Habits of Famous Writers

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Will Durant

Authors can seem like mythically talented individuals who are capable of superhuman feats well above the rest of us mere mortals. After all, the muse chose them over us, right?

Truth is: they’re a lot more like us than we know. 

It boils down to having a set of habits that supports their creative pursuits.

In this article, I share the habits of high-profile, published writers to bring these giants back down to Earth. After reading this, I want you to find a habit you can implement and say, “I can do that.”

Feeling Comfortable with Being Alone

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” - Stephen King

Writers need time and focus to set one word after another on the page. As I discussed in last week’s post, it’s not easy to single out your thoughts and turn them into coherent sentences. It’s not a good candidate for multitasking.

Acclaimed fantasy author Brandon Sanderson keeps a night owl schedule, writing while most of us sleep. Peace and quiet don’t mean complete quiet, as J.D. Salinger said, “Absolute silence isn’t imperative, in fact I often have the radio going, but I must be alone. Can’t have anybody with me..... even in the next room.” Emily Dickinson explored the depths of solitude in her poetry while remaining at her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts for most of her life. Maya Angelou would rent a hotel room in the same town where she lived so she could write uninterrupted during the day, and then return to her home to sleep.

Write without fear, edit without mercy

As if the struggle against the empty page, the blinking cursor, isn’t hard enough for a writer, you need to edit. You need to polish what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Well, it’s less like polishing and more like demolition. As William Falkner famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

Do you remember all those clever turns of phrase, top-shelf vocabulary words, and that witty character that spices things up in the second act? They’re all getting the axe! Making cuts is inevitable. How you do it is a matter of debate.

Kurt Vonnegut separates the two approaches to editing as “Swoopers” and “Bashers.” Swoopers plop the shitty first draft, then go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Bashers hammer out each sentence before moving on to the next one.

For a modern example of “Bashing,” bestselling author Morgan Housel shares his approach in a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, “I’ve always been one sentence at a time and when I’m done with that sentence, it’s final…That’s not because I can write a perfect first draft. It’s because I’m not going to leave this sentence that I’m writing until it's perfect.

Get your body moving

One might think the best writers are those who can remain chained to their desks for as long as humanly possible, not going “AFK” unless to use the bathroom, eat, or sleep. On the contrary, great writers are far from sedentary.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche walked for 6-8 hours a day, composing thoughts that would later materialize on paper. Charles Dickens would walk the streets of London for 3 hours a day. One of Japan’s most prolific authors, Haruki Murakami, runs a 10k, swims 1500m or sometimes both when he is writing mode for a novel. 

If I’m sitting at my desk, I really can’t get my brain to work as well as it is when I’m getting up and walking around.” - Morgan Housel

Reading, Lots of Reading

If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” - Stephen King

Quality in. Quality out. Read wide and read deep. The more references and resources a writer has to draw from, the richer and more well-informed their writing will be. Even reading bad writing can inform a writer on what NOT to do.

If you make the choice of reading classic literature every day for a year, rather than reading the news, by the end of that time period you'll have a more honed sensitivity for recognizing greatness from the books than from the media.” - Rick Rubin

Beating “Writer’s Block” with a Daily Routine

An amateur might only write when they feel like it. A professional shows up every day, rain or shine. As E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Imagining you have all the time in the world is probably the number one cause of “Writer’s Block.” To ensure you always beat the block, clock in with a daily routine. Set a timer. Set a daily word count goal. Create deadlines for yourself with consequences. Hold yourself accountable so you keep the pen moving. 

I feel the same pleasure and excitement I felt when I wrote my first novel. I wake up early, brew fresh coffee in the kitchen, pour some in a big mug, sit down at my desk, and boot up my computer (there are times, I must admit, when I miss the days of manuscript sheets and my fat Montblanc fountain pen). Then I sit there and muse about what to write that day. Such moments are pure bliss. To tell the truth, I have never found writing painful. - Haruki Murakami

Writing Habit Takeaways

  • Find a way to focus; be comfortable in solitude
  • Be merciless in editing your work
  • Get plenty of exercise
  • Read plenty of books
  • Build consistency and beat writer’s block with a routine

If you need help with building writing habits that last, check out the new InkJournal course on habit building, starting February 1st. It's designed to help you identify, implement, track, and fine tune your daily habits.