The Rituals of Writing Greats: How to Create Writing Habits that Stick

By Garrett Grams | Articles | Reading Time: 14 minutes

May 29

Every writing great had a unique routine.

For many writing greats, they chose a specific time to wake up and stuck to it. Though the time has varied from writer to writer, what is often the same is the commitment to consistently wake up at a set time.

When they arrive at the writing desk, there is always a destination in mind. This could mean writing two great sentences, as James Joyce aimed for, or not stopping until you reach 2,000 words, like Stephen King.

With a goal in mind, the greats have sat down and done the work. Often, the actual work was only part of the process.

“Eccentric” and “writer” are almost synonymous terms. While the rituals of writing greats may not have appeared strange to them, when compared to anyone else, their rituals looked very strange indeed. Each had their own unique writing habits, developed to inspire their best work.

Every great knew what worked best for them. As their writing careers developed, their own unique formula became a deeply ingrained part of their writing, so much so that they recommended their formula as the best way to write.

There is wisdom in much of the advice from writing greats. But the wisdom varies in the same way as their wake-up times, word counts, and habits.

The best wisdom is that which works for you. There might be a wake-up time that is perfect, a word count that makes you excited to write, a ritual that connects with you and sparks creativity, or a formula that fits into your life.

Find and use what works, and ignore the rest. And a good way to find what works for you is to consider the habits of writing greats, and how what worked was different for each writer.

Wake Up Early! … Or Don’t

It is often touted that successful people wake up early and get more done.

We all know those early birds who display what time they wake up like a badge of honor. The question then becomes, does waking up early mean you’re getting more done? And is what you’re doing quality work?

After years of research, Maria Popova, the founder of Brainpickings.org, sought to find a correlation between successful writers’ sleep habits and their literary productivity.

Popova took the wake-up times for 37 writers, and decided to quantify literary productivity by “number of published works and major awards received.” With these data, she reached out to Giorgia Lupi, an information designer at Accurat, to organize the data into an infographic, and Wendy MacNaughton, a frequent illustrator and collaborator on Brain Pickings, to illustrate the portraits.

The result is an incredible perspective on the sleep habits and achievements of writing greats.

writing habits

The morning begins anywhere between Honoré de Balzac waking up at the insomnia-driven 1 a.m. to Charles Bukowski waking up at the bohemian 12 p.m.

Does the early bird get the worm? Or as Popova describes it, “does the early bird get the Pulitzer?”

When looking at the awards in this infographic, the prizes are congested towards the early birds, but only slightly so. Ray Bradbury, who won the Pulitzer and many other prizes, woke at 9 a.m. every morning.

Another interesting correlation is that the later the writer wakes up, the more works they tend to produce, but with fewer conventional awards than their early bird counterparts.

With each correlation, there comes exceptions. Isaac Asimov wrote and edited more than 500 books in his lifetime, rising at 6 a.m., whereas Joyce wrote only 12 books and woke up at 10 a.m.

By no means is the morning the only time to write. Friedrich Schiller wrote exclusively at night. The same goes for Samuel Johnson, Marcel Proust, and George Sand. Even Balzac, who boasts the earliest wake-up time at 1 a.m., wrote during night hours as well as morning hours, sometimes staying up for a full 48 hours straight.

Popova clarifies the most important point when relating the time you get out of bed to the amount of quality work you produce:

“A reminder that no specific routine guarantees success, and the only thing that matters is having a routine and the persistence implicit to one. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.”

—Maria Popova

Showing up and writing, that is what each of these writers has in common. They got to the writing desk and did the work. The common characteristic behind all their routines is discipline.

These writers had the discipline to wake up at the same time every day, as well as the discipline to put themselves at the writing desk.

Discipline in waking up and discipline in showing up to write creates the habit of a routine that worked for these writers.

Famous Daily Word Counts

When writing greats arrived at the writing desk, the word counts they produced were as varied as the times they woke up.

Word count is often used as a measuring stick for daily writing production. The number varies based on the goal the writer is working towards.

More than that, the word count goal might revolve around the number or the required production to achieve the goal, sometimes on a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. Usually, this goal is a new project, like an essay, article, or novel.

Many writers have determined a word count based on what they felt capable of achieving to finish their particular project.

I should note that before the advent of technology, with limited tools such as notepad and pen, or typewriter, the writing process took significantly more time than it does to type on a computer. Especially if you typed with only your index fingers in a constant game of hunt and peck, like Ernest Hemingway and Bukowski.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Michael Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park and over 100 other books, wrote 10,000 words a day.

That’s an enormous amount of words, and most people would feel lucky to get to that number in a week.

If you look at that number with dread, don’t worry — there are plenty of writing greats who existed at the opposite end of the word-count spectrum.

writing habits

Let’s take Joyce, for example.

Joyce was known to aim for two good sentences a day with pen and paper — a vast sea away from Crichton’s 10,000 words on a computer.

Joyce and Crichton are outliers when it comes to word counts. There are plenty of famous writers who did just fine existing somewhere in between these extremes.

At the lower end of the scale are Hemingway and Graham Greene at 500 words a day. And Greene wrote only five days a week.

Hemingway wrote all morning. He would write until he was empty, feeling good if he got over 500 words.

“You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”

Ernest Hemingway

Greene was known to do the same.

“I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene.”

Graham Greene

There are two things to note here. Both writers set a goal and wrote until he achieved it. Each writer also left a little gas in the tank for the next writing day.

They may have been slower than their peers, but that didn’t matter to them. They felt good about the number of words they wrote, and made that number a part of their routine.

Moving up the scale to 1,000 words per day, we have writers like J.G. Ballard, Holly Black, Barbara Kingsolver, and W. Somerset Maugham.

Though the word count is doubled here, higher word counts do not necessarily represent quality, as seen in Kingsolver’s routine.

“I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”

— Barbara Kingsolver

Coming in at 1,500 words are Jack London and Mark Twain.

Take away the numbers, 500, 1,500, or 10,000, and what you are left with is the daily goal “X” to finish the project “Y.” With this laid out, the writer recruits their discipline and routine to show up every day and get after it.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

— Jack London

Jumping up to 2,000 words, we have Margaret Atwood (who writes between 1,000 and 2,000 every day), King, and Brandon Sanderson.

King is outspoken about word counts, and reports using a goal of 2,000 words a day when starting a new project to keep the excitement of the story high. If he doesn’t write every day, the story begins to fade in his mind.

“Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.”

— Stephen King

If you feel yourself losing the plot, it might be time to adjust. Hemingway left the writing desk before he started to lose the plot. King stays at the writing desk to make sure the story remains fresh in his mind. Successful strategies for each writer, however contradictory.

It is about finding where you fit on the word count scale. Two thousand words may leave you burnt out, or it may fortify you and the story you’re working on.

It may be that 2,000 is not enough, and 3,000 sounds just right. That is where William Golding, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote best. Perhaps you might churn out 5,000 words a day, even, if you’re of the Raymond Chandler type.

Not enough? Go for 6,000 with John Creasey, who wrote for “three [hours] on a good day. Thirteen on a bad day.”

Feeling crazy, are we? Then hang out in the five digits with Crichton and R.F. Delderfield at 10,000 words a day.

Or write more! Just remember the “X” factor here. “X” is a word count goal where you’re not burning yourself out, but also not giving into laziness. Set a goal for yourself that is achievable, and continue hitting that goal.

Joyce’s two sentences per day may seem appealing, but also recognize that he spent most of the day agonizing over each word, and it took him 17 years to write Finnegans Wake.

Slide the word count scale back and forth until you find where you fit. That is how I found my own “X” factor at 1,000 words a day when I have a project I’m working on.

At first, it was frustrating to hit 1,000, as it is easy to check the word count and see how far there is to go. I had to start lower, working to write every day, no matter what.

The motto became, “better than yesterday.” I tracked how many words I wrote and aimed to write more the next day. When I reached 1,000 words a day, there was a sense of accomplishment that let me feel like I had gotten my work done.

I’ve gone over 1,000 words many times, but I noticed that even on the harder days, as long as I hit 1,000, I felt okay.

Something that helps on those hard days is to set a timer instead of actively checking the word count. I say to myself, “I will write for the next 50 minutes and not check the word count until after 50 minutes.” This puts the pressure on a deadline instead and lets my mind focus on the writing.

The idea here is to set a word count goal and work towards it. What number are you comfortable with? And if it is too comfortable, push yourself to write 100 more words the next day.

Once you have found your spot on the scale, there are even more ways to crank up the creativity.

Strange Habits of Great Writers

Many writing greats used rituals to maximize their chances of producing good writing. These rituals were far removed from the making of a cup of coffee every morning.

You may find that your strange rituals are not so strange after all.

While forming habits, many of the writing greats went further than setting a wake-up time and word count. While not all of them had strange habits, the ones that did incorporated the habit into their routine in much the same way as they did a specific wake-up time.

These habits may have appeared inspiring or superstitious, but above all they were necessary to create the right conditions for their best work.

Habits relating to food may offer the inspiration you’re looking for. Take Schiller, the Romantic-era German poet and playwright, for instance. According to his wife, Schiller could not live or work without the smell of rotten apples. The smell kept him lucid and inspired.

Though you may not enjoy the smell of rotten apples (and you’d be crazy not to), there may be a drink you indulge in to strike some inspirational matches.

Balzac’s ritual was to drink 50 cups of coffee throughout the day. His intention was to find inspiration at the bottom of the coffee cup and he did so more than a couple of times.

Voltaire wasn’t far behind, at 40 cups a day.

It might be that food and drink serve as a distraction from writing. To get yourself to focus, you might follow in Maya Angelou’s steps.

She rented hotels in every town she ever lived in. She went to the hotel every day for months when it was time to write. The hotel was instructed to remove everything in the room but for key items, like a legal pad and pen, a bottle of sherry, and a Bible. This forced her to focus on the task and allowed her to relive moments in her life to provide her real truth.

You don’t have to leave your home to eliminate distractions. Victor Hugo didn’t. When he needed to write, he locked away his clothes. This made sure he couldn’t leave the house because he’d be naked — a solid way to keep himself inside and close to his writing.

Mary Flannery O’Connor needed the outdoors to get her writing done, because that’s where her pets were. She had an affinity for fowl and kept a zoo filled with peacocks, pheasants, turkeys, ducks, and quails, to name a few.

Enticing, I know, but if you look around, you might find you have some animal inspiration already around you. A few pats on Fido’s head before writing might be the ritual that you need in life.

You might feel overwhelmed with strangeness at the thought of trying to do all of these rituals, and need to lie down to think for a minute. While you’re lying down, the words may begin to flow easier.

Joyce wrote exclusively while on his bed. He wrote with crayons due to bad eyesight and wore a white shirt to reflect as much light on the paper as possible. By lying down on his stomach, he felt the words flowed better. This theory was shared by Twain and Truman Capote, as well.

Perhaps this is all too superstitious for you. Capote would tell you it’s not superstitious enough, however. Capote refused to write on Fridays, and he believed that if a hotel room’s phone number included “13,” it meant bad luck, and he wouldn’t stay there. He would also never leave more than three cigarettes in an ashtray.

All of this to make sure his writing went untainted.

What these great writers did was figure out a method that worked for them.

Not every writer has a strange ritual, or even a normal ritual. If you do have a strange ritual already, or were thinking about adding some, then don’t hold back.

There are plenty of things writers do that may appear mystical or silly to the outside observer, but to the writer, that particular ritual is as necessary as the writing itself. So if you find that something works for your writing, but are worried that it seems too strange, look past the judgment of others (or even your own) and keep on doing it.

Capote may have skipped writing on Friday accidentally and found his words greatly improved. Joyce may have agonized over a certain sentence, fell flat on his bed, and found that it all suddenly made sense. Angelou may have checked into a random hotel where she found only things that triggered past stories.

When it worked, it stuck. That is what is important. There may be a coffee shop that has a magic table for you. There may be a smell that makes your brain light up like illegal fireworks. Whatever it is, don’t be embarrassed by it, and more importantly, keep doing it.

The Recommended Dose

When writers find their own way — especially if they become considered one of the greats — they tend to profess their way as the way.

writing habits

Many writing greats have gone on to write books about how to write. King has his On Writing. Bradbury gave us Zen in the Art of Writing, and Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.

Each book holds tips for daily writing habits and routines.

King recommends a writer work for four to six hours a day on either writing or reading. When you’re just starting out, he says you’ll probably read more than your write. Reading and writing feed each other as you learn what has been done while staying fresh with your own work. He also recommends writing 1,000 words a day.

“The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already.”

—Stephen King

Bradbury’s formula is similar. He also recommends 1,000 words a day.

“I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest …? It will save your life!”

—Ray Bradbury

The most crucial ingredients, Bradbury recommends, are zest and gusto.

“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating, by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road he wants to go. I would only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”

With zest and gusto, and 1,000 words a day, working somewhere between four and six hours a day, you’ll be on your way to creating a writing habit in no time. As you’ve seen above, however, with writers like Hemingway and Greene averaging 500 words a day, the formula that works is the one that fits best.

In her book Bird by Bird, Lamott takes a different approach to finding the best writing formula. With a recommendation of 300 words a day, her intention is to make sure the writer shows up at the desk.

The goal here is to establish consistency. One thousand words a day can seem daunting and may stop you writing that day, because it feels like work just thinking about it. Three hundred words removes the tension, allowing the writer to ease into the work, and provides a space for a writing habit to take root.

Getting to the desk can be the most difficult part of the process. Bukowski describes the excuses we make for ourselves in his poem Air and Light and Time and Space. Gavin Aung Than, the founder of  Zenpencils.com, has created an excellent comic strip bringing the poem to life, which you can see here.

In the poem, Bukowski speaks for two characters. The first is the person making the excuses for not doing the art. The air is bad. The light is all wrong. There’s never enough time. The space isn’t inspiring.

The second voice is a response to the person making the excuses, spoken in a Bukowski narrative.

“no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.”

writing habits

—Charles Bukowski

This again points to the showing up. Consistency is at the core of each of these formulas.

It should also be noted that not all the formulas recommend the exact same thing. For instance, there are plenty of writers who do best when they binge write.

This could mean writing in great bursts as Paulo Coelho writes, finishing a book in two weeks. The same goes for those who lock themselves away to make sure they get the work done, like Angelou and Hugo.

As with the variance in the wake-up time, daily word count, and strange rituals, so too is there variance in what each writing great has prescribed as the proper approach.

This is because each of these writing greats found what uniquely worked for them. They believed in it so thoroughly that they were certain this was the right way to do it.

That is what you should find for yourself. Find the wake-up time, word count, and writing habits that hit the sweet spot for you.

Find Your Own Groove

It is obvious that there is no exact formula for becoming one of the writing greats. The time they wake up, how many words they write each day, the habits that make them write (and make them eccentric), and what they recommend for you all vary from person to person.

Each of these writers is different from the others. There is no clear path, no structure, no ladder to success (however you define that — maybe being among these writing greats).

What is clear are a few solid facts. These writers developed strong habits towards their craft. When they sat down to write, there was a goal, whether that was a word count or an end time.

It is certainly easy to follow the routine of a particular writing great, whether it’s waking up at 6 a.m. like Hemingway and writing until noon, or waking up at noon like Bukowski.

Following a well-known routine is a good starting place for finding your own. As you continue to write, some part of the routine might not work as well as you had hoped.

Maybe you do better the earlier you wake. Or the word count goal may be keeping you away from the desk, and needs to be lowered. Or it might be that the word count goal is too low and the sea of creativity lies in the next 100 or 1,000 words.

What time you wake up and how many words you aim for that day might profit from a strange ritual. There is plentiful strangeness involved in many of the writing greats’ routines. From nausea-inducing smells that trigger inspiration, to giving away all your clothes so you can’t leave the house, there are plenty to choose from if you don’t already have a strange ritual of your own.

What is important is a mindset of experimenting with different strategies until you find what works best for you.

When it works, keep it, however strange it may be to the rest of us. Find the formula that suits you best and make it a habit.

One day, it could be you providing the example for the next writer, eccentricities and all.

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About the Author

Garrett Grams is a freelance and fiction writer. He loves the SciFi and Fantasy realms. After graduating with an IT degree he joined the cubicle masses. His soul cried out to pursue a life in writing, and so at the end of 3 years, he left for Vietnam where he taught English for 18 months. He is currently working on a dystopian novel that WILL be finished this year. He can be found in the back corners of coffee shops in a crazed caffeine-addled typing fit, or on the interwebs at his website. Garrett is currently a writer for Craft Your Content.