8 Strange Rituals of Productive Writers

8 Strange Rituals of Productive Writers

Reader Comments (128)

  1. It’s not quite midnight, but I wake up at 3 every morning to write in silence. (I have a toddler.) I set my coffeemaker for 2:55 so I can wake up to a hot cup of coffee, and I always spend 15 minutes checking personal email and Facebook before I work. Then I close down my email, RSS reader, and all other distractions and get to it!

    • That is ambitious! You have to write when you can. I know a lot of writers that use productivity extensions and add-ons for their web browsers that actually block certain time-sucking sites that one might be tempted to slide over to when working. It has worked for me in the past. Email should definitely be “turned off”.

    • I feel you there, Erin. I get up at the crack of dawn to work every morning too. WIth a 2 and a 4 year old in the house it is the best time to get work done. I’m not good at staying up late so early morning is my intense work time.

    • I hear you Erin…I have “four under four”. I also have a sound-proof home office but I still try to hit the office no later than 5am.

      My routine – coffee, binaural beats (creates cognitive dissonance, relaxes you and stimulates your brain) while playing a few brain games. I subscribe to http://www.lumosity.com for great brain games. It only takes 15 min or so before my brain is running 100mph. Then I can usually crank out a good bit of writing.
      Important Notes:
      1. Know thyself – his point #4 is real. I write early because it’s my most productive time. I write poorly after 3pm so I spend that time in the gym or doing admin type work.
      2. I never check email before I write. I write before anything else.
      3. I often write offline. It forces me to be creative.

    • I start in the morning by surfing the internet for a few minutes and posting on some blogs, then I hop on my walking desk and write for four plus hours. I don’t answer the phone until the afternoon when I’m editing or doing other work. Walked 75 miles on that last book… up a 12% grade!

      • Yes, its a good point. It is very motivating especially for the freelance writers like me because working in companies put us behind intense pressures and that can affect creativity & productivity. As a freelancer, I have written some master pieces while working during my own hours. A superb post. Thanks Reid!

    • So funny that you mention that 3am wake up — I have a 3 year old and a 1 year old and I realized THIS morning at 4am (because I wasn’t sleeping anyway) THAT is when my day needs to start! Glad to see others feel the exact same way! Thanks 🙂

  2. Hmm, I don’t have any rituals myself, but with NaNoWriMo around the corner it seems like a good time to start some! 🙂

    …Unless Write-ins count as rituals? There is something oddly inspiring about settling down into a chair with caffeine, friends, and assorted plot bunnies. *ponders*

  3. I love this post. When I taught writing to college students I used to ask them to pretend they were a fly on the wall in the room where they were writing, and then to write down everything that the fly would see them doing as they prepared to write. I’m sure we all have rituals, even if we’re not conscious of them!

    • Thanks Elana. I think I remember that “fly on the wall” exercise from a creative writing class. Anything that helps you get out of your own head for a minute before you start writing.

  4. What a divine post. I do all of these things at different times. There’s something about writing next to a window that does it for me. I prefer shades to blinds. Sun to shadows. I also like to have a clear space to work on but by the end of my session it looks like a tornado blew through. How does that happen? Music that does the trick: Seryn, Need To Breathe, but depending on my mood, Katy Perry can even do the trick. White noise is good. Starbucks is too boisterous. Smaller coffeehouses with a bar looking outside are ideal….how did us writers get so finicky? 🙂

  5. Great read Kelton. I don’t think they qualify as strange, but my rituals include reading the Bible in the morning (on my stomach to stretch my back in the opposite direction it will be leaning for most of the day while I sit in my chair), praying, eating breakfast and then running. The runs are usually in the 3 to 4 mile range but each time I’m tempted to let loose and pull off a 10 or 12 miler with the intention of getting lost. Once back I shower, eat again and then head to my office where I occasionally kick out the chair and stand.

    Here’s probably the strangest thing I do: I try to talk to at least one stranger a day on the phone. This is usually in the shape of a lead I meet online–even where there is not even a remote chance we could help each other. The goal is to stretch my verbal muscles, dig into the lives of people I don’t know and break the spell of moodiness and shyness that can grow if I’m hiding behind my laptop for too long.

    • By the way, the soundtrack idea works. Two standards for me: Hans Zimmer and Astor Piazzolla (not soundtrack but instrumental, namely an accordion that is moody, elegant and dark).

    • That’s awesome that you talk to a stranger every day!! I need to start doing that. I do feel some unnatural shyness coming from a math background and writing a bunch these days.

      Have you ever just struck up a conversation in a cafe?

    • Thanks Demian, that’s why I love the idea of getting lost because it practically requires you speak with another human being. I’ll have to check out Astor Piazzolla, but I also love anything by Hans Zimmer, especially the soundtrack to Inception. Come to think of it the soundtracks to both Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are pretty great too.

  6. I keep inspiration folders filled with images and articles on topics that I write about. When I get stumped I go there for something to spark my thought process. I purposefully print articles out so that when I write I don’t start looking online because once you do that…boom an hour has passed!

    • Printing out hard copies of inspirational materials is a great tip, for that very reason. There are also apps that allow you to read articles you mark “offline” so you aren’t tempted to drift off.

  7. Great stuff. I’m a take a walk kind of guy. I think good writing is clear thinking, and nothing clear the head better than a walk.

    Of course, I just moved to Ann Arbor from California, so I’ll let you know how this goes in the winter.

  8. I do pretty much all of these things…thanks for validating my habits! They may be strange, but they get the job done.

  9. Wow, such a great post!
    The tie-in with pro-sports is so interesting. So many have established routines for getting into the mindset for playing.
    The concentration level certainly increase by getting that focus!

  10. I have scheduled blocks of time that work well for me as long as my cat Margaret curls up on my shoulder. Not suggesting we have some mind-melding going on but I’m not as productive when she’s late!

  11. Hi. First time commenting here . Count me as another one who writes standing up. It’s easier to move and wiggle and act out what I can’t write out. I also dance to B.B. King before getting down to work.

  12. The last one, about drinking, is a dangerous idea but, as much as I hate to say it, a quick beer does help me write sometimes. It doesn’t help me create, it just help me get whatever ideas have been bouncing around in my head all day out on paper or screen. Still, it’s not something I’d recommend.

    • It’s a double-edged sword for sure, probably best saved as a reward for productivity as opposed to a means to it. Ogilvy did note that he uses it as a “last resort”.

  13. Where would we be without coffee! For me it is at least two cups of coffee, crank up some house music or trance for five minutes, then complete silence while I write (not easy when you have two children in the house!), I “talk” in my head while I write.

  14. It is funny how every writer has their thing. For me, When I do research I have to have talk radio on in the background. And, when I do editing I always put on a hoodie. I guess the hood is a way of keeping me focused and in the editing zone!

    • I love Mozart for the Mind, as well as Chopin. Come to think of it, any piano music does the trick. And I definitely graduate to green tea when the coffee starts to make me edgy.

  15. Love it!! Kelton, thanks for reminding about the many ways to open creativity.

    As a writer and painter I sometimes laugh at myself for the weird ways that seem to work. Not always the same, but great results. My favorites include. dressing in painting attire (many of my clothes are covered with paint).
    Music (classical mostly). For writing, I always do some form of movement walking, tennis, etc. and very important to writing and/or painting meditation prior to creating.

    Paula Leslie, LCSW. BCD
    Essential Life Strategies

    • Definitely Paula, sometimes just unplugging everything to sit in quiet contemplation is the key. It is so easy to get caught up in the idea of “creating” something that we forget to let our brains do some of the work for us.

  16. I’ve found myself recently in the David Ogilvy camp. Maybe it’s the Madmen influence of late. But a little bourbon on the rocks with my iWriter program on my iPad after my kids go to sleep and I feel like a writer.

    Nothing but a white page that fills the screen with one font and no other bells and whistles. It’s basically a digital typewriter (except it has cut, copy, paste and undo). But the drink thing has been working big time. Just one! Two and I start to slur my sentences ;-}

  17. Before I type (or record) content for my colleague, I pour over the comments his subscribers make on his videos. I take their questions and formulate the most basic and direct answers for them. Those comments are my inspiration. 🙂

  18. I love this post! I find the way that other people get ‘prepped’ totally fascinating as it’s so personal. The Observer Magazine here in the UK used to run a photo series called My Desk where they interviewed authors about their space and how they found their muse. For me it’s a pot of rooibos tea, an incense stick or an oil burner filled with lemongrass oil and complete silence. The smell tells my brain when it’s time to create. For editing or research it’s the kitchen table – a different space for different jobs. Sounds odd when I read it back – but it works!
    And I listened to Robert Bruce’s interviews with John Carlton last week and was reassured to hear that his desk is ‘a pit’ covered in scraps of paper – but he knows where every scrap is and what’s written on them. That gives me hope when I can’t see the wood for the sheets of A4 ( narrow lined, bound at the top) that cover my desk.

  19. Great post.
    I can second #3 and #4; I usually write late at night (despite having a day job), make some coffee, and can almost always get in a writing mood with almost anything by Explosions in the Sky.
    And, just as an aside, Kelton, I totally heart Stars of the Lid. Great taste!

  20. Listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Jacqueline Du Pre’s Complete EMI Recordings (usually the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor does it for me.) On the train on the way to work in the morning with noise-cancelling headphones on – well worth the ~£90 investment.

  21. I’ve been contemplating a couple of those points for a while…

    I think I’m going to start writing standing up and getting lost more often instead of crooning in front of my PC all day.

    Great post with a lot of useful insight that I’m going to implement immediately!

  22. I like to laugh a lot first. When I am sullen and sulky I can never kick in the writing. I like to do some pregame by listening to either this morning show out of Boston I like called Toucher and Rich or view the Daily Show. Either way great article and interesting responses.

  23. With the exception of drinking 1/2 bottle of rum, I do a little bit of many of these rituals. From loosening up (i.e. writing in my sweats) and listening to classical music to, just recently, writing while standing up. Must admit, writing while standing up doesn’t seem to be my favorite way to write, it is nice to get out of the chair (or sometimes I’ve taken to the sofa).


  24. My writing ritual consists of a Rockstart Punch energy drink or Steaz tea, some techno (Benny Bennassi or similar on Pandora), and a timer. Once I have those three, I’m ready to rock. The timer, really helps me stay on point.

  25. Here’s what I do: I get out my Google Chromebook (which is slower by the day for some unknown reason), I pull out a pen and notepad for notes (napkins can be used as a substitute when at Starbucks), and I put on my headphones and listen to a “Yo-Yo Ma” radio station on Pandora (Jim Brickman radio is option number two when needed).

  26. All I need is a great post like this one to get me started.!
    A quote like ‘technique alone is just an embroidered potholder ! that is a Killer!!
    I’m off and running with gratitude for the motivation.

  27. Excellent points! I am always intrigued by how other people deal with their everyday productivity, your post really opens up a whole new perspective for me. Thank you so much, this really helps!

  28. I work out, pray, and shower before writing most of the time. I need to add “clean off desk” to that ritual. Thanks for the idea! If I really need a lot of creative ideas, there’s nothing like long-distance travel. While driving, I can work out an entire article or speech or plot line in my head. While flying, I can often write them down, too.

  29. I find that ideas, sentences and themes for my writing pop into my head while I am on my daily run. As soon as I get back a scribble them down quickly. Then I go down to a hotel lounge that overlooks the sea and let the ideas “perculate” and then the writing just comes tumbling out.

  30. I come up with ideas for posts in all different locations and save it on my iPhone.

    I usually write my posts at night after work because time wise this works best. I write everything that comes to mind and follow my structure the same every time to write a good post.

  31. I read that Maya Angelou wakes at five in the morning and checks into a hotel room, where she instructs the staff to remove any pictures from the walls. She writes on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible. She leaves by the early afternoon. She averages 10–12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to three or four pages in the evening.

    Angelou says that she goes through this process to “enchant” herself, and “relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm and Drang.” She places herself back in the time she is writing about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to “tell the human truth” about her life.

    Angelou says that she plays cards in order to get to that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She says, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” She does not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in “telling the truth”.

  32. Hi Kelton, you are spot on with the strange and maybe weird rituals. Most of my post ideas come to me at Church in my time of worship and a lot come to me when reading posts such as these.

    I find those two places stimulating and because I am learning, I believe it inspires me to give back or even a deliver new perspective on how to do something useful.

  33. Cool article. When I was a runner in college I had a preface ritual that I followed every time I raced. It got me pumped up and ready to go.

    I’ve never given much thought to my pre-writing ritual. In college I would clean before attacking my homework, but that was more procrastination than anything. The closest thing I have to a ritual today is having a to do list that I tick things off of every day.

  34. Great article and advice.

    I tried that writing in bed thing but I had to stop.

    Every time I fell asleep, my laptop kept falling on my face.

    • Hi TOm,
      Thanks for the laugh. I’m sure it’s not funny when your laptop falls on your face, but the image gave me a chuckle.
      You could invent some type of face protector in the event you want to continue with this method until you complete your first book. Also, I don’t know if the ER rooms have trained individuals for your type of writing injury.

      Good Luck,

  35. Great suggestions, Kelton. Everyone has their most productive times of day. I find mornings are best. I visit my favorite news websites, check my personal email, then shut that all down and focus on writing. Taking my golden retriever out for a walk helps to squelch writers block.

    Thanks for a great post!

  36. I love to paint, and to get my creative juices flowing, I listen to a song that really hits an emotional chord. And I will paint to that song. But if I don’t put it on repeat, I might lose that creativity I had started. It’s either that or I create an entire playlist that gets me going. I always make my best pieces that way.

  37. Coffee… always coffee. Then upstairs to the desk (usually the standing desk). Figure out the right music to listen to—not always an easy task since the style and artist must perfectly mesh with my mood. Start typing. Don’t stop typing until it hurts, or until it stops hurting.

  38. Awesome post. My ritual is watching an hour of def poetry jam reruns or reading inspirational poetry before I actually write anytjing. About 15 minutes into watching other poets perform their written work I find myself inspired and writing. Writing in the evening between 9 pm and 6 am also helps. I just completed my first book (non fiction) and I changed my schedule – slept during the day and worked at night. I wrote consistently non stop – 9 hours a day for 3 months. No one was more shocked than I that this ritual worked.

    • That’s so interesting, Vangile. The change of schedule like that. Makes me wonder if that’s not something I should try, since I’d have to guess it’s easier to focus at night anyway, right? Fewer phone calls, fewer emails…? Very cool.

  39. Tea and water, hydration being important and all. 🙂 Otherwise, music is key. Need to shut up my brain so I can hear myself think, and music almost always helps with that. Distract the internal editors or whatever. The further into a book I get, the more I find myself gravitating toward certain music – almost like a soundtrack of sorts. It all becomes the backdrop for whatever I’m working on.

  40. I found to be the most productive late in the afternoon so I do my errands in the morning, take a nap, check my email, and then get on working. I have this playlist in my iTunes I listed as my “Work Music” to keep me company. I also keep a pitcher of water beside me to keep me hydrated too. Somehow, it helps me think better.

  41. Although I believe that mental preparation before doing anything successfully is an ancient technique and certainly absolutely vital, I have to admit that personally I haven’t taken it to the ultimate extreme like locking myself away in some sort of closed-off chamber.

    However, good music (without vocals of course) as well as the finest brew are most definitely part of my writing team and we simply can’t go without each other.

    I haven’t tried the writing horizontally approach as yet but now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe this will force me to get a little more rest than I am getting at this point in time. I mean I will be one step closer to actually putting things down and going to sleep when I feel I need to, right?

    Great article; thanks for sharing!

  42. I like to play silly mindless web games for five or ten minutes to clear my head of other distractions before I write. They’re not so long or addictive that they stop me working, but they’re a firewall between writing and the rest of the day. Tea is also a very important part of my writing ritual. A way to enforce breaks and ensure a steady supply of caffeine during the day.

  43. I have been a waiter for 11 years. I can only write while sitting in restaurants. Its like my brain knows that I am there to work, I never get anything accomplished anywhere else, except for editing.

  44. I’ll usually get ideas while walking around, driving or taking a shower, when nothing else gets in the way (actions that don’t take over the entire brain like reading, watching movies, playing games…)
    I’ll write them in an old notebook i drag around with me everywhere.
    Usually every idea gets re-written a few times using different colors (in case i want to go back to the previous one).

    Then i’ll write at the end of the day just before bed (10 to 3 in the morning, usually one or 2 hours each day).
    And i have two main places for my writing : on the toilet or sitting on my bed (not under the covers but squatting on them).
    When writing non-fiction i’ll be at my desk, using two computers (i write on my laptop but do my research on the desk computer). When writing fiction, i’m never at my desk.

  45. Great article! My routine is entirely different. In the afternoon I go to the gym and work out for an hour and a half then I go to Panera’s, get a bite to eat and some coffee and write for about 3 hours. It’s always hugely productive time for me. I seem to need the noise and activity around me to be able to concentrate. Starbuck’s is a good place to write, too.

  46. I have no weird rituals before writing. I just write when I have something to say. However, I am noticing I am more productive after sex – I hope this doesn’t offend anyone. I tend to feel relaxed and open to my creativity. At times I wear my hoodie, with a cup of coffee, when I am angry and just write. So maybe I do have weird writing rituals. Great post. Must give some of the mentioned rituals a try. Anything that will help my writing.

  47. I also have a secret writing ritual: Forcing yourself to not get up until you have written a certain amount of articles. It’s really hard sometimes when you think you just have to stand up and go somewhere.

    When that happens I usually try to do a short medidation exercise which really helps me to refocus again.

  48. Being a night owl I usually end up writing at night, but I guess my ritual is having a cigarette before I write. When I am standing out side smoking a cigarette with nothing to do is when all my ideas come along.

  49. Loved the blog post. But strange habit #1 is a sure way to get a stiff neck. I speak from experience. Whether you lie flat and try to prop up your laptop or sit up in bed and look down at it, it is a killer on the neck. But when boredom sets in at the desk, writers do find strange and creative positions to get the writing done. Never tried writing while standing though.

  50. The way I write is to simple write without correcting grammer or punctuation etc, just write what’s on my mind and only once I see a huge number of words will I stop to edit. If you stop to edit every single sentence, etc you’ll get stuck – let your mind free and write your ideas (then think whether they’re good or bad afterwards).

    That’s how I create articles, blog posts, even entire ebooks sometimes.

  51. I was doing some research to relieve a solid case of writer’s block and came across your blog. It is very well written and offers helpful articles on a slew of topics. I am planning on making it part of my weekly reading routine.

    My ritual begins with a pot of black coffee. Then, I turn on a little Tupac and let the inspiration hit me. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. However, I definitely prep my desk.

  52. As a painter, I’ve learned some habitual, preparatory exercises double as times for creative thinking:

    the ritual forces you to delay acting on those thoughts just long enough to fully form them.

    For instance, when painting with sumi ink, you have to first prepare the ink by dipping the end of a slab of dried ink in water, then gently grinding it in circular motions against a porous stone. This is much slower than grabbing a ready-mixed bottle of ink, but the preparation itself is part of the overall art process. It also is a choice in favor of quality: hand ground ink allows for subtle manipulating of value–very necessary in such images that are made entirely with black ink and the white of the paper, no color.

    When writing, I try to remember the value of this ritual delay. I write longhand rough drafts first. This is slower than typing, but allows messy cross outs and the sensory joy of pressing pen tracks into the paper.

    Then, the next drafts get written on the laptop. But, this digital rewriting is never just re-typing–it is always revision.

    Although this process is slower, it hastens me towards better quality of thought and builds in a revision process before any typed word can be sent out into the world.

    Please visit my wordpress site blog for an image of what this looks like: http://paintingsbykegilmore.com/2013/09/20/slow-down-to-speed-up-writing-traditional-art-rituals-inspired-effective-pre-writing-rituals/

  53. I read that best selling author, Dan Brown, hangs upside down from gravity boots as a ritual. Maybe all the blood going to your brain helps.

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