Do writers really need a routine?

Writers should write at the same time every day. It’s one of those pieces of advice that you read in creative writing books, are told on creative writing courses and is repeated on Twitter Tips for Writers. I read it again yesterday. Routines are good for writers, apparently. It puzzles me. What kind of life allows writers to have these routines?

I guess people with regular work commitments, people who have to get their kids off to school every day, people with compulsive behaviour patterns, these people might benefit from this advice. Or rather not benefit from this advice because they already are constrained by their schedules to write at the same time every day. It’s the only time they have.

For the people with irregular lives it’s no help at all. I prefer Dorothea Brande’s idea of making an appointment each day, a commitment to write*. You make it for the time that day that suits you, fits in with the other things you have to do – take the grandson to pre-school, lead a coaching meeting, catch the Mayflower Express from Paddington, attend a Pilates sessions, meet with co-writers and with the writing group – that kind of thing. You make the appointment and you turn up and write. Dorothea Brande calls it engaging to write. She also warns

Your agreement [to write] is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. (Becoming a Writer p77)

I don’t respond well to this kind of moral pressure myself, anymore than to prescriptions about routines. But sometimes writers need to treat themselves with more respect by keeping to the engagement, ensuring it takes precedence over sharpening pencils, emptying the dishwasher and checking emails.

21 Brande

She recommends a second exercise, which she calls early morning writing. If it weren’t a bit clunky I’d prefer to call it First Thing in the Morning Writing, because I see no intrinsic value in it being early. Becoming a Writer was published in 1934 and Julia Cameron credited it as ‘the best book on writing I have ever found’. She adapted the idea of early morning writing in The Artist’s Way in 1993, using the phrase Morning Pages.

21 Artists Way

I’m hooked, but it’s the closest to a routine I’ll get. Every morning – except Saturday – I get up at a good hour, make a pot of coffee and go to my writing room. I write two A4 pages by hand in a notebook. I’ve been doing it for nearly three years, and have filled 23 notebooks, about 2000 pages. I’ve recently been thinking that I should change and start my day by going for a walk instead. But I haven’t tried it. I think there is something too active about having to get up, dress and go outside. I shuffle upstairs in my dressing gown and hand-knitted socks with my coffee tray and that’s about enough effort for me.

I am a bit of a sucker for courses in books – six week diets, two months to get fit by walking, write a novel in a week … that kind of thing. I had some difficulty sticking with the 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way. Partly this is because I am not at ease with it being ‘a spiritual path to a higher creativity’ but I stuck with it because of the idea of the Artist’s Date. No this is not the renaming of the engagement, but a deliberate arrangement to indulge your artistic nature: a walk, a visit to an exhibition, an old movie, that kind of thing, by yourself – or as Julia Cameron puts it, in the company of your artist self.

Since I started I have modified her routine of Morning Pages so that

  • I write two pages, not the recommended three.
  • I reflect upon my writing life, successes, problems, challenges and so on.
  • I identify insights, learnings, ‘to do’ points and achievements in a monthly review.

Morning Pages loosen me up for the day’s writing, enables reflection and problem-solving. I explore my writing fears and problems, include liberal and useful comments from my Inner Critic (I wrote about him earlier). I rehearse ideas, images, sequences. I record my Artist’s Treats. I comment on books as I read them, ideas for the blog …

21.Morning `Pages

Writing about her own diaries (which she might have called After Tea Pages) Virginia Woolf recorded this:

‘… the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles … I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my causal half hours after tea.’ (A Writer’s Diary, April 20th 1919)

‘For my eye only’, except that her diaries were edited and published, but the point was that these were for her own purposes, to loosen the ligaments. I’ve no idea which ligaments, perhaps just metaphorical ones, but I’ll not argue with the good practice, even if I can’t write at the same time every day.

Do you need routine in your writing? Which do you find helpful?


*Thank you Lynda from the King’s Place Writing Group for first pointing out the idea of the writing appointment to us.


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5 Responses to Do writers really need a routine?

  1. Jim

    I wish I could keep this kind of daily discipline/routine. Setting up a todo list for tomorrow at the end of each day, reading a few pages each week, phoning my mum regularly…. But whenever I set out to do so, I fail at the first hurdle. After years of feeling like a failure, I’ve decided that’s just not me. Most stuff gets done – it takes a deadline to get me to do it, but I rarely miss one. Now I’ve accepted that, and I don’t feel like a serial failer any more.

    Thanks for thoughtful words.


    • Caroline

      Hi Jim, Great phrase. ‘A serial failer’ – that’s the kind of self-description that unhelpful advice encourages. It makes us ignore all the serial successes. Glad you don’t feel that way any more.
      You’re a serial deadline meeter, which is more than most of my students can claim.
      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Eileen

    I write whenever I get the chance. Today for example, I wrote on the tube to The Tate and on the way back. I was so engrossed I almost went past my stop and had to clutch the papers to my bosom. People were shocked when I said Shit out loud. Mornings are my best time for writing, but they are my best time for everything and I have to fit in Pilates or the gym. When I was writing my PhD I got up at 5.30 every morning and woke non-stop till 8 then had my bath and got dressed. I think it is men who talk about the routine because often they don’t have to think so much about domestic duties or childcare. Now I often start writing in the afternoons but have a break to watch Pointless and then write again till dinner. I can’t write too late in the evenings as I have to do something mindless in order to get to sleep. The Artist’s Way is one of my favourite books. My partner Isobel gave it to me. It was her first gift to me before we got together.

  3. Sue

    I like the idea of a routine but I just don’t see where or when I could do this. I think your point about male writers is correct, though I’m sure men might disagree, but finding time to write among a full time job and a baby is pretty difficult. My house isn’t even that tidy! I have enrolled on short courses just to have something that justifies my taking time out of my day to sit down and write, I figured once I’d got those done I’d see a way of working that I could carry on. But I think it may have to be a flexible habit! We’ll see. Thanks for this – posts like this are useful to us aspiring writers that not everyone is the same and that we aren’t failing.

    • Caroline

      Hi Sue,
      thank you for your comments here. You are so right – we are not all the same, and the wrong advice can make you feel like a failure, or as Jim says – a serial failer. I like your idea of enrolling on courses to justify carving out the time. Perhaps Dorothea Brande’s idea of making an appointment with your self is a little like that. I am not surprised it is difficult to find writing time with a baby and a full time job. Hope you manage to keep at it.
      Good luck with your writing.
      (PS do writers need tidy houses?)

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