thompson, Brian Kernighan, Bjarne Stroustrup


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