Writing Rituals and Routines

How to Become a More Disciplined Writer

writing rituals
"If one wants to write," said novelist Graham Greene, "one simply has to organize one's life in a mass of little habits" (Conversations With Graham Greene, 1991). (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Some of us follow routines that help us avoid writing—visiting YouTube, checking text messages, peering inside the refrigerator. But when we get serious about writing (or when deadlines loom), more purposeful rituals are required.

Professional authors generally agree that writing calls for discipline. But how exactly do we find—or impose—that sense of discipline when we sit down to write? About this there's some disagreement, as these eight writers demonstrate.

Madison Smartt Bell's First Priority

"Make it the first priority of the day (and the week). The trick is to reserve at least a couple of hours of your best-energy time for writing what you want to write, every day if possible...When doesn't matter, but reserving the time does. Devote your best hours to your own work and do whatever else you have to do afterward."
(Madison Smartt Bell, quoted by Marcia Golub in I'd Rather Be Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 1999)

Stephen King's Routine

"There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There's a certain time I sit down, from eight to eight thirty, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places."

(Stephen King, quoted by Lisa Rogak, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King. Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)

H. Lloyd Goodall on Personal and Textual Rituals

"Writing is all about ritual. Some writing rituals are personal ones, such as writing only in the morning or late at night; or writing while drinking coffee, or listening to music; or not shaving until you finish a final edit.

Some writing rituals are textual, such as my personal habit of reading and editing what I wrote the day before, as a warm-up exercise to perform prior to writing anything new. Or my bad habit of writing long sentences that the next day I have to break down into smaller ones. Or my personal goal of writing a section a week, a chapter a month, a book a year."
(H. Lloyd Goodall, Writing the New Ethnography. Altamira Press, 2000)

Natalie Goldberg's Unlit Cigarette

"[O]ne small prop can often tip your mind into another place. When I sit down to write, often I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. If I'm in a cafe that has a 'No Smoking' sign, then my cigarette is unlit. I don't actually smoke anyway, so it doesn't matter. The cigarette is a prop to help me dream into another world. It wouldn't work so well if I ordinarily smoked. You need to do something you don't usually do."
(Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala Publications, 2005)

Helen Epstein on the Writing Habit

"Although I did not yet think of myself as a writer, I had already developed a writing habit. . . . I discovered the satisfactions of putting words to feelings that were exciting or joyful or painful and revising those words until my feelings made sense to me. I loved all the rituals of writing: clearing physical and mental space, setting aside a silent time, choosing my materials, watching with elation as ideas I didn't know I had filled up the blank page."
(Helen Epstein, Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History. Little, Brown, 1997)

Gay Talese's Outlines

"Whether I'm working on a short article or a full-length book, having an outline helps me navigate when I sit down to write. The shape this outline takes is instinctual and varies in length and complexity from project to project. . . . The way you choose to present information in outline form should depend entirely on how your mind works. . . . When done well, [an outline] can help you conceive of where to begin, how to proceed, and when to stop. . . . If you're lucky, an outline can do more than that: it can help you uncork words that have already been forming in the back of your mind."

(Gay Talese, "Outlining: The Writer's Road Map." Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis. Tarcher, 2009)

Ralph Keyes on Whatever It Takes

"Without the routines of an office, lone workers develop quirky work habits. As creative people, writers come up with imaginative ways to goose themselves, summon the muse, and avoid stepping out for a newspaper. Robert Graves found that surrounding himself with man-made objects—wooden figurines, porcelain clown heads, books printed by hand—improved his spiritual atmosphere. California poet Joaquin Miller had sprinklers installed above his home because he could only compose poetry to the sound of rain on the roof. Henrik Ibsen hung a picture of August Strindberg over his desk. "He is my mortal enemy and shall hang there and watch while I write," explained Ibsen. . . . Whatever it takes. All writers develop their own methods to approach the page."
(Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. Henry Holt & Co., 1995)

John Gardner on Whatever Works

"The real message is, write in any way that works for you: write in a tuxedo or in the shower with a raincoat or in a cave deep in the woods."
(John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row, 1983)

If you haven't yet developed any habits that help you summon the muse, consider adopting one or more of the methods described here.