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?

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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. 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.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 )))

  5. @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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 😉

  8. 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…
    🙁

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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  15. 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.

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