Best-selling children’s author E.B. White, once said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper”, and he wasn’t far wrong. There will never be a perfect time when all the stars align for you to write your masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a successful daily routine that helps spur your creativity.
While some writers have slightly unorthodox techniques of overcoming their creative blocks and procrastination, from Dan Brown’s (author of the “Da Vinci Code”) “Inversion therapy” to Victor Hugo (author of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) instructing his valet to confiscate all of his clothes to meet to his strict deadlines, other writers’ routine habits have since gained credibility, and become widely used in writing circles and even large corporations.
So warm up your writing muscles, and join Wordsmith as we take a look into popular daily habits from some of the most successful content creators of our time.
1. Take a stand
If you choose to write at a standing desk, you’ll be in good company. The likes of Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Virginia Wolf, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, completed some of their best work and most powerful speeches while standing.
Ernest Hemingway’s everyday routine consisted of standing in a pair of oversized loafers at 6am, next to a reading board chest of drawers with his typewriter perched neatly on top. “Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” He continued, “When I am working on a book or a story, I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”
Even though it may defy the traditional convention of sitting at a desk, ploughing through your workload, there is some logic to this method. In recent years, larger companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and AOL are following suit – introducing standing desks as an option for all of their employees. Why? Because standing work desks are not only better for your overall health, but they are also said to boost energy, heighten concentration on tasks, and increase productivity levels.
A study conducted by the Draugiem Group used an app called DeskTime to track productivity levels, and found that standing led to 10% more productivity than those who sat at their desks. Along with productivity, the participants experienced a higher sense of urgency and focus to complete tasks, with Greg Hoy, Facebook recruiter telling the Wall Street Journal, "I don't get the 3 o'clock slump anymore, I feel active all day long." Another benefit of standing is that it helps you compartmentalize your tasks, lowering the likelihood of wanting to multitask, jumping from emails, websites, Spotify and other distractions. One participant even noted that it quashed his desire to smoke.
2. The pen is often mightier than Microsoft word
Even in this day and age, when there are countless amounts of software tools at a writer’s disposal, some of the best in the business still prefer to pen out their masterpiece’s longhand, wherever the mood strikes them. J.K. Rowling, British novelist best known for writing the Harry Potter fantasy series, even claimed that her longhand creativity took her to “making up the names of the characters on a sick bag while I was on the airplane” – and she’s not alone.
American filmmaker and Academy Award winner, Quentin Tarantino, also vouches for the power of the pen, claiming he writes all of his own screenplays by hand. "My ritual is, I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook – and I don’t buy like 10. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I’m like, ‘These are the pens I’m going to write Grindhouse with,'" he said in an interview with Reuters.
Personal preferences aside, research shows that writing longhand actually increases creativity. According to studies conducted at Indiana University, handwriting sparks neural activity in certain areas of the brain, much like meditation. Neuroscientist and mind-body expert, Dr. Claudia Aguirre, claims that the actual process of writing, what she terms as “mindful writing” allows the brain to rest momentarily, sparking new found creativity that you can’t possibly achieve with the immediacy of typing. So, next time you’re having a creative mental block, don’t become intimidated by bad penmanship, and give writing longhand a try – you may be surprised by the results.
3. Separating the writing and editing processes
Getting into the daily routine of separating the writing and editing process can be difficult, but it pays off. This timeless strategy has been adopted by some of the world’s greatest writers – and for good reason.
American author and Nobel Prize winner in Literature John Steinbeck recommends to “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down," claiming that, “Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material." Truman Capote, notable American novelist also concurred with the importance of editing, by famously saying, “I believe more in the scissors, than I do in the pencil”.
Research from Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, shows that our brain alternates between two different modes: the diffuse mode, and the focused mode. The diffused mode is often triggered when we are involved in a semi-distracted activity, such as writing, which leaves the brain open to creative thinking, and allows us to link seemingly unrelated concepts together to provide fresh new insight on any given topic. The focus mode on the other hand, is responsible for determining logic, giving structure and sequence to the task we’re involved in. Therefore, if we write and edit simultaneously, we are technically jumping between the two different modes of diffused and focused, ultimately leading to breaking our train of thought in the diffused mode, that results in a decrease of overall creative performance.
However, when we successfully separate the diffuse mode (writing) and the focused mode (editing), we are getting the best of both worlds, allowing maximum creativity and maximum attention to detail throughout the editing process.
So, if you’re feeling tempted to go back and edit your work before its finished, take a break and grab a coffee. Once we start to compartmentalise the writing process into two separate sections: a time for free flow writing and a time reserved just for editing, we will not only see anincrease in faster turnaround time, but also more creativity within the piece itself, because our brains aren’t constantly jumping between different modes.
4. Break for exercise
Running novelist, Japanese writer and international best-selling author, Haruki Murakami, maps out his habits for success with a strict daily exercise routine, he tells John Wray, in an interview with the Paris Review.“ When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometres or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.” Murakami continues, “I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
We’re not implying that every writer should take up vigorous cross-country marathons like Murakami, but we can’t deny there is an inextricable link between exercise and creative writing. Clinical Professor at Harvard, Dr John Ratey explained in his publication of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008), that exercise goes beyond physical health and appearance, to affect the brain’s chemistry, physiology and even how the brain rewires itself. Apart from the connection between aerobic exercise and increased blood flow to the brain, running also leads to a beta-endorphin increase in the brain. This “runner’s high”, allows the runner to experience a powerful feeling of invincibility, which in itself allows a productive space for “mind wandering”. So next time you’re looking to boost your creative juices, a 15-minute run could make all the difference.
American Poet, singer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And she wasn’t wrong. Writers go to extraordinary (and sometimes bizarre) lengths to get past mental blocks and procrastination hurdles to find their writing sweet spot. While no two writer’s daily routines are the same, there are tried and tested methods, backed by science that can help you towards creating your masterpiece. So, why not take this opportunity to experiment and stick to a strategy that works best for you. The smallest change in habits can lead to remarkable results.