A writer’s routine: where to write


My friend asks:

Where do you write?

If in multiple spots, do you find any difference in your quality of work?

Have you tried writing in places that just don’t work?  (I.e. couch, bed, yard, park, coffee shop, etc?)

Do you like having windows to look out?  Or, shut the blinds?

Do you need silence or listen to music?

Are you okay writing with other people or pets in the house, or do you need quiet?

Do you have a special chair?  Writing hat or outfit?

I love having my own office space, and I think I would have a hard time writing without one. That said, the important thing is to feel detached from the world so that I can immerse myself on the page, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. When I’m travelling, for example, sharing a room, or in a busy space, I wear ear plugs and headphones.

I write on a laptop—my beloved MacBook—and usually sit on a couch with the mouse on a thick book beside me. I find that more comfortable ergonomically than sitting at a desk.

If you work at a desk, and even if not, it is important to move, stand, walk, swing your arms—do something—every hour, if not more often. I found this out the hard way. At one point my right hand was in such pain I thought I would have to give up writing. Now I set a timer. It’s shocking how quickly an hour goes by … and also shocking how serious the effects of concentrated time at a computer can be. Move. Change position. Exercise. 

Some writers thrive writing in a public space—a coffee shop or library—but I think I would be distracted. I like having windows—light!—and I prefer being able to come and go without being interrupted. I’m not at the computer then, but I’m thinking. Dreaming is a writer’s work. We mutter and pace. Dickens would have lively dialogues looking into a mirror. I think you have to have enough privacy so that you can mutter and gestulate without embarrassment, which could be a problem in a public place.

I need to feel safe from interruption at certain stages of the writing process. In my early years of writing, I would only schedule home repairmen etc. for Mondays or Fridays, so that I had a run of house-empty days in the middle of the week. I’m fairly strict about protecting my morning hours. It’s important to let your family know when you need solitude.

With time, one learns to immerse more easily, and distractions become more manageable. Professional writers, especially those who are often on tour, learn to write all the time under any circumstance.

A relevant book: The Writer’s Desk, by Jill Krementz:


This from a Paris Review interview of the historian David McCullough, “The Art of Biography, pt. 2“:

“Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” David McCullough says, and so his own office has been reduced to a windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard home. Known as “the bookshop,” the shed does not have a telephone or running water. Its primary contents are a Royal typewriter, a green banker’s lamp, and a desk, which McCullough keeps control over by “flushing out” the loose papers after each chapter is finished. The view from inside the bookshop is of a sagging barn surrounded by pasture. To keep from being startled, McCullough asks his family members to whistle as they approach the shed where he is writing.”

I was charmed to learn that McCullough doesn’t allow any visitors, with the exception of grandchildren, “the younger the better.”

The ergonomics of writing often dictate where and how one writes. A number of authors—most famously Hemingway—use stand-up desks (some even like treadmill-desks). Lin Enger, author of The High Divide, had this to say on the blog The Quivering Pen:

I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself? Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886.

And, perfect reading for this subject, a book that influenced me decades ago:


A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.

I’ve long loved this image —


Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?


My friend asks:

How many words do you write a day? For how long do you write? How many days a week?

In other words, what’s the production schedule?

This may strike some as a mechanical approach to a somewhat mystical process, but for me and many other writers, it’s key.

Daily goals

The more you write, the better you get. It’s that simple.

The aim of the first draft is to get from the beginning to the end.

Keep in mind Anne Lamott‘s mantra: “I am responsible for quantity. God is responsible for quality.”

Many writers set daily goals. Mine are usually 1000 to 1500 words on work days, 100 words on “off” days (sick days, travel, family, and commotion days).

At the challenging beginning of a project, or after a time away, I will start with modest goals: 100, 200, 300 words a day, building up to 1000 or 1500. Be gentle with yourself, but persevering.

I clock in first thing, using “word count” to record the number of words in the manuscript file. I write this number on a calendar (a small Levenger notebook I buy for this purpose), write down my assigned allotment for the day and record the sum. Circle it. That’s the word count I must meet.

When I’ve met or exceeded that word count, I calculate how many words I’ve added to the manuscript. Write that down. Put an exclamation mark or smiley face beside it if I’ve done well. All those grade-school things.

This method encourages me to write new material every day, move the manuscript forward. Once my daily goal is met, I may go back and edit, fuss, cut, rewrite to my heart’s content.

Some days I’m like a tired factory worker and stop the instant I hit my goal. On other days I will write hundreds of words more without even noticing.

What about burn-out?

My friends also asks:

Are there times when you have burnt out on writing?  If so, how hard were you pushing and what did you learn from that experience?

Getting to the end of a draft, getting a novel ready to send out, is completely exhausting. Crossing that finish line! (Some have asked, “How do you know when you are finished?” Exhaustion is the clue.)

It’s okay to exhaust yourself at the end—but it can derail you in earlier stages. Pacing is important. You are an athlete.

In setting your daily writing goals, it’s important to under-estimate what you can do in a day. It has to be achievable.

And, as I will say over and over: writing daily is key.

Not all stages of  writing can be measured by word count. Working on a plot counts as “writing”; so does dreaming scenes, research and revision.

I like to keep the pressure on (I am my own task-master), so I will devise some appropriate daily goal or deadline—i.e., so many pages revised a day, an outline of two chapters, one character sketch—in order to keep moving forward.

Pushing through resistance

It’s important to realize that the first stage of writing is resistance to writing. Stage two is finding a way to push through that resistance.


For overcoming resistance, I recommend Walking on Alligators, a book of meditations for writers, by Susan Shaughnessy.

Still having trouble? I’ve become a fan of Jerry Seinfeld‘s “Don’t break the chain” method for motivating myself to do something daily. (It has succeeded in getting me to exercise daily, a small miracle.) For a year-at-a-glance continuous calendar, click here, or click here to download my own.

Websites on this very effective system:

Don’t Break the Chain

Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret

Ready to rocket? How I Wrote 400K Words in a Year.

From my own post on the blog “Advice To Writers”:

I am fairly mechanical in my method: I keep a small diary in which I write down the time, and the number of words in the manuscript. Then I commit to a certain number of words for that day. I do not permit myself to call it a day until I’ve reached my goal. Usually I will fly over, and award myself with silly stars.

Other posts in the “writer’s routine” series so far:

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

{Illustration at the top is from BibliOdyessy.}

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?


Pantster or Plotter?

Writers often talk about whether it is better to be a “pantster” or a “plotter.” (Google “pantster or plotter” and you will get some idea.) A pantster is someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”—that is, without an outline. A plotter, of course, is someone who begins with a plan.

Alison PickWriting Tips:

I myself am a firm believer in having some kind of plan. The late great Alistair MacLeod used the analogy of a carpenter, who does not just take a bunch of random nails and two-by-fours and start banging. She knows, first, what she is trying to build. …

Virtually everyone detests making a plan—which might be a fifty-page detailed outline, a one-page summary of plot-points or a loose pile of index cards. Most beginning writers resist making a plan, citing the many fine writers who work without one. These writers are also experienced and take a very, very long time to complete a project.


Robert Olen Butler‘s book From Where you Dream is excellent on the pros and cons of working with or without a plan. See Chapter Five: “A Writer Prepares.” His conclusion is that working with a plan helps get a book written faster.

A plan helps getting that first draft on paper. When I was first starting out, I assembled clumps of index cards for each scene: character notes, details, plot points. Now I spend months evolving a scene-by-scene plot before I begin a first draft. Either way, I basically know where I’m headed each day.

Alison Pick: Writing Tips:

Having a plan doesn’t mean the plan isn’t flexible. It will change—dramaticaly—by the time it is transformed into an actual book. But a plan gives me confidence. It steers me in the right direction. Knowing loosely what has to happen in each chapter divides the process into baby steps. I can think of the book as a series of small tasks rather than one enormous one.

Books on plot

On plot, I highly recommend books for scriptwriters.


Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder is short, amusing and to-the-point.


Another great book is The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

Vogler’s story structure is similar to that outlined by Blake Snyder simply because we are hard-wired for story (as originally explored by Joseph Cambell in Hero with a Thousand Faces).

Vogler describes character archetypes—the mentor, the trickster, the shadow, etc.—defining the roles of the various characters in a story.

Examining your story in terms of the classic story cycle and identifying the archetypes your various characters play will help you to refine it, make it stronger … and get it written faster.

Other posts in “A writer’s routine” series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works


{Illustration at the top is from BibliOdyessy.}


A writer’s routine: How to get into a creative headspace


My friend asks:

Does it take you some time each day to immerse yourself in your writing?  If so, any tricks to ease into the creative headspace?

Writing has stages: a first draft is dream-like, immersive, while subsequent drafts are part cerebral/part immersive and often involve gnashing teeth, pulling hair, and moments of despair interspersed with joy.

Whatever the stage, you need to show up—daily.

For the early, intense and immersive writing stage, some recommend not speaking, talking or reading anything on waking, and to begin writing while still half-asleep. Others use a meditation practice to reach that imaginative space. Some write to specific music or look at an image chosen for a project. Many (Jane Smiley, for one) swear by a hot shower, or long walks. If there are distractions, I will use ear plugs as well as headphones.

Because the imaginative space can be so illusive, writers often try out different techniques. It’s hardest when you are new to writing, but it can be hard even for experienced writers, especially at the beginning of a new project. Over time, it gets easier to shut the world out, to concentrate, to lose yourself in a fictional world.

A writer needs to occupy an imaginative space for many months, perhaps even years. Touching base with it daily, even if only for a half-hour, is key. In my experience, one day away equals at least two days lost in trying to get back into that fictional world.

Some writers are night-time writers but most work in the early hours. If you begin first thing in the morning, you will be unconsciously thinking of your story all day.

The more you give yourself to your work, the more immersed you will become, and ideas will come to you in dreams or at unexpected moments. Many a writer has holed up in a bathroom at a party to note down thoughts.

Always have a notepad with you as well as one by your bed, so that you can write down the ideas that come to you on the fly. (A friend’s daughter calls these fly-by ideas “art attacks,” and dives for the closest paper and pencil.) Some writers use a dictation device that is always with them.

The important thing is to respect these thoughts. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you will remember them.

Proust‘s notebook:

New Yorker cover, NY Proust's notebook

At a critical point in the writing process—often nearing completion—a writer will seek some form of retreat, move into an isolated space in order to be able to concentrate fully. Over the years, I’ve checked into motels, B&Bs, silent monasteries, a snowed-in cabin.

The next question in “A writer’s routine” series: How do you conquer writer’s block?  What do you do when you are looking for inspiration for your work?

background slice
Essential reading: Chapter 5, “Harnessing the Unconscious,” in Dorothea Brand‘s wonderful book Becoming a Writer

These two books demonstrate how individual the writing process can be:

How I Write: the Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.

Another post in “A writer’s routine” series: Evolving what works.

{The opening image at top is from “A most delicate art” on BibliOdyessy.}

A writer’s routine: evolving what works


A friend has just quit his day job in order to devote full attention to writing. He has a number of interesting questions about writing, and especially about writing routines. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, so this is a subject very much on my mind.

Here is his first question:

What does your typical writing day look like broken down?  I know you mentioned you write first thing in the morning.  Do you wake up and start writing immediately (open eyes at 6:00 am and writing by 6:05 am), or do you take time to have breakfast and shower first?  

Do you write 2 hours, then have breakfast?  Go for a walk halfway through day, etc.  

Every creative (writer, artist, composer) finds, by trial and error, a routine that works best, but here is mine:

I wake, usually around 6:00 am, make myself a mug of coffee and go directly to my computer. I glance at email (I can’t help it), and then begin the writing of the day. I call this my “Cup of Work,” and I hold to it daily, even while travelling.

It’s important for me to be in a private space, but if that’s not possible I wear ear plugs and headphones so as not to be distracted.

At around 8:00 I break to eat, dress, chat with my husband and plan the day. At 9:00, I go back to work, usually until 11:00, when I break to exercise, lunch, read, and attend to the chores of life, including the many non-writing tasks that are a necessary part of a writer’s life (correspondence, research and social media, for example).

I retire early, often around 9:30, and read for pleasure.

And that’s my day: it amounts to about four hours a day devoted to writing. On non-work days, I will at least have my Cup of Work first thing, although it might only be for a half-hour.

As a beginning writer, I used some tricks that might be of help. The day before, I would put notes by my computer, indicating the scene I was heading into. Because I was a mother of two youngsters, I had to rise before they did in order to get a jump on the day. I programmed the coffee pot to start perking so that when my alarm went off, the smell of the coffee lured me out of bed.

There is no single way to be a writer. The most important thing to do is figure out what works for you.” — Alison PickWriting Tips

Next up, the question: “Does it take you some time each day to immerse yourself in your writing?  If so, any tricks to ease into the creative headspace?” Stay tuned …

Doris Lessing

From Doris Lessings acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature:

Writers are often asked: How do you write? With a word processor? An electric typewriter? A quill? Longhand?

But the essential question is: Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?

For more of Lessing’s acceptance speech: In search of the imaginative space: wise words from Doris Lessing.

Also relevant: An amazing writer at work …  my blog post on the daily routine of power-writer Joyce Carol Oates.

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}