7 Writing Habits of Select Literary Greats

Photo by Rawpixel

Photo by Rawpixel

Our writing habits are a reflection of our creative process, completely unique to ourselves.

They’re also, at times, indicative of the kind of work we produce and our attitude surrounding the craft. And while adopting other people’s habits won’t necessarily result in your achieving their exact level of brilliant mastery (if only it were that easy!), testing out a new routine or habit is a good way to find your ideal writing practice.

So, without further ado, here’s a short list of highly effective habits practiced by some of our literary greats—with a few resources and inspirational quotes thrown in for good measure.

Early to Rise

A healthy sleep pattern is essential for any writer (hello coffee dependency!). Sleep affects your mood, your productivity, and your concentration. Not surprisingly, many successful writers are early risers. In Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, the author famously says the following about his morning routine:

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” 

— Ernest Hemingway

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings spends hundreds of hours each month writing articles, so naturally she’s done quite a bit of research on famous writers. She created this handy data visualization called “Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity”. Featuring 37 writers, it illustrates their sleeping habits and compares it to their literary success. Some of the earliest risers include Sylvia Plath (4am), Kurt Vonnegut (6am), and Charles Dickens (7am). Yawn.


Repetition and Routine

Establishing a routine is key to achieving your goals. The mental and physical discipline that comes along with creating an attainable daily or weekly goal can help you get into the right headspace and ultimately increase your productivity. Remember, the important thing isn’t necessarily that you complete every single thing you’ve planned, but rather that you follow the framework you’ve put in place for yourself to the best of your ability. Haruki Murakami famously discussed how routine helped him reach a deeper state of mind in this 2004 Paris review interview with John Wray:   

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

— Haruki Murakami


Write Every Single Day

It’s no secret that practice makes perfect. Many literary greats emphasize that writing every single day is essential to their craft. But the fact is, we don’t always have time to devote to larger projects every day. If that’s the case, writing a to-do list, some emails, or even a diary entry will keep you in practice for the next time you sit down to write. In A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf’s personal journal, Woolf shares some rare insights into her craft, including techniques and writing exercises. In one compelling passage, she writes:

“But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.” 

— Virginia Woolf


Keep a Diary

We’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the pleasures and pains of writing through the many published diaries of our literary greats. As a writing ritual, the act of journalling nurtures self-reflection, archives personal experiences, and also encourages the practice of writing. Documenting your daily musings may not seem like an important exercise for your, ahem, “real” work, but we all need a low-stakes environment now and then where we can hone our voice and experiment without consequences. A diary is the perfect place to do it. 

In 1946, Anaïs Nin gave a lecture on writing (later adapted into a chapbook called On Writing), in which she discussed the benefits of keeping a diary. 

“It was while writing a diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments. Keeping a diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing. When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.”

— Anaïs Nin

Check out JEC’s Instagram account where you’ll find more musings on the subject from our fabulous founder and editor-in-chief, Kate. 

Carry a Notebook

As any writer knows, good ideas come when you’re least prepared: grocery shopping, falling asleep, riding the bus, or taking a shower are some of creativity’s favourite times to show up. Having a notebook handy is an easy way to make sure you’re prepared when the need arises—although we do advise leaving it out of the tub. In A Handbook for the Productive Writer: 33 Ways You Can Finish What You Started, the author recounts his favourite story about Roald Dahl and the moment in which he came up with the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Stuck in traffic with no notebook or pen to hand, Dahl stepped outside and wrote “chocolate” on the side of his dusty car. 

“You work it out and play around with it. You doodle… you make notes… it grows, it grows…”

— Roald Dahl


Physical Comfort

Between your phone, noisy traffic outside, or the pile of dishes you have to do, there’s always going to be something to distract you. Don’t let it be your aching back! While many successful writers eat healthy diets and exercise regularly, one piece of advice shared by Margaret Atwood certainly sticks out. During this Reddit “Ask me anything” session, she suggested the following: 

“Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”

— Margaret Atwood

We sit on chairs for hours on end and rarely consider the physical strain we might be causing our backs. Check out this Fast Company article called “5 Simple Exercises To Fix The Damage Your Desk Job Does” for some easy advice and how to avoid those aches and pains. 


Spend Time with Friends

During intensive writing periods it’s easy to lose touch with the outside world. Sometimes this is beneficial to feeding creative productivity, but it can also negatively affect your mental health and your social life. Though the struggle to actually get into one of these intense states is all too real, what can be equally difficult is knowing when to walk away and give yourself a much-needed break. Leave your writing bubble and spend time with some friends—you’ve earned it! Not only will it give your brain a little breathing room, but the time away from your desk might even feed your ideas. 

Henry Miller would often meet with friends and read in cafés as part of his daily routine. While writing his first novel The Tropic of Cancer, he devised 11 Commandments of Writing, which can be found in Henry Miller on Writing. Take note of number 7:

“Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.”

— Henry Miller


Before we wrap up, I want to share with you some of my own writing advice: Take some time to reflect and experiment. Identify the right conditions and environment you need for success. And remember that everyone is different. Strategies, techniques, and habits that work for others may not work for you—and vice versa. 

If you have anything to add, please share your advice in the comments below or on social media. We want to hear about the writing life from you, too! 

Happy writing!

—Jaime Clifton-Ross

Interested in learning how a professional editor can help you get your novel published? Download our free publishing guidebook for a step-by-step guide to achieving your publishing dreams!


JEC BLOG

Writing about writing.


Categories


BLOG TEAM

KATE JUNIPER   Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. She's inspired, most often, to write about writing and how women (writers) can fix the world. She has a lot of opinions, actually.

KATE JUNIPER

Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. She's inspired, most often, to write about writing and how women (writers) can fix the world. She has a lot of opinions, actually.

HAYLEY EVANS   Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including  Scene 360  and  Illusion Magazine .

HAYLEY EVANS

Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine.

GEORGIA RUDELOFF   Georgia is JEC's Content Writer, a published poet, and past Poetry Editor for  This Side of West,  Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for  The   Albatross , and Contributing Writer for  The Martlet  and  Saltern Magazine.

GEORGIA RUDELOFF

Georgia is JEC's Content Writer, a published poet, and past Poetry Editor for This Side of West, Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for The Albatross, and Contributing Writer for The Martlet and Saltern Magazine.

JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS   Jaime is a Research Curator at Royal Roads University and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Communications Specialist.

JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS

Jaime is a Research Curator at Royal Roads University and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Communications Specialist.