How Routines Save (and Ruin) Your Writing

Can you name one thing that could harm your writing if you do it—and if you don’t? Writing “routines” might not be the first answer to pop to mind. But nothing affects our writing more than the routine (or lack of one) with which we implement our writing into our day. Unfortunately, if we don’t approach routines with just the right mindset, they can cause more harm than good. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of both routines and the lack of them.

 

The Routine-I-Need-My-Routine Approach

Some writers thrive on routines. These über-organized folks show up at their desks at the same time every day (channeling Peter de Vries famous statement that he writes “…when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning”), run through the same set of warm-up steps, use the same pen and notepad, drink the same brand of coffee, and wear the same pair of lucky socks.

The Pros of Routines

Maximized Productivity

The very essence of a daily routine means you’re going to be writing daily. And the fact that you have your routine organized into clearly established steps allows you to dispense with wasting time and instead get right down to business.

Enforced Discipline

Routines encourage the discipline so crucial to any successful writing career. If we expect to gain the aforementioned productivity, we first have to show up at our desks every day and put words on paper. Establishing a set routine limits your excuses for avoiding that desk and that piece of paper.

Sustainable Habits

Writing is hard, no question about it. And the hardest thing about writing is actually sitting down to do it. Those first words on a blank screen can be torture. But the longer we maintain a habit, the easier it becomes to keep maintaining it. Once you’ve shown up at your desk for ninety days straight and written something every single one of those days, the more likely you will be to sit down and write something on the ninety-first day.

The Cons of Routines

Lack of flexibility

The fixed nature of routines and the habits that result can create an almost superstitious mindset in which we start believing we can’t write anywhere but in our special corner of the coffee shop, with our special purple pen, while listening to a loop of the first five minutes of Beethoven’s 7th. Like Pavlov’s dog, these things condition us to fall into the writing mindset. When suddenly the coffee shop closes down, our pen runs out of ink, and our Mp3 player breaks, we can panic into believing we can’t possibly write without them.

Lack of spontaneity

Like the aids-turned-crutches listed above, our schedules can also inhibit our spontaneity. If writing time is seven in the evening, every evening, we can end up ignoring the spontaneous call of inspiration earlier in the day. Maybe we’re struck with a brilliant dialogue exchange in the middle of the afternoon. If we wait until seven to write it down, we may well lose the freshness of the original idea.

Dirty socks

I’m not kidding. Those lucky socks get stinky fast.

The Routine-What-Routine? Approach

Other writers probably wouldn’t recognize a routine if one ran them over in the street. These free spirits prefer writing wherever and whenever inspiration strikes. They don’t need special tools: a napkin or scrap of wrapping paper will do the trick. As for lucky socks—pfft—who needs warm tootsies when the muse starts singing her siren song?

The Pros of No Routines

Maximized Productivity

Productivity can strike the non-routined just as often as the schedule-happy among us. But it’s a different kind of productivity. Instead of the enforced, write-every-day kind of productivity, here we get the more uncontrollable but often more powerful bursts of spontaneous write-when-and-wherever-inspiration-strikes productivity. If you’re inspired at three in the afternoon, write now before you lose the inspiration or the oomph to write.

Mental elasticity

The less reliant we are on our physical surroundings or stimuli, the less likely we are to talk ourselves out of writing when everything’s not just how we like it. The house is a mess because of a remodeling job? Write in the midst of the sawdust. A sick child interrupts your scheduled writing time? Write while he’s in the tub.

Added inspiration

The very fact that we’re not writing in the same place at the same time every day means we’re exposing ourselves to new stimuli. When we look up from the keyboard, in need of some inspiration for the next paragraph, we often draw upon whatever we see. If we see the same thing every day, we’re more likely to limit the scope of our possibilities.

The Cons of No Routines

Lack of productivity and discipline

Just as the freedom from routine can inspire us to write at any time of the day, it can also mean we end up writing only when we feel like it. As I’ve talked about in my audio presentation Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration, we can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to find us. We have to get off our duffs and go after it with industrial-grade butterfly nets. Often, establishing a set writing time every day is the best way to get inspiration to come to us.

Lack of organization

Another problem with the helter-skelter writing approach is that we aren’t as likely to be organized. When our notes are written on napkins, scraps of wrapping paper, the backs of grocery lists, not to mention half a dozen digital devices (a computer or two, a flash drive or two, our smart phones, our e-readers, and maybe a tablet to boot), we can easily lose whole sections of writing altogether.

Cold feet

Lucky socks may get stinky, but at least your feet wouldn’t end up looking like blue raspberry Popsicles.

You’ve probably figured out by now that there’s a lot to be said for both of these approaches to writing routines. You’ve also probably figured out the only way to avoid harming our writing with either too much routine or not enough is to focus on finding a balance. Search out your strengths and weaknesses and create a routine that is both fixed and flexible enough to grant you the greatest amount of inspiration and productivity every single day.

Tell me your opinion: Are you a routine or a non-routine person?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Definitely fall into the second category, I tried doing the daily with the A to Z Challenge but was unhappy with my forced inspiration. Though too many times do I leave something too late and lose the buzz.

    Sometimes lack of organisation can provide another perspective, a quirky thought you wrote down and forgot is viewed differently when you find it 3 months later under the couch and could give added inspo 🙂

  2. I’m all over the place but more like the second…unless I’m on deadline.

  3. well, I don’t have a laptop so I’m limited to writing at my desk – unless I write the old fashioned way, which I sometimes do on my porch in the sun – but I do pretty much stick to a routine because I don’t have all day, just the evening and I want to make as much use of it as possible.

  4. @sjp: Of course, the trick is remembering what the note under the couch is all about! I used to ascribe to the thought that if you couldn’t remember an idea, it wasn’t worth writing. But my memory isn’t what it used to be (thanks to a skull injury a few years ago). Nowadays, if an idea is good, I wrote it down – in detail!

    @Caroline: Amazing the things deadlines inspire us to do!

    @mshatch: The busier our lives, the more useful a routine can be. Organization is good at streamlining more tasks into less time.

  5. I am definitely a no-routine person. I have a writer friend to whom I once said something (mostly joking) about Madam Inspiration coming to visit, and she said she wrote whenever she was inspired, and she made sure she was inspired every day. It makes me feel so guilty, you know? Like I’m really lazy or something for not being able to write when I just /can’t/. I like your post because there is balance in it, and there’s benefits to both sides of the argument 😀

  6. I knew I fell in the organized crowd (ex-librarian here), but have really noticed how routine has helped since I started writing a daily blog. With instant access to readers, I feel motivated and inspire to write every day. Not only has the quality of writing improved, but it’s taking less time, so the mechanics must be improving too.

  7. I combined both. I write with a pen in a notebook whenever inspiration strikes. The notebook is always with me, so I can even park the car and pull it out to jolt down what I’m thinking. I also have the routine of typing for at least one hour most days. I transcribe my notes and add details to the scenes as I look at them with fresh eyes. At the beginning of a project the notebook gets ahead of the typing, but then the typed pages catch up and I can see the story coming together.

  8. @Laura: I’m definitely an advocate of routines, but I’m also a major advocate of every writer finding the methods that work best for her. That’s the only way we can achieve our full potential.

    @Teresa: A blog is a wonderful way to reach out to readers. It’s one of the few ways we can gain instant contact and feedback.

    @Patchi: Sounds like you’ve achieved the perfect balance!

  9. Hahaha on the stinky socks. It’s too hot for socks right now, but during the fall, winter, and early spring, I actually have several pairs of fuzzy socks in order to avoid this sort of thing. And my cats thank me because they don’t like the smell either. 😉

  10. Three pairs of socks and a pair of slippers is average for me in the depths of winter. If they’re warm, they’re lucky!

  11. I tend to be non-routine… although I do like routines occasionally.
    And, yeah.. I have noticed times when not having a routine has ruined my writing.. as well as other things..

  12. Simply being aware of how routines affect us, for better or worse, is valuable in determining to what extent we need to implement them in our lives.

  13. I don’t have a routine currently and my writing has been sporadic. I definitely need to establish a routine with some flexibility built into it to keep me from getting bored. For instance, write everyday at a certain time, but perhaps vary the location.

  14. Honestly, the most difficult thing to find is a balance between the two. It’s relatively easy to shun routines or to lock ourselves into a specific one. But what can be difficult is finding that balance between discipline and flexibility. If we *can* get there, we’ve found the sweet spot.

  15. I could use more routine as evidenced by how much I’m able to write during the routine of NaNoWriMo. But I also need balance since I get very little done during NaNo other than writing, and it takes me a long time afterwards to catch up on all the undone stuff. Great points, and I love the touch of humor with the socks.

  16. One of the great things about the brilliant experiment that is NaNo is that it shakes up writers and magnifies areas in which they’re already doing things right – and areas in which they need to step up the pace. It’s also a great way of discovering the “stuff” in our lives that we can streamline, versus the stuff that has to take priority, even over our writing.

  17. I’m a Peter de Vries clone. I get up every morning at 6 a.m. I jog 3 miles, eat good breakfast, and then take a shower. From 7 to 9, I practice piano (I’m also a classical pianist). At 9:00 I sit down and write until 11:00. Between 11 and noon, I make/answer phone calls and emails (and sometimes browse shoes online–shoes, I love them!). At noon, my husband drops off lunch, and I eat while I write. At 3:30, I take a break, go outside, take care of my garden, and get a quick snack. I check my answering machine, in case of an emergency, and I write until 6. After six, I completely clock out. I may play a few computer games or post something, but there is no more working. That’s the time I spend with my husband and my three fur babies (2 Maltese and 1 Golden Retriever). I do this 6 days a week, Mon-Sat. On Sunday, my husband and I go off and do something somewhere other than home, and I rarely even open my computer. This is my routine for 10 1/2 months out of the year, unless I am traveling for research or giving a presentation. After I’ve submitted one of my volumes, I take a 2-week vacation, and I take 15 December to 15 January off of work every year. I travel to a remote area, usually somewhere on the coast, and just disappear. That’s the only way I can fit in everything that needs to be done and keep my wits about me. I can meet deadlines, still perform concerts, and I rarely step on any toes. I think I would be petrified (there’s that word again) of doing it any other way.

    Like you said, for some, routines actually stimulate the creative process. When I’m away from home, I carry around a notebook in my purse. When I get “inspired,” I make a quick scribble on the page, so that I can be reminded to pick up that idea later. I would love to be able to work productively with no routine, but I’ve never found a way to do it.

  18. I used to be a non routine person..now I’m a routine person. It’s easier because I’m unemployed and so I have time on my side. I write around 9 to 11 at my unemployment coffee shop. And night…usually afte dinner and wine, not any time in particular. But now that you mention it, I have fewer spontaneous moments of writing. But that didn’t work for me before by not having a routine. I write more than I have with a routine and for now that’s all I ask! 🙂 Especially because I have a work in progress I’m trying to finish. I think if I was not having as many ideas I would appreciate the spontaneity.

  19. I don’t exactly have a fixed routine, because I can write anywhere at anytime. But when I’m starting a new piece or feeling distracted, I have some go-to places and music that help me get in the groove. Great post!

  20. I really enjoyed this post because I’m in the middle of establishing my own routine right now. It’s difficult though, because I just moved and I’m still trying to settle in. Not only do I lack a writing routine, I have absolutely no routines to speak of! Still, I think it best to maintain a hybrid approach– to set aside a specific time to write, but to also be receptive to creative energy. Sometimes you have to write that idea down, because if you don’t, you lose it.

    Thanks for the post! I loved the socks!
    Best,
    Savannah
    untetheredasacloud.wordpress.com

  21. Nicely covered – and of course it’s not an obvious choice between routine and non.
    I’m a reluctantly non-routine person. I’ve been retired for several years now, with the flexibility to pretty well arrange my day anyway I want it. That flexibility can be a good thing and a bad thing. Good is I want to frolic through life like a The Grasshopper, having a good time, following every sparkly thing I find. Not so good if I want to focus like The Ant and get something specific accomplished – like editing a novel. Or doing taxes.
    I’m working on achieving some sort of balance here – the ROW80 challenge is helping me.

  22. excellent post, Katie !

    As for me I’m an opportunist writer, I write when I have time, I do routines as well as spontaneous writing when I’m in the tube, or at work, or waiting for something. But I write only few words at a time, I’m very slow 🙁

  23. @J.: You sure you’re not my clone? 😉 Sounds like an awesome routine. I especially like the enforced month off in a remote area. The more strict our routines, the more important it is to take time off to recharge our batteries.

    @Nicole: I find that the more I write, the more I want to write. Forcing myself to sit down even on a day when I may not feel like it, actually ends up snowballing my creativity and making it easier and easier to sit down and write on subsequent days.

    @Autumn: I’m a big advocate of “warming up” for daily writing sessions, via specific music, journal practices, etc. As long as we don’t rely on these techniques to the point of superstition, we can use them to rocket us into daily creativity.

    @Savannah: Major life changes can throw our writing routines for a doozy of a loop. But the shake up can be a good thing too, since it can force us to seek out even more productive methods.

    @Ravens: What would life be without these little challenges? I prefer to work to a set routine. But I’m constantly refining that routine to fit in better with the uncontrollable and inevitable changes of my life.

    @Grigory: I wouldn’t consider myself a speedster either. But slow and steady wins the race! I believe this is even more true in areas of intricacy, such as art.

  24. I just found your blog today and I love it! I need to bulk up my writer blogs so I can get all of the advice possible.

    Ideally, I would love to have a routine, but summer vacation and routines do NOT go together for me. At all. Normally, I don’t have this long of a vacation, but since my husband is overseas, I gave myself a long break from home.

    I have to say, this lack of organization is driving me crazy. I may have to make up a new routine for the summer.

  25. I’m a way non-routine person right now. I have this terrible habit of fixating on the thing that I am NOT supposed to be doing at the moment. I am the one to worry about problems at work while helping my kids with their homework, and to notice that huge pile of laundry while I am supposed to be doing the dishes. So naturally, my best writing gets done exactly when I am supposed to be doing something else!

    I can see where my writing suffers as a result of it, though, and I think what you say about striking a balance rings true. It’s something I will have to work on in the future. Thanks for a great post; I’m a newcomer to this board and have found it quite interesting and enlightening.

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. I get that flexibility can be important. But for me a routine is essential. That’s where you need to start. After that, if you find it’s not working, you can change your routine, that’s fine. Plus, you can build flexibility and variety in.

    I have my iPod Touch with me at all times and use Nebulous (a note app) to take notes on it. That syncs with Dropbox so that my notes are distributed to every computer. That takes care of spontaneous inspiration to a degree.

    You can vary the place you work in, the music you listen to. You can swap parts of your routine around on different days – go for an inspirational walk first one day, do some inspirational freewriting first the next (this is assuming you’re in the enviable position of being a full-time writer of course).

    I can’t help thinking that if you have no routine at all (and sorry if this sounds harsh), you’re not taking it seriously. Relying on your muse is like relying on luck. “If I’m lucky today I’ll do some writing”. I can see how you might get some flash fiction or brief poems down, but writing a novel? Forget it!

    Some people think that writing in a routine makes your writing dull, and writing only when inspiration hits makes the writing much more interesting to read. I think that’s a myth based on how you feel when you’re writing, and not on how the work feels to read. I’ve heard numerous writers in interviews say that when they come to edit they can’t tell the difference between “inspired” writing and when writing was a struggle.

  28. Katie, I replied No to your poll, because I dislike the routines, yet I totally understand the the bulk of work is done by sticking to routines , they also help in growing self-discipline. Still, I’m naturally a terrible procrastinator. I aslso calll myself a lazy workaholic )))

  29. @Ashley: One of the reasons I dislike traveling is that my routines always fly out the plane window. It’s very difficult to focus on detailed work when away from home.

    @Andrew: To some extent, our tendency to want to do anything but writing when we’re supposed to be writing comes down to a desire for procrastination. We have to nip that one in the bud, since it likes to grab a mile when we give it an inch.

    @Matt: I’m also one of those writers who err more on the routine side than the non. I’m aces with schedules and not so great with the flexibility part. To a large extent, finding the methods that work best for each of us depends on the strengths and weaknesses of our own personalities. But whatever those strengths, channeling them into at least the semblance of a routine is important, if only for the sake of consistency.

    @Grigory: “Lazy workaholic” – I like that!

  30. I’m a routine person. Every morning, after putting the dogs out into their yard, feeding the birds and making coffee, I sit. All morning.

    Today sitting has not brought forth more than half a dozen paragraphs, so here I am, taking a break while trying to figure where this chapter has to go, and blogging.

    One of the most important parts of my writing ‘routine’ is off computer. Not just thinking-planning, but all the time, awake or asleep, I keep two journals. The red one goes with me, and at night sits beside the bed for those amazing 3 A.M. inspirations. My memory at that hour does not support the inspiration until morning. By popping notes into the journal I can then go back to sleep with a clear mind. Then in the morning the notes drive me forward.

    The brown journal sits beside the computer. It is my summary journal telling me day-by-day what I have accomplished. Yesterday it was about 2700 words: today it will not reach 500. At the end of each chapter I summarize the chapter, enter the chapter word-count, and the total word-count.

    Yes, definitely I’m a routine person.

  31. I love that your notebooks are color-coded! I don’t color-code mine per se, but I do try to find whatever color feels right for the current story. It was a toss-up between red and yellow for my latest WIP, but I finally went with yellow, just because I’d never used that one before. 😉

  32. Last few weeks my routine has been wake up, coffee, sit at computer, read the last few paragraphs I wrote then write the next sentence and erase it and write another one and erase it and so on for about 40 times before I turn the computer off and read something that a good writer wrote…
    🙁

  33. Yuck. I hate it when that happens! One of the things that always helps me bust through that is to simply start writing and keep writing, without judgment, until I *do* hit something good.

  34. Hi K.M.

    Loved this article! And I can’t help but agree with everything you say. I am a rigid routiner – I absolutely must write everyday when I have a book on the go. I find it helps me keep focused and I feel happy at the end of the day because I feel like I have achieved something wonderful. If I don’t have this routine I find I can’t think straight. Even when I’m not working on a book – like right now – I still have my routine of blogging, networking and researching my next book. I think if I lost my routine I would lose my will to live!

  35. I’m definitely in the routine camp myself. The enforced schedule gives my day structure and keeps me on track – even when I’m feeling lazy or unmotivated.

  36. I needed to hear this! I have been shooting for 2,000 words a day this last week, and of course it bothers me that I might not make it there every single day. But the important thing about goals,I think, is that they get us working. And if we are producing effort, then that is all we need to worry about.

  37. I actually find myself much more productive if I give myself time goals rather than word count goals. Word count goals seem to stymie my creativity to some extent, since I become more focused on output than on what I’m actually writing. Time goals keep me in my chair for a specific period of time, while leaving the word count dependent on the needs of whatever scene I’m working on.

  38. Anonymous says

    Great ѕite уou have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing like yours nowadays. I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

    Here is my site: New Bingo Sites

  39. I had once tried the non-routine approach. It didn’t work much. But I do get bouts of inspiration anywhere and everywhere. So, I start a 20-30 minutes brainstorming session whenever that happen. Or while reading a writing how-to book, I change their exercises to suit my current interest and write then too. So, I do have a routine, but I also keep writing in all other times too. That is a real productivity booster.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is good. Routines force us to be creative on demand. But we also need to be flexible and spontaneous enough to take advantage of inspiration whenever it strikes.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.