Tag Archives: John Steinbeck

On Routine and Discipline for Writers

It seems that we hold very firm ideas about writers and writing in our heads. It’s a cultural stereotype. It involves a man (see stats on publishing women writers) who is white and who shuts himself away at regular times in the day to sharpen his pencils and write his 1000 words. Say John Steinbeck (see Journal of a Novel).

And alongside this stereotype people just want to write rules for writers and for writing. There are 43 million rules for writers and 78 million rules for writing thrown up by a Google search. It seems that many people know the right way to write and to be a writer. They can’t all be writers, but they have an influence over what writers believe.

puppet writer

Let’s challenge all of this, and remember there are as many ways of writing as there are writers.

Exclusive assumptions about writers

We wouldn’t need the specialist prizes and lists if it was as easy for women, people of colour and of other minorities to be published as it is for white men.

And if there were a proven way to set about writing, we wouldn’t need those weekly columns about My Writing Day. We wouldn’t be endlessly interested in Roald Dahl’s hut, or JK Rowling at work in a café, or Jane Austen’s tiny writing table with easy to cover writing arrangements. Or a room of our own.

Jane Austen’s writing desk

Discipline and Routine

It is very common among beginner writers on courses to hear about the need for routine and for discipline. Writers, it is assumed, must be disciplined and must write every day, at the same time. In fact those two ideas – routine and discipline – have elided.

So I went looking for advice on routine and discipline among my how-to-write books. Guess what? I didn’t find any.


And I’m pleased because I hate the moral tone of this pseudo-guidance. Finger wagging. You are a weak person if you don’t meet your daily quota. You have failed if you did not write every morning this week. You should always have your day’s writing goal ready. This is the path to success and to moral worth.

Phooey. Here are some helpful ideas for writers from various sources about discipline and routine.

The Commitment to Write

Dorothea Brande wrote Becoming a Writer in the 1930s but it has not dated, except in its references to typewriters. She is very strong on the point that if you have made a commitment to writing, you should write. Even if it is difficult. Others refer to this as turning up at the page much as one turns up at the office. She says this:

Now this is very important, and can hardy be emphasized too strongly: you have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock write you must! No excuses can be given. … Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. (77)

I admit this has moral overtones, mostly about what is due to yourself as a writer. Dorothea Brande recognised that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a good time to write, but her prescription is to write anyway:

However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write. (77)

Discipline can be a good thing

Judy Reeves in Writing Alone, Writing Together reminds us that discipline has good aspects. The word comes from the Latin for learning and teaching and is reflected in disciple – a follower. She also points out that we need some discipline as writers in order to achieve our goals, such as the completion of a 300-page novel. (She is an American.)

Her advice is similar.

Just keep working. (10)

She admits that we may need to borrow discipline from time to time (eg commit to a group or to a fellow writer) but only so far as to create the space so that ‘the wild, free mind is set loose to roam’.

Too much discipline/routine may impede creativity

We adopt routines and develop habits precisely so we don’t have to think about these actions: cleaning teeth, washing up, putting one’s keys in the same spot and so on. But writers need to think about what they are doing. We don’t want to go on writing in the same rut because if we do we will continue to produce what we have always written.

And it may not be enough to vary writing practices, such as where and when you write, the font you use, using a pen or a keyboard, and other basic variations. More radical suggestions include taking classes, going to new places and meeting different people, changing the approach to or order of writing (eg not writing a story from start to finish).

In the Writing Group

When we discussed in our group how hard some writers were finding it to get started, other members of the group pitched in by suggesting that it’s passion, not discipline, that fuels writing. Write because you want to.

And we were reminded again of the importance of turning up to the page, of just writing.

I wrote about the un-necessity for rule for writers on this blog about a year ago: Writers, why don’t you tear up those rules?

I think we can develop our own image of the self as writer and it can be as idiosyncratic as suits us. The same goes for how we set about writing, our ’routines’. I’m all for indiscipline myself!

And, thanks for asking, the novel is coming along quite well.


Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck. Published in 1969 by Penguin Classics.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Published in 1934. I used the Putnam edition from 1980.

Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. Published by the New World Library in 2002.

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Photo credits:

Puppet writer: cuellar on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

Admonition: Jerry Bowley on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

clock: Photo on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/261774″>VisualHunt</a>

Schedule: illustir on Visual Hunt / CC BY

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Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing