A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. —E.B. White
The “best time for writing” has been debated over and over.
Morning. Afternoon. Peak time. Off-peak time. After a workout. In the shower. While walking and recording.
Some claim with 100% certainty—backed by “scientific” research—that morning people are most creative in the evening, and vice versa for night owls.
Others are equally certain that early morning—before coffee, before showering, before eating, even before brushing your teeth—is by far the best writing time for everyone.
Or that it all has to do with willpower, hormones, and circadian rhythms.
When all is said and done, most writers (but not all) have some kind of writing routine
Since college, my best time to write has always been when something needs to be written. That sounds sloppy and undisciplined—though it wouldn’t to Ray Bradbury—and it doesn’t sound like a routine at all. But since all I did was write in college (or so it seemed), it worked. Most of the time.
I wrote essays and short stories in classrooms and at home, in the library and in coffee shops. I poured out 30-page research papers at the last minute, doing my final proofreading at 7 a.m. just before class—but not without weeks of preparation. That said, I’ve always written best when certain conditions are in place. And that’s up to me to create.
Living space tidy. Laundry done. Kitchen clean and refrigerator stocked. Bills paid. All urgent matters under control, and even small tasks like responding to a friend’s email are taken care of. Nothing on my schedule for that day or even a few days other than routine matters.
When I have too many things to do or difficulties cluttering my brain (as I mentioned in my 2014 review), I find it hard to generate ideas and hard to focus. But when everything I have to do is done, all I need is a comfy chair or a clear desk and I’m good to go.
Or a notebook in the passenger seat of my car, which is how I wrote my first published poem. Some stuff just comes out when it wants to.
I say the best time to write depends on you and your life situation, your responsibilities, your beliefs, the type of writing you do, and the level of urgency your writing requires as well as your motivation.
Your life situation and responsibilities shape your writing time
If you’re a single parent to young kids, a set schedule might be impossible. You write when you can or when the kids are asleep. Getting up an hour or two before the family does sounds great, but it might be tough if you also have a full-time job outside of the house. You need sleep, too.
Maybe you have intermittent health issues. Someone sick or handicapped at home. A job with erratic hours. Pets. Aging or ailing parents or a relative. Without a day-to-day schedule you can control, it’s difficult to commit to a writing schedule.
So what do you do? You write when you can. A regular habit could just mean writing every day. Put in the time whenever you can.
Your beliefs can determine your best writing schedule—and limit you
I don’t know about beliefs in other countries, but if you’re an American, you might believe working early in the morning is the only way to go. It’s part of the American culture: people who rise early earn respect.
“The early bird gets the worm.” Of course. And people who get out of bed at noon are often scorned—even if they worked until 6 a.m.
Someone I met in a dog park not long ago came right out and said my night owl schedule is “weird.” I patiently asked if he’d ever heard of “second shift” or “third shift,” and he said of course he had. But he still looked at me like I’m a freak. Then he wondered why I said no when he asked for a date.
But if the early bird thing works for you, then go for it. Who knows? I might switch around and start getting up at 4 a.m. I love the quiet of early morning.
But don’t kick yourself if you simply can’t do it. And don’t bend to pressure. If you tend to write better in the afternoon, evening, or in the middle of the night as I often do—go for it. Especially if that’s the only time you have available.
The kind of writing you do and urgency can determine your best time to write
If you’re a freelance writer or you’re writing a guest post for a big blogger, you probably have a deadline. And if you get behind and have two days to write a brilliant, 1500-word article, you’d better be able to write day or night. Circadian rhythms? Peak times? Yeah, right.
Same goes for journalists. The big story happens—your chance to make it big—and your editor tells you to hustle. Best time to write? The time is now, people.
If you’re a creative writer, you might not have a sense of urgency that propels you forward. You don’t have a deadline unless you’re under a publisher’s pressure. No editor is glaring at you from across the room. But think about it.
My own “write when it needs to be written” credo just doesn’t hold up for my creative work.
I have a blog post and a guest post schedule, and I fit paid work in between. But I need to create a deadline for my creative efforts. The time of day doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that it’s on my schedule. I’ll let you know when I work that out (right now I’m squeezing in an hour or so most days with no particular goal).
Last week I spent a few hours on a piece of flash fiction just for practice—it’s in the comments over at Write to Done. Impulsive but necessary though it did set me back with something else.
What about motivation?
I was reading about willpower as it concerns creative thinking and writing, and I thought that’s an odd word to use. Maybe the writer means motivation. But to me, creative thinkers always think creatively and don’t need to be motivated.
Maybe non-creative people need to set aside a specific time for it. It seems strange to me since creative thinking can be applied to almost any situation. And if you’re a writer, you’re a creative thinker.
But if you’re not motivated to write—and any kind of writing is a creation—I’d look at the reasons why.
Maybe you just don’t want to write. Now or ever. Think about it—writing is not a particularly glamorous job, and it’s not always rewarding. It’s hard work. There’s a lot to learn or unlearn. And if you don’t have a burning flame for it, don’t be wishy-washy. Quit. Go do something else.
On the other hand, figuring out why we do or don’t do something can be the key. Then we can change our thinking accordingly.
Negative self talk? Replace I’m such a loser with I’m a brilliant writer and it’s time to get to work! Or replace my writing sucks with I need to practice writing more. Practice makes perfect. Let’s go!
Or maybe your friends and family discourage you. If that’s the case, practice thinking I choose my own path. Writing is my path. This is where I belong.
Sometimes, though, we just need to do it. Forget the thinking. They’re just thoughts, after all. Ignore them. Or invite them along.
You need to sit down and get to your writing. No excuses.
If you know your best time to write is morning or night or somewhere in between, use that time. Make time, and create a schedule.
If you don’t know what time works best, it might be helpful to figure that out. Try different times. See what kind of “flow” you get going at different times. It could make a difference.
And if your life situation and responsibilities mean you can’t write on a regular schedule, or you don’t have the flexibility to experiment, just write. Just do it. Write whenever you can, as often as you can.
Any serious writer knows you just have to write. Sit down and do it.
Ernest Hemingway supposedly said “Write drunk, edit sober.” Whether he actually drank while writing or not isn’t the point. The point is that your initial rough drafts are just that—drafts. Sloppy, messy, rambling, rough. Write them when you can. Editing, after all, is what makes your writing beautiful. Could be the “ideal time” for some is the time you schedule for editing.
Just get to it. Write regularly and often no matter what time of day you write.
When do you write? What’s your best writing time? Share in the comments.