The Power of a Writing Routine

Routines can be powerful drivers of human behavior. When we do certain things the same way every time, we are able to save our focus and brain power for the things that really need our attention. Moreover, a routine helps prepare you for engaging in a certain activity. In today’s post, I want to explore the power of a writing routine to help supercharge your writing activities.

the power of a writing routine

Photo credit: thespyglass

One of my favorite ways to think about academic work is to learn about the daily habits and processes of experts. My goal isn’t to copy what these experts do verbatim, but to think about how their process can inform my own.

Recently, Cal Newport described the writing and deep work habits of John Grisham. Newport’s blog is an interesting read along with his book that I’ve previously reviewed.

John Grisham is obviously one of the most prolific authors of his generation. Despite this, his writing routine is pretty simple (here is a video where he discusses it).

He has a small office separate from his house that has no phone or internet. He drinks the same coffee, sits in the same spot, and uses the same computer.

On January 1st of each year, Grisham starts writing a new novel. The bulk of the writing occurs January – March. He starts writing at 7am and finishes around 10am. Grisham writes five days a week.

During these writing sessions he writes about 2,000 words.

Think about that for a second. Grisham writes 3 hours a day, five days a week, and generally finishes a first draft by the end of 3 months. Given the typical session of 2,000 words, he has written about 130,000 words in that time.

In some ways that sounds like a herculean effort, but I am no John Grisham and I typically get about 2,000 words written in 3 hours as well. This means if I follow a writing routine in the same way that I can produce an amazing amount of text in 3 months.

Heck, even if I am only half as productive, I could have 60-70,0000 words written. I don’t know any faculty member that wouldn’t take that any day!

I love the fact that Grisham sets himself up to be successful by minimizing distraction and having a pretty structured routine.

Similarly, another prolific writer shows the power of a writing routine.

Stephen King is one of the most famous and productive writers.

The book, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, describes King’s writing routine:

“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea.”

“There’s a certain time I sit down from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained.

“I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

“It’s not any different than a bedtime routine,” he continued. “Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know.”

“And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.”

Each of these examples show the power of a writing routine and the importance both Grisham and King place on their routines.

As you think about their writing routines, a few questions arise that you can ask of your own routine.

The first question is obvious. Do you have a routine? If someone who is a full-time writer needs a routine, I would certainly argue those of us balancing other demands such as teaching and service along with data collection and analysis could benefit from one.

The next elements are remarkably consistent between Grisham and King.

What time are you going to start?

How long will you write in a session?

How many days will you write?

Where will you write?

How can you give yourself the same setup every time (music, computer, desk, chair, etc)?

The power of a writing routine is that all of these elements help get you in a good mental and physical place to productively write.

King’s analogy of the bedtime routine is quite appropriate. The structure of a writing routine gets you ready in the same way as the bedtime routine gets you ready to sleep.

Beyond the preparation, a writing routine helps eliminate possible distractions and causes of procrastination. If you know what you’re going to drink, for example, you don’t waste time debating the options at the coffee shop. The same is true for where you will go write or what music you will listen to while writing.

Eliminating these elements can help get you writing faster and more efficiently.

Do you have a writing routine? I’d love to hear from you on Twitter. What aspects of Grisham or King’s routines can you incorporate into your own writing efforts?