The Writing Process of Famous Writers (and Myself)
Writing is very personal. So, is a writer's method of writing. The time, tools, preparation, and methods of each writer are very distinct and are customized to that writer’s needs, personality, and process. In this way, writing is not the boring, internalized process that it appears to be. It takes an interesting person to create interesting work, and while you may not be able to watch the product unfold in the same way that you can with an artist, there are still external forces at work. Writers mumble, perform, wander, and feel the words that end up on paper and screen. Below I detail my process as well as that of famous authors and the accurate depictions of writers working on their craft in films.
My writing process has evolved to fit my changing schedule, lifestyle, and genre, including the tools I use to construct first drafts. Computers were just coming into schools when I started my education. So, the first papers that I wrote for school were written longhand with pencil on lined notebook paper. It was only in the fourth or fifth grade that teachers began to require that we type up our papers on the computer. However, they still required us to submit our first drafts on pencil and paper.
Because of this training, I grew accustomed to writing everything into a notebook and then typing it up. I have filled at least 30 notebooks with journal entries, stories, poems, and notes over the last 20 years. Anything good enough to make it out of the notebook was then typed up on the computer. This process doubles as a first revision since you edit what you are typing, and you tighten language and alter word choice onto the document versus what you have written on the page. In fact, this article was written longhand. I like to use standard, 70 page notebooks or the marble composition books that you can get for a dime in late summer. It's fun to fight the elementary school kids for my favorite colors.
I have never used a typewriter, though I know those are coming back as a popular writing tool, if only in the nostalgic sense. As I began to write novels, I decided to begin my first drafts by typing directly into the computer. Some chapters of my books have been written longhand first, but the majority of my novels are typed into a Microsoft Word document. I then print it out and make my corrections longhand before typing them into Word. Future edits are then made by reading over the document in Word and catching whatever I see. I do this about four or five times. My final edit is then printed out one last time, and I make my final corrections in pen, mark it up, fix the errors in Word, and then I'm ready to submit or self-publish.
Many famous authors had specific preferences in their writing tools. Here are a few below:
- Lewis Carroll wrote primarily in purple ink because this was the color used to correct papers when he worked as a math professor at Oxford, University
- Virginia Wolfe used different colored inks for different types of writing. Purple was her favorite and used for her most important types of writing (novels, letters, etc.).
- Charles Dickens wrote in blue ink because he said it dried the fastest.
- Vladimir Nabokov wrote on 3x5 index cards paperclipped together and stored in small boxes. Entire novels would be written on these cards.
- Eudora Welty straight pinned her stories together, often covering her entire room with long, clipped sheets of paper.
- Wallace Stevens wrote poetry on paper while taking his walks.
- Edgar Allan Poe and Jack Kerouac wrote on large scrolls of paper.
- James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake on crayons and cardboard.
- Danielle Steel writes on a typewriter, writing up to 20 hours at a time.
Do not interrupt a writer.
Time of Day
Time dictates my writing process. I have a full time job which takes up most of my weekdays. I typically write in the evenings after dinner when all of the day’s work is done. Many writing books advise that you put your writing first. Leave the house a mess. Skip your shower. Don’t cook; eat out. Lock your kids in their rooms. That way, you have time to cram in more writing, but that’s not me. I can’t comfortably write without a head full of my life’s to-do list. I need my work day to be done, my stomach full, my household chores completed, and my hygiene in check before I can start to write.
Still, writing is a skill that needs to be done consistently, and ideas don’t wait for you to be ready to write them down. So, I do not restrict my writing time to nighttime. Sometimes, you need to write whenever you have a spare moment. I have written early in the morning, during my lunch break, and in the middle of the night. If inspiration strikes and time is more limited than usual, I have to do it whenever I can.
Many famous authors were lucky enough to be able to choose any time of day to write. Others had other obligations like the rest of us and had to find time in their day to write. Here are the schedules of some famous writers.
- Mark Twain wrote all day from after breakfast until dinnertime, skipping lunch. If his family needed him, they blew a horn to get his attention.
- Franz Kafka worked for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. He wrote at night while his family slept in their small apartment, beginning usually no earlier than 10:30 and working until 6am sometimes.
- Karen Russell will stay at her desk for several hours and produce as much as she can in that sitting.
At what time of day do you typically write?
Grady Tripp writes in his pink robe.
Superstitions and Requirements
Sometimes getting in the mood to write means following a very specific routine. Motivation can be difficult. So, some writers warm up by following a regimen to let their bodies and minds tell them that it's time to write. I can't say that I have any regimen or quirks, like wearing a specific type of clothing. I typically write in my pajamas due to the time of day that I write, but as long as I’m comfortable, it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I don’t have any superstitions or rituals that need to be done in order to write. However, like sports fans, some writers need a specific uniform, drink, place, or accessories required to begin their writing time.
Here are some famous writers' quirky writing behaviors.
- John Cheever wrote in his underwear.
- Francine Prose wears her husband’s red and black checked flannel pajamas and a t-shirt.
- Jane Austen always began her day by playing the piano before the rest of the household woke up. She would then write after breakfast in her sitting room while her mom and sister sewed. At night, she would read what she had written aloud. She often hid her work from visitors.
- Leo Tolstoy needed complete silence to write. He locked his door and did not like interruptions.
- Charles Dickens needed his work area to be just right. His desk was positioned in front of a window, a second door was added to his room to block out the noise, and he needed the following items nearby: goose-quill pens, blue ink, two bronze statues (one of two dueling toads and one of a man with puppies), a small vase of fresh flowers, and a large paper knife.
- John Steinbeck kept 12 sharpened pencis on his desk. He used round pencils rather than the hexagonal pencils due to the calluses he had developed on his hands.
- Truman Capote never began or ended a piece on a Friday, would not stay in a hotel room that included the number 13, and left no more than three cigarette butts in an ashtray.
- Agatha Christie ate apples in the tub while she wrote.
- Flannery O’Connor had a weakness for Vanilla Wafers.
- A.J. Jacobs writes on the treadmill while his kids are at school.
Mort sleeping instead of writing.
Procrastination is the arch enemy of all writers. Even if I can’t wait to write and am bursting with ideas, I still get distracted quite easily. Web searches, browsing my social media accounts, emailing, tabloid news, Buzzfeed quizzes, the colors of the sky as the sun sets, all of these unproductive distractions take away from my writing time, no matter how limited. I went through an era where I couldn’t write or do homework until I played at least 10 games of Spider Solitaire. Needless to say, it was often more than 10 games, especially if on the 10th game I got close to winning.
Sometimes I’ll sit down to write only to suddenly get the urge to organize all of my bookshelves which means that all of the books have to come down, the shelves need to be wiped clean of dust, and then I have to put everything back in an orderly fashion. Maybe I’ll decide that the furniture in my living room needs to be overturned and vacuumed out. That means busting out the vacuum attachments and searching for loose change between the couch cushions.
Maybe it’s time to clear out some old files on my computer or design a new wallpaper for my desktop. I haven’t listened to my 90’s pop music playlist on Youtube in awhile. It may be time to add some songs and remove the ones that have been deleted for copyright infringement. It may even be a good time to stare at a wall for 20 minutes. Before I know it, it's almost midnight, and I've made no writing progress that day. Procrastination is hard to control, and it’s something that we all do, no matter how much we love writing.
Here is how famous writers overcame procrastination and distraction to write their famous work.
- Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in a gray shawl after locking away his clothes so that he wouldn’t be tempted to leave the house. That way, he would work until he was finished.
- Nathan Englander is against having his cell phone or internet access around while he is writing. He typically wears earplugs, even if no one is home, in order to avoid distraction.
- Douglas Adams asked publishers and friends to keep him motivated and make sure that he stayed on track while he was writing.
- William Gibson takes naps in between writing in order to clear his mind and start fresh whenever his mind begins to wander.
Sometimes you have to escape from your life to focus on your writing.
The Best Places to Write
We all have our favorite writing spots. I prefer sitting on my couch with a movie playing in the background. However, I can write in most places. I don’t need complete silence, but writing in a room full of talking people can be very distracting. I’ve been known to write in bed, in my car, on a grassy hill, at my parents’ kitchen table (where I wrote my first novel), at my old secretary desk (where I wrote almost all of my college papers, short stories, and poems), at the library, and by the lake while fishing (trying to take notes and watch a moving bobber should be a skill that I can put on my resume).
Below are where some famous writers constructed their famous pieces.
- Truman Capote wrote on his back, writing on pen and paper while drinking a glass of sherry.
- Victor Hugo wrote standing at a small desk in front of the mirror and wrote in the morning after breakfast till 11am.
- Gorege Orwell wrote at the Booklovers Courner where he worked part time. He had a lot of downtime and wrote during his breaks, for an hour in the morning, and for a few hours during the afternoon.
- Vladimir Nabokov ate molasses while he wrote in his car.
- Maya Angelou used to book a hotel room, remove all of the distracting wall decorations, and brought along a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, legal pads, a thesaurus, and The Bible to write her famous poems.
Sophie cannot write lyrics when she is upset.
Those who suffer from writer’s block may sometimes be blocked by their mood. If I'm trying to write a funny piece when I feel miserable, it can be impossible. If I’m trying to write fiction when all I want to jot down are my feelings, I know that it’s time to switch from writing prose to writing a journal entry. It’s still productive writing, and it beats staring at a blank screen or page because I'm forcing myself to write something that I just don’t feel like writing. Some writers are more able to live within their stories and characters, but I'm not one of them.
William's Rolling Stone Article Deadline
Word Count and Deadline
When I was a writing student, I, like all students, had to meet specific deadlines which dictated how much I wrote in a day. This carried over into my summers when I would discipline myself to sit and write until I felt like I had produced a decent amount of work, or at least something that I could develop into a polished, submittable piece. I like to finish what I start, and it took me some time to commit to a novel because most stories and poems that I wrote had to be done in one sitting. I felt like it was the only way to ensure that I met my quota for the day and produced a large body of work. This was helpful in that it helped me to prepare for the next semester in school by having several drafts of stories and poems to workshop in class. However, I stopped giving myself deadlines and word counts once I was out of school.
These days, if I had to sit and force myself to write 1,000 words a day or commit a specific chunk of time to writing, it would make me hate writing. Any forced time or quota is not enjoyable; it’s work. If it's the end of the day and I haven't devoted any of it to writing, so be it. I'm disciplined enough by now to know that I will pick it up again. Tomorrow, I may have the time, inspiration, and focus to write something better than anything I would have rushed to jot down just to say that I did some writing that day.
However, many writers do impose these restrictions on themselves. Here are some of them.
- Ernest Hemingway resolved to write 500 words each morning.
- William Faulkner once chronicled how he and Sherwood Anderson would go out drinking until 1-2am. He would listen to Anderson ramble on as they drank, and then he would be up in the morning writing.
- Flannery O’Connor could only write for about two hours a day due to her lupus diagnosis which ultimately led to her early death. However, she committed to those two hours and wrote whatever she could.
- Thomas Wolfe wrote 10 pages a day, triple-spaced and would not stop until he hit 1800 words, whether it took 3 hours or 12.
- Stephen King gives himself a 2,000 word minimum quota to hit each day. He writes in the mornings, leaving his afternoons free to do other activities.
- Dorothy Parker wrote very little each day, as little as one sentence per day.
- Hanki Murakami wakes up at 4am everyday and writes for 6 hours.
- Kurt Vonnegut wrote from 5:30 to 8:00 am and ran errands in the afternoon.
- Barbara Kingsolver writes starting at 4 am and won’t start anything else until she has decided that she is done writing for the day.
My novel scrapbook.
Stages of Writing
Certain days are reserved for different stages of writing. Some days are for taking notes. Some days are for editing. Some days are for creating outlines. This can help to curb writer’s block, something we all try to avoid, whether we believe in it or not. When I began writing novels, I realized that I need a visual image to match what is in my head. So, I began to take notes and print out pictures of people, places, and objects that match elements of the story that I’m writing. It has really helped to draw out diagrams of neighborhoods, look at a characters whose description matches my own, and create class schedules and calendars marking important events in a story. It helps with continuity and visualization, making my story more real to me. It’s something that I highly recommend.
An old desk used by a Disney animator.
In the end, no one’s advice concerning the writing process is universally helpful. Any tools, rituals, and methods are something that have to be shaped by each writer. So, while I relish advice given on how to write, I no longer take it to be the only advice or option there is. As you can see from the many different methods of famous writers, there is no right or wrong way to write. Your process is an extension of yourself, and if you ever become famous, you can share your quirky styles with the world for their amusement and inspiration.
What are your writing rituals? Which writers’ rituals are your favorite? Leave a comment below!