Great Writers and their Writing Routines

It’s said that writing tips only work for those who invented them, and maybe there’s some truth to that. Literature gives us works of art that are very different from one another, and perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels like the talent of writers is based mostly on enhancing their obsessions. After all, apart from Ernesto Sábato, who would be willing to burn during the afternoon the pages written in the morning?

Perhaps, something similar can be said about writing routines. Maybe it worked for Hunter S. Thompson, but I think we can all agree that having whiskey for breakfast at 3 a.m.—the time at which he started his day, according to his biographer E. Jean Carroll—is not for everyone. However, despite everything, there seems to be a constant: writers love routines. That’s why we’ve made a list of routines of some of the most famous writers so that you can use them as an example (or, perhaps, the opposite).

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf dedicated a lot of time to thinking about the habit of writing. Her essay «A Room of One’s Own», perhaps her best-known text, deals precisely with that: to write, said Woolf, you need a room where you can take refuge.

In her diaries and letters, she also described a fairly structured routine, which suffered little changes over the years. She got up barely after 8, she had breakfast with her husband—Leonard Woolf, also a writer—and she worked on her fiction between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., when she stopped for lunch. After that, she devoted her time to her journal or to her correspondence. In the evenings, she read or entertained guests.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was famous for his suggestions on writing, such as starting with a short sentence, or abandoning the text when you know how it’s going to continue. But he was also known for his strict writing habits. In an interview with George Plimpton, he said that he woke up every morning at dawn, when the day was cool and there was no one to disturb him. Then, he would write for about six hours, sometimes less, until noon. It was hard, he said, to wait until the next morning.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou wrote poems, essays, and 7 autobiographies! In addition, she somehow found time to participate in various plays and musicals, where she showed her singing and dancing skills. And she did all this while actively participating in the United States Civil Rights Movement.

It’s to be expected, then, that such a versatile person would have a particular routine. Apparently, Angelou left her house every day at 6 in the morning. By 6:30, she was already lying in bed in a hotel room, which she rented specifically to work. The room was totally empty, without any decorative items, and she wrote by hand, lying on the bed. One detail: she wouldn’t allow the hotel staff to change the sheets.

César Aira

César Aira has published around a hundred novels. He works at the frantic rate of two or three books a year. The Argentinian author is famous for not editing his texts, which helps, of course. It was common to see him writing by hand in a fast-food restaurant in the neighborhood of Flores, in Buenos Aires. Since it was shut down, he works around the train station. Every day he gets up, goes out for a walk, and writes for just over half an hour. Since the plots are quite defined from the beginning, he doesn’t need more than that: a couple of pages per day, which will never be edited by the author.

Honoré de Balzac

Balzac was another prolific author: in his fifty years of life, he published some ninety novels, many of which were part of his famous cycle The Human Comedy. In turn, some of that furious productivity is known to have been fueled by his quirky habits, which led him to run up debt over and over again (despite making good money from his books).

His writing routine became so frantic it affected his health, and it was perhaps partly responsible for his short life. Balzac would go to sleep at 6 or 7 p.m. and would wake up at 1 in the morning. He worked until 8 and then took an hour-and-a-half nap. Then he would eat (lunch? breakfast? there’s no way of naming that meal) and he would go back to work until 4 in the afternoon. That was the time to take a bath, go out, or entertain guests; afterwards, he went to bed. During the day, the French writer could drink up to fifty cups of coffee!

Franz Kafka

Kafka was one of the few authors on this list who didn’t make a living from his writing. That means that, for most of his life, he had to hold some office job; and his routine, of course, varied accordingly. In Louis Begley’s biography, the habits he had while employed at an insurance institute stand out, where he worked from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. After work, Kafka would eat lunch and take a nap for almost four hours; when he woke up, he did some exercises before family dinner. His writing began at 11 o’clock at night: first, he worked for at least an hour in his correspondence and his diary, and then in his fiction, which could keep him up until 3 in the morning.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is not only one of the most famous authors in the world: he is also a fan of exercising. He even ran a hundred-kilometer ultramarathon! In an interview with John Wry, he said that his training and his writing are part of the same routine. Murakami gets up at 4 in the morning and works for five or six hours. In the afternoon, he runs 10 kilometers or swims 1500 meters (sometimes both!); then he reads a little or listens to music. He goes to bed early, at 9 p.m.

Ursula K. Leguin

In one of the interviews that make up her book Ursula K. Le Guin. The Last Interview, the American writer talked about her routine. Her day started at 5:30 a.m., when she woke up, and continued with a (big) breakfast at 6:15. Between 7:15 and noon, it was her time to write. After lunch, and until 3 p.m., she read and listened to music; between 3 and 5, she devoted herself to her correspondence and household chores. Making dinner and eating it took up all the time between 5 and 8 p.m. And after that, the great Le Guin said, «I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this».

Writing Routines

It could be said that there isn’t a way to sit down and write. Each author finds the rhythm that suits them best: some prefer to get up at 1 a.m., like Balzac, and others don’t go to bed until 3, like Kafka. The important thing, the only thing that seems to be present in all of these routines, is perseverance. Writing is a time-consuming task, and perfecting it requires dedication, almost as if it were a sports discipline (if not, ask Murakami). But the hours needed for that task can appear at any time of the day.

Translated by @florabosch

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