Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Resist the Writing Rituals of Famous Authors

Did you know that Sylvia Plath and Benjamin Franklin started their writing days at 4 am and 5 am, respectively? Oliver Sacks was also a morning lark (5 am) as were Margaret Mead and Immanuel Kant.

But before you leap to the conclusion that the early morning bird always catches the word, be aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein didn't start until late morning, after 10 am.

And there were other famous authors who wrote exclusively at night: Samuel Johnson, Marcel Proust, and George Sand, among them.

Clients of mine and others who aspire to write frequently seem to grasp at the habits of famous writers and seek to emulate them. It's almost as if they believe there's some magic formula that — if only they could figure it out — would propel them to New York Times bestseller status. Or, at least, help them finish their damn book.

They treat the daily word counts of famous writers with similar reverence. For example, did you know that Ernest Hemingway always wrote 500 words per day? But he is far from the most productive writer around. Here are some other impressive totals:

Michael Crichton: 10,000 wpd
Anne Rice: 3,000 wpd
Stephen King: 2,000 wpd
Mark Twain: 1,400 wpd
J.G. Ballard: 1,000 wpd
Ian McEwan: 600 wpd

(These numbers come from Word Counter, where you can see still more famous names.) 

Whenever I read information like this, I recall a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Or I ponder the Buddhist meditation: "A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms."

What I'm trying to say is that it is not helpful to try to follow the path of previously successful writers, because we are all individuals. What worked for Mark Twain may not work for you — and that's not a problem. Some writers even had very strange habits. Victor Hugo, for example, had a servant take away his clothes when he needed to write. He couldn't leave the house naked, so his habit forced himself to stay at his desk. Do you really want to start doing that?

Instead of trying to emulate famous writers, develop your own habits that work for you. Identify a time of day during which you can be a productive writer and protect that time as if you were guarding the crown jewels. Generally, I think it's better to write in the morning mainly because it's easier to protect that time. But if you're a committed night owl, ignore my advice and write in the evenings. Or the middle of the night, if that suits you better.

How much should you write each day? You are the only person who can answer that question. Your writing experience and your natural aptitudes both play a role here. They alone will determine how many words you are able to produce each day. But if you set your goal in the Michael Crichton range (10,000 wpd), I predict you are going to be very disappointed if you turn out to be "only" an Ernest Hemingway (500 wpd).

Instead of giving yourself an arbitrary goal, start by figuring out what is natural and feasible for you. What can you do every day, even if you're having a bad day? If it's 150 words per day, so be it. Strive for that goal.

The only valuable lesson from other writers is that they persisted. This principle means that they showed up to write even on days when they were busy with other tasks, or didn't feel like writing or were dealing with other crises. (For example, as Stephen King describes in his book On Writing, he wrote for 40 minutes a day when recovering from a horrific car accident.)

Really, the only issue that matters with writing, is not how much you do or when you do it but THAT you do it, day after relentless day.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. 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 January 29th 2021, 9:58 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Sage advice, Daphne, as always. Time is like money; it's easier to save with paycheck in hand than at the end of the pay period. Too often, little is left. We tend to spend what we have. A schedule saves time in advance, ensuring the minutes or hours are available for writing. And we may, like Hugo, need a servant to keep us stripped of access to social media--if not our clothes.
Friday January 29th 2021, 4:38 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You know what I've found, David? Building a strong habit entirely eliminates the need for a servant to hide my clothes!
Friday April 15th, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Carol S. (Tucson, AZ)
Hi Daphne,

I read all kinds of writing schedules. i've even read where one author gets out of bed and goes straight to his desk and starts writing immediately. Some believe your muse is strongest at this time of day.

The closest schedule that fits my style if the one who says this "do what works for you." Even though I'm a morning person, I have to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, take meds, and generally come alive. I would not be fit to sit down and start writing on a consistent basis.

Yes, I've tried the exercise...writing from bed to table...but I can't stick with that schedule. It just doesn't fit me.

I believe a writer needs to pamper oneself to develop doable habits. I agree if a wrier doesn't have some type of schedul, he or she will never get the manuscript finished.

Even though, I'm an early riser, I like to cook breakfast, feed my dogs, or do other necessary chores which needs to get done. So, if I don't get these things done by 8 am, then I stop everything and start writing from 8 am to 10 am. If I get in the zone and want to continue writing, then I will keep writing. But in the back of my mind I will take off at 10, because I may have an important appointmen of something else that needs to be taken care of. Then I take Sat. and Sunday off, but if I choose to write I will. All of these schedules is a mind trick. Most articles tell writers to be consistent and write at a certain time no matter what, but emergencies do happen. In the end, I believe a writer needs to find a writing time that works for them. How do you see it for your writing habit?

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