Why you should resist the writing rituals of famous authors

writing rituals of famous authors

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Do you ever ponder the writing rituals of famous authors? Pondering is okay, but don’t use their habits as a model for your own behaviour…. 

Did you know that Sylvia Plath (pictured above) and Benjamin Franklin started their writing days at 4 am and 5 am, respectively? Oliver Sacks was also a morning lark (5 am) as were Margaret Mead and Immanuel Kant.

But before you leap to the conclusion that the early morning bird always catches the word, be aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein didn’t start until late morning, after 10 am.

(The information on waking/working habits comes from a wonderful infographic prepared by Maria Popova, the person behind the Brainpickings website.)

And there were other famous authors who wrote exclusively at night: Samuel Johnson, Marcel Proust, and George Sand, among them.

Clients of mine and others who aspire to write frequently seem to grasp at the habits of famous writers and seek to emulate them. It’s almost as if the aspiring writers believe there’s some magic formula that — if only they could figure it out — would propel them to New York Times bestseller status. Or, at least, help them finish their damn book (or blog post.)

They treat the daily word counts of famous writers with similar reverence. For example, did you know that Ernest Hemingway always wrote 500 words per day? But he is far from the most productive writer around. Here are some other impressive totals:

Michael Crichton: 10,000 wpd

Anne Rice: 3,000 wpd

Stephen King: 2,000 wpd

Sarah Waters: 1,000 wpd

Maya Angelou: 2,500 wpd

Mark Twain: 1,400 wpd

Barbara Kingsolver: 1,000 wpd

Ian McEwan: 600 wpd

(These numbers come from the Writers Write blog, where you can see still more famous names.)

Whenever I see information like this, I recall a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Or I ponder the Buddhist meditation: “A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.”

What I’m trying to say is that it is not helpful to try to follow the path of previously successful writers, because we are all individuals. What works for Barbara Kingsolver may not work for you — and that’s not a problem. Some writers even had very strange habits. Victor Hugo, for example, had a servant take away his clothes when he needed to write. He couldn’t leave the house naked, so his habit forced himself to stay at his desk. Do you really want to start doing that?

Instead of trying to emulate famous writers, develop your own habits that work for you. Identify a time of day during which you can be a productive writer and protect that time as if you were guarding the crown jewels. Generally, I think it’s better to write in the morning, mainly because it’s easier to protect that time. But if you’re a committed night owl, ignore my advice and write in the evenings. Or the middle of the night, if that suits you better.

How much should you write each day? You are the only person who can answer that question. Your writing experience and your natural aptitudes both play a role here. They alone will determine how many words you are able to produce each day. And if you set your goal in the Michael Crichton range (10,000 wpd), I predict you are going to be very disappointed if you turn out to be “only” an Ernest Hemingway (500 wpd). Instead of giving yourself an arbitrary goal, start by figuring out what is natural and feasible for you. What can you do every day, even if you’re having a bad day? If it’s 150 words per day, so be it. Strive for that goal.

The only valuable lesson from other writers is that they persisted. This principle means that they showed up to write even on days when they were busy with other tasks, or didn’t feel like writing or were dealing with other crises. (For example, Stephen King famously wrote for 40 minutes a day when recovering from a horrific car accident.)

Members of my Get It Done group report in to me five days a week, documenting their word count achievements or their editing time. This accountability forces them to be productive and keeps them on track. If such a program is not for you, then figure out a way to get similar accountability from friends and family.

Really, the only issue that matters with writing, is not how much you do or when you do it but THAT you do it, day after relentless day.

My video podcast last week offered advice on what type of editor to hire. Or see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Have you ever been tempted to copy the writing rituals of famous writers? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted May 8th, 2018 in Power Writing

  • sthrendyle

    In my ADHD world consumed by Pocket suggestions, blogs, links, and good ol’ fashioned print, YOUR suggestions offer the most practical and down to earth advice available. Funny, I was just listening to a Tim Ferriss interview with writer Daniel Pink last night and this very topic came up.

    • Thanks for your very kind words, Steven. Can you possibly share the link for the Tim Ferriss interview with Daniel Pink? That sounds really interesting!

  • Tom Morrisey

    Daphne, while the internet has arrived at 500 words per day as Hemingway’s magic number, that is actually his strived-for (and frequently missed) minimum. His actual output varied. In his Paris Review profile of Hemingway’s working practices, George Plimpton wrote:

    “He keeps track of his daily progress – ‘so as not to kid myself’ – on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.”

    Hemingway preferred to do his drafts in pencil. He would then correct this holograph before typing what he had written into a clean manuscript (which, often as not, would still be marked up later on). When he lived in Cuba, he did much of his work standing, as his WWI shrapnel wounds gave him a backache if he sat for long periods of time.

    • You make a good point about variation in numbers, Tom. I would have assumed that Hemingway’s (and others’) numbers varied but I’d never thought about the degree to which that would be true. This is a good reminder of ANOTHER reason why one shouldn’t be a slave to what we believe to be the habits of others.

      Yes I was aware of Hemingway’s habit of writing with a pencil and writing while standing. In fact, I often think of that because I write while standing (and walking!) on my treadmill.

  • Rabbit Pellets

    I appreciate your “beware mimicking methods as a sort of rabbits foot” while I actually find encouragement in your tales of oddball methods. These last bring to mind a dear, 88 year old painter friend who speaks of “tricking yourself to maintain discipline” that I employ at times to fight procrastination. For example “You can take a break after two paragraphs” which often gets me rolling for hours.

    One person’s trick is unlikely compatible with another – any more than organs for transplant. But tales of oddball methods, like counter examples of painfully slow writers such as Joseph Conrad, grant the muse permission to make herself known as she will, welcomes the creative spark on it’s own terms – as you so often write about. What works works – and let no man critcise.

    Personally I’ve never found schedule particularly relevant – as long as it permits me to write when the material starts aborning, which yes often starts at breakfast.

    Continually improving voice to text has helped too as driving – interspersed with NPR – often produces flow.

    • “Tricking yourself to maintain discipline” is an excellent strategy. Thanks so much for mentioning it!

  • LJ

    Great reminders about perils of comparison. I asked a woman who teaches Spanish how she learned it—and she said “I just kept on learning.” Instead of quitting when you miss a day, sociologist Christine Carter calls it BTN-better than nothing effort—little bit is better than nothing. Having to check in with you on my daily word count has helped me to just keep going!

  • Jagadish Kumar

    Victor Hugo’s strange habit made us interested in Buddhist meditation — “A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.” Thank you, Daphne.

    • Hmm, not sure that Victor Hugo’s strange habit made me think of the Buddhist koan. Both those thoughts came into my mind quite independently! But the strange habits of famous authors are quite interesting. Alexander Dumas colour-coded his writing; Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day; Truman Capote never started or finished a piece of work on a Friday; Dan Brown hangs upside down. Let’s face it: we’re a pretty weird bunch!

      • Jagadish Kumar

        You have alerted us from being a weird bunch.

  • Al Willis

    I wonder if good editors have the same perspective regarding their editing production?

    • My sense is that editors seem more able to carve their own path. Also, for most people, editing isn’t as frightening as writing. I think that fact explains the difference!

  • irek banaczyk

    I need help with my writing and don’t know where to start. What are the best resources to learn the basics on writing in English? English is my second language, I write a lot for college, but just can’t get in the flow. I always second guess myself and feel like nothing I write makes sense. Your article on impostor syndrome helped, but I need more.Thank you!

    • It’s hard not to feel self-conscious about a second language, and WRITING in that language is usually particularly challenging. I suggest you use a service like Grammarly or ProWriting Aid (the free versions are perfectly adequate for your purposes) to review your work before you hand it in. Also, you might try to make an arrangement with an English-speaking friend to check your work as well. If you do this for a few months, you should be able to build up your confidence so that you feel more comfortable with your written English.

      • irek banaczyk

        Thank you for the great advice, Daphne.