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Writers Talk About Writing

How Much Sleep Do Writers Really Need?

How often do you hear that it's just about mandatory to start writing earlier in the day? About 30 seconds of research showed me that a great many people offer this advice quite blithely.

While I believe that it's generally better for most people to write in the morning (for these reasons) I've studiously avoided telling people that they need to get up at 5 am. Or even 6. Or even 7.

In fact, I'm pretty vehement about protecting my sleep. This stems from a lifelong series of sleep problems, starting when I was doing my post-secondary degree. In those days, I worked at my family's weekly newspaper business one night a week. I mean that bit about "night" literally — I went to work at 7 pm, right after dinner, and worked until breakfast at 7 am. I did that every week for nine years. I was young and felt indomitable.

When I left the family business, I started working at a then-large metropolitan daily (like all newspapers, now a shadow of its former self). There, I had to start at 6 am. This nearly killed me. A lifelong night owl, I would have been happier staying up all night. But I couldn't very well do that five days a week, so, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 am every weekday. It was excruciating.

Then, I left newspapers when I became pregnant with triplets. And guess what? The sleep challenges continued. My kids were tiny and premature and didn't start sleeping through the night until they were two. Worse, it took them another full year to settle into any sort of through-the-night pattern. I went from 1 am to 6 am feeding them and my husband took over. (This was my choice — I was the comfortable night owl; he was the morning lark.)

But by the time I was in my mid-40s, my world fell apart. I started waking up half a dozen times a night and had great difficulty falling back asleep. I always woke for the day at 5 am, if not earlier. Alarmed, I had myself referred to a sleep lab and met with a very kind doctor who told me the issue was probably hormonal. He also said my crazy sleep patterns of earlier years had likely contributed to the problem and gave me a lecture about sleep hygiene. Yes, it's a real thing!

I spent 10 happy years as a well-adjusted early morning person — it's much easier to thrive in this world as a morning lark — but now my life is starting to change again. I'm having a tough time falling asleep at 11 pm — despite feeling exhausted. And I'm finding it difficult to arise at 6 am, even in summer when it's nice and bright outside.

Could my night-owl self be re-emerging after a long time of dormancy? Perhaps. But whatever is happening, I know better than to shortchange my sleep. New research shows that sleep is far more valuable than we'd previously understood. It not only helps repair heart and blood vessels, it also reduces the risk of kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. But here's the really interesting part. Sleep is also essential for creativity — exactly the kind of behaviour you want to exhibit when you're writing.

In reading a New York Times piece about the business professor and bestselling author Jim Collins, I learned that he protects his sleep far more vigorously than I do. He charts it on an Excel spreadsheet and ensures he gets 70 to 75 hours every 10 days. "If I start falling below that," he says, "I can still teach and do 'other,' but I can't create."

I don't know how long it will take me to sort out my current sleep conundrum, but I do know I don't want to be part of the dreaded US statistic: some 40% of Americans get fewer than seven hours sleep per night.

If you're part of the 40%, don't even think about getting up 15 minutes earlier to write. Most adults — including writers — need at least 7 hours per night. Getting more sleep may be the best favor you can do for your writing.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 17th 2016, 2:17 AM
Comment by: Peggy (Cary, NC)
I enjoyed the article very much. I have had the problems listed, but another irregularity...

I a m "retired." My schedule is moderate. When I am "creative,' I often wake very early...like now 2:00 a.m. I FaceBook and write here and there on several projects. My laptop is right on my bed....I will start FB or miscellaneous work. Suddenly I nod...am totally asleep perhaps 15 minutes. I often find long strings of words on kepor,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,dddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd

But that little sleep will have been refreshing. Sometimes I then get up and do a better job washing my teeth...floss...perhaps clean up the house, then climb back in only to start writing annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn and I fall into a deep sleep...this mightlast1/2 hour...more...this goes on..'ll

I am pretty faithful going to an Aqua Aerobic class every am Monda thru Saturday...let's say I will make at least4 or5 classes a week.

I usually have breakfast/lunch out..and then return home...My husband is on a walker and partially sighted...I ensure he is OK and fed...whateer

Then I will go back to bed, pick up a newspaper...read 20 minutes and>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>zoned until the phone rings usually...jolted awake an average of 1.5 hours later...I have no idea how much sleep I am getting...I like this kind of sleep...
Thursday March 17th 2016, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Kathy W.
I think I'm just a few years ahead of you, and relate to your story. I have found that I am migrating (without plan or intention) to staying up a little later and sleeping in a little bit more. Since my work is flexible, this doesn't cause problems, but I don't see it changing. I like Collins' comment; it summarizes things beautifully.
Monday March 21st 2016, 11:36 PM
Comment by: Susan B.
I was curious to read your article. Generally, I don't read about increasing one's sleep time because I am so very tired of hearing that I need more sleep. I aim for six hours of sleep each night.

But I wanted to read your article because I like your writing style. You listed even more ailments from too-little sleep than I'd heard before. Maybe I'll shoot for seven hours tonight although we should sleep in 90-minute increments so seven-and-a-half would be better than seven.

I'll let you know in the morning.
Tuesday March 22nd 2016, 1:34 PM
Comment by: Gregory T.
Americans in particular seem to have a psychosis about sleeping enough. Come to think of it, when I lived in France it seemed to be seeping into their list of mental disorders, too.

At any rate, your advice is well taken. Of course, asking how much sleep a writer needs is like asking how much a plumber needs. If either gets inadequate sleep it throws a wrench in their day-to-day dealings. : )

All human beings function better with about eight hours of the stuff. Nor is Red Bull a solution. Well, it's a solution, literally, but you get my drift.

I met Arianna Huffington (Huff Post) a few months ago at some event or other. She said she was writing a book about the issue of getting enough sleep. She told a funny story (depending on your sense of humor) about passing out at work and cracking her forehead on her desk because she'd gotten insufficient sleep for months. When I had two offices, a thousand miles apart, I once spent a year traveling and sleeping three of four hours a night. I thought I was going to die. It's obviously a perennial topic. At least since Edison.

I'm sure you are aware of the concept of "the second sleep," which people used to get before the electric light bulb was invented. People would sleep for three or four hours, to get up with the chickens, literally, do their chores, or pray for excellent crops, et al. They would go back to bed for another three or four hours later. As a writer who stays up too late, often, I have tried courses of this prescription from time to time. I run my own little company, so there is no time clock. This method works, but it makes taking spur-of-the-moment meetings with clients 8 a.m. hell.

Thanks for posting. Think I'll go take a nap.
Wednesday March 23rd 2016, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Peggy, I am not a sleep doctor although I consulted with one long enough that I can guess what he would tell you. If you awaken in the middle of the night it's a good idea to do something else — rather than lying in bed fretting. But DON'T use any screens. The blue light from them (TVs, computers, cellphones and many but not all e-readers) will interfere with your sleep patterns. You're far better off reading an old fashioned book. If you want more traditional sleep, it's also a good idea to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.

That said, if you don't have a problem with your patterns of sleep, then don't worry about it!

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