Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

When Is the Best Time to Write?

I was born a night owl. I used to think 2 am was the perfect bedtime and I resented having to get up before 8:30. Paradoxically (or perhaps I mean, annoyingly), I had to be at work by 6 am in the years I worked as a senior newspaper editor. I loved my job but I was miserable, sleepwise.

But here's the weird thing. When I was in my late-40s, I turned into a morning lark, overnight. I started waking at 5 am as if a fire alarm had sounded. To cope, I began going to bed at 10 pm. I was so concerned I even went to see a sleep doctor who attributed the change to hormones.

Having lived on both sides of the aviary, it's clear to me that society gives more kudos to larks. The expression "the early bird catches the worm" dates back to 1678 and being early to rise will earn you cheery labels such as "energetic," and "enterprising." Late-sleepers, no matter how hard they work, are invariably described as lazy or slothful. This is so untrue and unfair.

Writers frequently debate the best time for writing. Given that I've spent the majority of my life as an owl, you might be surprised to learn that I, too, endorse morning writing (although I'm not silly enough to suggest setting an alarm for 5 am unless of course you want to).

Here's why I like mornings:

  • We're usually in better moods. Our bosses and colleagues haven't said anything stupid (yet), our children haven't spilled the milk or crashed the car (yet), our partners haven't thrown their socks on the floor or left the dirty cereal bowl on the counter (yet). The day is fresh, the potential unlimited. If we're in a neutral or good mood it’s far easier to write than if we're pissed off over something.
  • We have more willpower. So many people see willpower as a straightforward "discipline." Resolve to do something and, do it, dammit. But science has now shown that willpower, like oil, is a limited resource. We get only so much of it. So if you use up your willpower on other things throughout the day -- such as exercising, dieting, finishing something for your boss you don't want to work on -- you won't have enough willpower left for writing, later.
  • The creative brain seems to awaken sooner. Neuroscientists call the editing brain the "focused" part. You might think of the creative brain (the prefrontal cortex) as more "diffuse". The good news is that the creative brain seems more active directly after sleeping so if you have difficulty stopping yourself from editing while you write, use this waking-up advantage to help.
  • It allows you to squeeze writing in to an otherwise crowded day. We're all busy people. And days get only busier as they advance. In the evening, you may need to go to a child's soccer game, a movie, a dinner party. But you're not likely to have any other commitments between 6 am and 9 am, are you? Writing first thing in the morning ensures you actually get it done.
  • It helps build the writing "habit." Just as it's smarter to exercise in the morning, so, too, it's smarter to write then. The things we do without thinking about them - making our beds, brushing our teeth, taking out the recycling — are less painful because we don't waste any time arguing with ourselves. Building a habit takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days so this is a long-term commitment, but it's worth it.

If you want to give early-morning writing a try, here's my advice:

  • Don't adjust your wakeup time dramatically. Get out of bed by no more than 5 to 15 minutes earlier than usual. Solidify this new time for a few weeks before adjusting it further (if you want to.) Use the Kaizen technique and make your first goal so stupidly simple that you can't possibly fail.
  • Don't have a shower or eat breakfast before writing. Simply grab yourself a weak tea or a glass of water. (Try to avoid coffee until you want to do more focused work.)
  • Use mornings for writing ONLY. Don't do other writing-related tasks such as research or editing. (Make time for them later in the day.)
  • Don't check your email or Facebook before writing. Instead, use these things as a reward for when you're finished.

If you're a night owl, enjoy your evenings. But try to spend at least a little morning time 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:

Friday April 11th 2014, 2:31 AM
Comment by: Kristen C. (Saxonwold South Africa)
I love these ideas because they seem do-able. I've been intimidated about having a website with a blog (be brilliant! publish weekly!) and have been avoiding it but feel inspired to try a couple of these suggestions. Thanks, Daphne!
Friday April 11th 2014, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Juleen S
Since when is checking your email and Facebook a "reward" for anything?!! Those two monsters would be better described as "an onerous obligation". Writing before checking all those endless mostly trivial inputs is a good idea, however. If you don't, your consciouness will fill with distractions that will fragment your focus and derail your writing impulse. But reward? Nah.
Friday April 11th 2014, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
I am intrigued and might try this. I also began life as a night-owl. I had a slight hormone shift in my mid-forties, but the result was that I now go to bed around midnight instead of 2 am.

Great article!
Friday April 11th 2014, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jean, I think you'd be surprised by the number of people who regard Facebook as a "reward." I don't but many others do....
Sunday April 13th 2014, 1:01 AM
Comment by: Dave T. (Seabrook, TX)
I write at night. (Like I am right now!). The morning is too hectic, with a somewhat long commute and a number of things that need to be done before leaving the house. In the evening, by 10 PM everyone is asleep, the cats have settled down and I can get in two or three hours of writing. I go to bed late and get up early. After a 21 year career in the Navy, I am used to long work days and only a few hours of sleep. Despite being retired since 1992, I still haven't beat that habit.
Sunday April 13th 2014, 1:50 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dave, you are the exception who proves the rule. (And lucky you for not needing much sleep!) For anyone who WANTS to write but who finds themselves unable, I still suggest trying mornings, preferentially.
Monday April 14th 2014, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
I would agree with Dave. For me, the night is quiet time, when most people are asleep, instead of waking up and starting their day. It's the only time I can really focus on creative work. Too many distractions in the morning, including going through to-do lists for the day ahead and quite simply, trying to gently prod my night owl brain to wake up and start functioning!

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