Tunes for a Monday Morning
Elizabeth Goudge: A Sense of Otherness

What Makes a Good Writing Day?

Dylan Thomas' Boathouse in Laughame, Wales

Inside Dylan Thomas' BoathouseDylan Thomas' writing hut, The Boathouse, in Laugharne, Wales

As I dig into my writing schedule again, this post (from April 2014) seems worth re-visit. My own answer to the question above is simple: Any day that I am strong enough to make it up the hill to my studio is a good writing day. My creative needs have been pared to the bone after a month of infirmity. Give me health, time, and my sweet dog beside me, and I'm ready to go.

Tracy Chevalier:

"A good day? I get up, I wake my teenage son up, we have breakfast, and he leaves at 8. That’s the cue for me to go to my office. My writing life has shifted slightly over the years, but what works best for me now is if I start writing immediately. I’ll check my email to make sure there’s nothing I need to deal with right away, then I read what I’ve written the day before. That jolts me into continuing. Ideally, the day before I’ve left a little bit left in the tank, so to speak. Not like Graham Greene — he used to write 500 words a day, and if the 500th word was in the middle of a sentence, he’d stop. I’m not that bad, but what’s really useful is to have a little left that you haven’t quite gotten down on paper. Then I can use that in the morning to get started. A lot of times, if the writing goes well, I’ll be done by 10. Sometimes I’m still working at 6. It depends on what I come up against."

Robert Stephen Hawker's hut, Morwenstow< Cornwall

The view from Hawker's hutHawker's Hut, built by poet Rpbert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875) near Morwenstow, Cornwall.

James MacBride:

"I get up around 4:30 or 5 at the latest. I usually go until I get tired, until about 9 or 10. Then I quit and monkey around. That monkeying around could be anything: research, working out, paying bills, flossing my teeth…I have a whole array of delaying behaviors that usually don’t kick in until 9 or 10. At 5 in the morning I’m too sleepy to do anything but try to think about what I was last working on. My mind is clearer. Through the day sometimes I’ll practice music. I push through the day, get my son to school. Then after dinner, 7 or 8, I’ll have a go at writing again, if I’m really deep into it.

"I can write anywhere. I was on the train this morning writing. I usually write the first few pages longhand. I used to write a lot longhand. I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it — I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the 'insert' key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite."

Robert Duncan's writing hut

Inside Robert Duncan's writing hutA writer's hut built by poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), also near Morwenstow. I seriously covet this one.

Emma Donohue:

"A day like today started around 4 in the morning, because often my kids wake me by yowling in their sleep. Then I’m bolt upright, wide awake, so I figure I might as well use that time in the middle of the night, so I hop up and do a bit of work. More typically I would get the kids off to school around 8:30, then I rush to my computer. I wish that what followed was actual writing. That would be bliss. But I admit that I first make my way through a fast-growing undergrowth of business....

"I know you’re supposed to do the writing first and leave the administrative stuff for later in the day, but I can’t see my way clear to do the writing until I’ve answered those wretched new emails. When I think back to when I had infinite time to write, before we had kids, I don’t think I did my best writing first thing in the morning. I need to warm up. Maybe in fact, by devoting the first hour of the day to silly business, I’m saving the better creative time for later. But sometimes the 'business' takes all day; I look up and it’s already 4, and I have to rush off to the bus stop to pick up the children."

Louise Erdrich:

"I don’t like getting up early, but I do because of school — driving my daughter to school is a good thing about my day. When I get back, either I walk/run our dog or go straight upstairs and sit down in the same chair I’ve had since 1981 — just the right arm height for a board to lay across and then I can sit there and write. A friend upholsters this chair every fifth year, and it is currently covered in red mohair velvet. My cousin’s quilt drapes the back of the chair. I am sort of obsessive about having things around me from my family — these objects pop up in the books."

George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing hut in Hertfordshire

Inside George Bernard Shaw's writing hutGeorge Bernard Shaw's writing shed in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. It rotated to catch the best sunlight.

Jane Goodall:

"The only time I have for writing is when I’m back home in England, in the house I grew up in, where all my things are, my books. Many times, I’ve got to try to get a lot of writing done in just, maybe, five days. That means setting the alarm for five o’clock. Desperately writing until breakfast, going back to write again. Always taking an hour off to spend with the dog. And in the evening I spend time with my sister — we own the house together and she lives in it with her family. Then I sometimes have to go back and write late into the night. It’s a very stressful way to write, high and edgy."

Mia Jian:

"Flora and I have four young children, so I write late into the night — the only time our home is silent. At three in the morning, I usually collapse on the narrow bed in my study, but am often woken a couple of hours later by one or both of our 3-year-old twins, who like to waddle down from their room and climb on top of me. At 8, I make pancakes for the children, then sleep again until 11. This is when the day really begins. I make myself a cup of tea, sit at my desk, phone my friends in Beijing, read for a while, then start thinking about what I am going to write."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed at Monks House in Sussex

Inside Virginia Woolf's writing shedVirgina Woolf's writing shed at Monk's House in Rodmell (near Lewes), Sussex

Margaret Atwood:

"I’d be lucky to have a morning routine! But let’s pretend…. I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d [hand]written the day before.... I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about [my study], except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!"

Lev Grossman:

"I can’t write every day. I’m a binger. I like to go six or seven hours at a time, without a break, then go off somewhere and drink something."

Vita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle

Inside Vita Sackville-West's writing towerVita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent

Nicholson Baker:

"When I’m rewriting, and it’s progressing, I begin breathing audibly through my nose. I like to proofread in noisy restaurants, with my glasses off, staring close at the type. I love the feeling of sealing up a FedEx envelope — that soft, cool fibrous Tyvek bending around the corner of a block of page proofs — and sending it off. Lately, working on Traveling Sprinkler, I’ve been writing in the car, so what I see is whatever is out the windshield — usually leaves, other cars, fireflies. The dashboard is the desk, complete with coffee stains."

Roald Dahl's writing hut

Inside Roald Dahl's writing hutRoald Dahl's writing hut at Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Khaled Hosseini:

"I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

"I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode."

Henry William Williamson's writing hut

Inside Henry William Williamson's writing hutThe writing hut in North Devon where naturalist Henry William Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter.

Karen Russell:

"I try to write 1000 words on a good day, about three pages. The reason for that amount, it feels right to me because most of the scenes I write are 3000-4000 words long. Not always, but on average. That means that I get 3-4 days per scene, which is good, because sometimes I’ll read it and feel — I feel different on different days, so it means I won’t have just one tone per scene. I have several different cracks at it.

"I’ll often be in the middle of writing and realize I don’t know what I’m writing about. For instance, today I’ve been writing a scene about a man who’s grafting apple trees. So I have to stop and look at my notes about grafting. Just now I was thinking, I still don’t really understand this. I need to order a book at the British Library and go and read it tomorrow. That’s what happens as I go. So what I’ll do is write a basic part of the scene, but for the grafting bit…I’ll put down three stars. Three stars in a manuscript for me means there’s something missing, I have to go back and fill it out. I don’t want it to stop my writing flow, but I’ll leave it aside and do the rest of the scene without it, come back and fill it in later. That’s a good interruption. A bad interruption is when I can’t focus and I wind up fiddling around online, having lunch with a friend, or something like that. What I’m aiming for is that concentrated time of focusing."

Michael Pollan's writing cabim in Vermont

Michael Pollan's writing cabin

Inside Michael Pollan's cabinMichael Pollan wrote a book about building this writing hut: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

"I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day," Russell continues, "but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or 'research' some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

"For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going. So if I can move in a linear way through the story, and stay zipped inside the story, not jinx myself with despair or frustration or over-confidence or self-consciousness, and be basically okay with not-knowing what is going to happen from one sentence to the next, that’s a great writing day. Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs, though. I swear, I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways — I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s 'going good.' There’s this excruciating aspect of joy, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, where you almost want to interrupt it. For me, the experience of losing myself in a character can feel intolerably wonderful. So I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going....

"Showing up and staying present is a good writing day."

Neil Gaiman's writing Gazebo, spring

Neil Gaiman's writing gazebo. Minnesota

Inside Neil Gaiman's writing gazeboNeil Gaiman's old writing gazebo in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jodi Picault:

"On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there."

What makes a good writing day for you?

The Bumblehill Studio

The writing side of the Bumblehill StudioThe hillside cabin that is my writing/painting studio. The interior photo shows the writing half of the space.


Firstly I change into my red silk 'Writing Kimono' of the Meiji period, dab my brow with cologne and recline upon my chaise longue from where I dictate my deathless prose to a minion...

And in the real world, I clear a space for the computer in all of the debris, try to dissuade one of the cats from tap-dancing on the keyboard, while ignoring the other cat as it chews my shoelaces. When I've done my word count I usually reward myself with a chocolate biscuit (or ten) and watch whatever rubbish is on the telly.

Ha ha ha! Stuart you're a mess! A talented one though. That's why we all love you so. Just never know, what 's gonna come out of that keyboard!!

Hi A'vonne, actually my writing day has been completely disrupted. We've had an unexpected sunny day and so decided to mow the lawn. All well and good, but after a winter and early spring with very little gardening, the mower has found all sorts of mouse and vole corpses left by the cats! It's like a low budget zombie film out there with mouse body parts flying through the air and the cats in hot pursuit.
It'll take more than a few chocolate biscuits to help me recover from this!

Love this... thank you, Terri... also love the music! Sending you faery love and healing!

A good writing day for me is when I have the energy just to do it. Due to my health my energy level fluctuates from day to day. This is why I do most of my writing late at night after I've had a full day to rest and recharge. Often, blogging will kick start my writing "day" although I don't consider my blogging to be a separate exercise from my writing. By midnight I usually hit my stride and can write until about 4:00 am. I wish I had a studio--or even an office--but I don't. I write in an armchair in the living room of our cottage. I pay no attention to word count, either. I'm more concerned with quality than quantity and often work on the same page, scene, or paragraph until I get it right, even it if that's only 100 words. I guess my years as a classical composer created this in me. In musical composition each phrase depends on the one before it.

Thanks for this truly helpful and fascinating post!

This is a gorgeous post and I love it to bits. I really like it when you resurrect things from the archives.

However, this time around I kept thinking, "What a horrible chair! How can you sit in that for hours and hours! Oh, look, that one is EVEN WORSE." Then I looked at my chair. It's an office chair, yeah, but I got it from Ikea in 2006 so I could finish a novel without killing my back, and it's missing the left-hand arm-piece -- the padded bit, that is; the underlying structure is still there and I still lean my arm on it, with resulting weird lines in the skin of my forearm. The entire thing is covered in a rich later of cat hair and it will now only recline to one position. Fortunately, that is the one that I use, but I don't feel, on reflection, that I can throw asparagus on anybody else's choice of a chair.

A good writing day is when I write or do useful, mind-bending revisions.


I often try to write in the woods but I'm so often distracted by the wonders of the wildwood. So I get up and investigate all the magical things around me and forget my writing - why should my writing be more important than these things? And later, while I'm busy doing something prosaic like laundry, an idea hits me. I wonder "where in the world did that come from?" But I know that little seed was planted while writing/sightseeing in the woods and it took just that long to germinate. What a gift when the urge to write has me postponing laundry rather than the other way around (which is another one of my methods). Other times a well-timed blog post on the web spurs me into action and I complete a whole story that has been percolating for over a year. Thanks Terri!

What makes a good writing day?

Well, getting the words down is a must, of course. But what really makes the day zing is when a knotty writing problem unravels and solves itself in a moment of inspiration; when you write something and can't believe you wrote it because it's so gorgeous; when the shapes of the words on the page subtly hint at secret architectures; when it isn't an agony of doubt and despair.

For folk who enjoy nosing about in other writers' rooms, the Guardian newspaper ran a series entitled "Writer's Rooms" a few years ago, with photos of rooms and commentaries by the living writers who occupy them. They have archived the series and it is available here:

But, be warned: get your writing done for the day before you start to snoop!



Also: I'm reading Steven Pinker's new book, "The Sense of Style" and I highly recommend it to writers of every kind. It's an absolute delight. Funny, precise, charming, useful, insightful and certainly stylish.

The idea of you in a red silk writing kimono is priceless!

Thank you, dear. I hope your work is going well, and I'm still incredibly disappointed that I didn't get to see you this past summer. It's been too damn long!

"A good writing day for me is when I have the energy just to do it. Due to my health my energy level fluctuates from day to day."

The same for me -- but I'm strictly a morning writer. My best energy is in the early morning, and it leaks away as the day goes on....

One of my posts last year was on precisely this topic: why do we tend (as a society) to value "productive" days over being-out-in-the-magical-world days? I need both, and a good day is when I get both...and when the two aren't in conflict.

Thanks for the recommendation, Austin. I haven't read that one yet. It's now on the list!

Wishing you many fine days of unravelled writerly problems and inspiration.

Hmm. You would despair of my desk chair, Pamela, which like most of our chairs is old and pretty, but half-way to collapse. (Our daughter constantly laughs about the Heath-Robinson-esque quality of our household furniture.)

But mostly I write from the studio sofa, so that Tilly can lounge beside me with her head on my knee as I work. That's probably not very good for the back either, but it's good for the Hound.

Well, I think your back will tell you if it's unhappy, and Good for the Hound is a very important quality as well.

Good for the Cat mostly means taking a fifteen-minute break, as she generally climbs up on my collarbone and requires both arms to support and pet her. Or, depending on the cat, she fills all the space between my stomach and the desk and makes it difficult to reach the keyboard.

I have never actually looked up Heath Robinson, but you remind me of an exchange in Mary Renault's second novel, in which the protagonist says she didn't realize a new acquaintance had a car, and he replies, "Sort of Heath Robinson one."


I went back to reread your post on productive time/woodland time. It rings so true! With the din of daily life a symphony plays. Sometimes, we must be still and silent to hear it. Sometimes, we must go outside to hear it. Sometimes, it is us, all along, playing the symphony.

"Sometimes, we must go outside to hear it. Sometimes, it is us, all along, playing the symphony."

So true.

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