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How professional writers work

There’s a fascinating piece on a blog site called Study Hacks, which I discovered today because it popped up high in Del.icio.us. It’s aimed at students who need to write papers, but as the article itself points out, the advice applies to just about any form of writing.

The author has dug out a series of interviews with “masters of long form non-fiction” and used the information to create a picture of how professional writers work.

The most striking observations from this study:

The writers work in the morning. They often start very early in the morning.

Five out of ten of the writers described a little ritual before starting their morning writing. A surprising number of these rituals focused on The New York Times.

The writers drink coffee. Lots of coffee.

The writers write in isolation. If they didn’t have families they would push this even farther. Many discussed having no e-mail or phone in their workspace. One purposefully used a “shitty old laptop” to avoid temptations like solitaire. Gay Talese rigged his home office so it could only be entered through a separate outside door.

The whole article, called “How to Schedule Your Writing Like a Professional Writer'” is well worth a read.

Nearly all of the writers questioned said finding a place free of distractions was very important to them. As a professional writer myself, I’d say that is indeed a great idea, but not advice that I’m ever able to follow myself.

There are distractions all around me. I have a phone on my desk because clients might call. There are emails popping up because they might be urgent. Then there’s the dog, the cats, family members, the garden, the sunshine, the internet … you get the idea.

The article points out that magazine writers seem to able to work anywhere. As I started out in an insanely hectic newsroom, perhaps that’s why I’m able to still get at least some writing done.

What do you think of the advice? Is a distraction free writing environment something you have achieved? Do you think it’s even possible?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James Chartrand February 18, 2008, 11:34 am

    I write in the morning. Very early in the morning before the sun comes up. I have no distractions because my kids are still sleeping. And I drink copious amounts of jet-fuel strength coffee.

    I also live in isolation. Possibly even more so than others, because I live in the rural backwoods of Quebec.

    It works 🙂

  • Ross February 18, 2008, 2:35 pm

    I don’t see how a distraction free environment is possible when running a freelance writing business. If you are a novelist or someone who doesn’t have to be wary of answering calls or checking emails regularly, then I guess it’s possible. But surely not for a freelance copywriter?

  • James Chartrand February 18, 2008, 2:57 pm

    @ Ross – A distraction-free environment is possible, but it means finding the right hours to work and focus where there are no distractions. Hence, early morning and locking doors.

    I don’t think it makes a difference for a novelist or a copywriter – they’re both writers and both face the same issues. I think… I only work on my novel in my spare time. The rest goes to copywriting 🙂

  • Simon February 18, 2008, 4:04 pm

    I play a lot of tennis where people talk about being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in flow’ as the way to peak performance. And the same is said to be true for writing. When you are really absorbed in it, you are in a state of flow.
    But I’ve also heard it said they every time you are brought out of a state of flow by a distraction, it takes at least 15 minutes of concentration to get back into it.
    So finding a distraction free environment is important.
    I just wish someone would explain it to my ten-month-old Airedale terrier who can’t understand why I’m sitting at a computer when the sun’s shining outside.