A writer's daily habit: four steps to higher productivity

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Author: Ellen Sussman
Date: November-December 2011
From: Poets & Writers Magazine(Vol. 39, Issue 6)
Publisher: Poets & Writers, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,596 words

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You're at a party. An attractive person refills your wine glass, comments on the startling color of your eyes, and then asks, "What do you do?"

You write but you haven't published. You write even though you've got a full-time job, a houseful of demanding kids, a ranch with a herd of cattle to tend. You write because it's your passion, your lifeblood, your first thought in the morning and the last before you go to bed. And yet you tell this lovely person that you're an accountant, a househusband, a cowpoke. You don't say, "I'm a writer."

Repeat after me: "I'm a writer. It's my job. It's what I do."

If you embrace that statement, then you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You go to work every day. You sit your butt in a chair (or on a ball, as I do--really) and you put in your hours just like everyone else who goes to work. But many of us are scared to commit to being a Writer, so we don't commit to the job of writing. Take yourself seriously. Say you're a writer. And if you're a writer, figure out how to do your job.

For me, the best way is to simply write every day. And that's how I've been doing my job for many years. If I hadn't taken myself so seriously, if I hadn't pushed myself to write every single day, I don't think I ever would have reached what we consider success in this industry: publication. Now, finally, I have four books in print, including a new novel, French Lessons, published by Ballantine Books this past summer.

Some people wait for the muse to whisper in their ear. I sit down at my desk every morning and tell the muse to roll over and get her ass out of bed. I set my working hours: 9 AM until noon. I also set a word minimum: a thousand words. If I don't hit my numbers, then I return to work after lunch.

If you've got a full-time job and a houseful of kids, you probably don't have three hours a day to devote to writing. Find one hour. Every day. It's your other job--your writing job--and you can't neglect it. Do it. You're a writer.


I start my workday with five or ten minutes of meditation. I'm not big on meditation--at least I wasn't until I took a workshop with Andrew Todhunter, a writer who talked about the benefits of focusing the mind for a short time every day. I realized that in five minutes I could quiet the noise in my brain (and believe me, there's a children's orchestra in there, banging away on instruments of distraction). An online search can help you find some guidelines for meditation, but I've settled on a rather simple process. I sit on the floor in my bedroom, on a pillow, legs crossed. I count to ten, slowly, trying to clear my mind of everything but the count. If I start to think about my book deadline, the class I'll teach tonight, my daughter's phone call last night, then I start my count over again. In fact, I spend a lot of time starting my count over again. I rarely reach ten without a distracting thought. But something happens a few minutes into this process. My mind quiets. My thoughts settle. My breathing eases.

I go directly to my office after my meditation. I want to carry peace of mind with me into my working time. I want focus, undistracted thought. I want to breathe easily. I want to invite the muse to talk to me. The muse likes a quiet mind. And I want to make sure I can hear what she's saying.


I used to trust myself on this, but now that I've discovered the software program Freedom, I don't take a chance. The Internet beckons. It sings to me. It promises so many things: wonderful e-mails, a new teaching gig, a Facebook message from an old best friend. "Shut up!" I scream. "I'm working!"

Freedom, available for ten dollars at macfreedom.com, shuts the damn thing up. You sign in to Freedom and it asks you how many minutes you need. "180," I type. And voila, the Internet is blocked for 180 minutes. The first time I used it I tried everything to break the block. Nothing worked. And then, like an alcoholic with a hidden bottle of booze, I ran upstairs and found my laptop, opened it, and checked my e-mail. Shocking revelation: No life-changing e-mails had arrived. No offers of awards, no dazzling reviews, no editor's love notes. I took a mental picture of myself then--sneaky addict sitting on the dog bed in my room with a laptop in my trembling arms--and I've never done it again.

When I'm writing, the Internet is off limits.

Yes, I do research. I adore using the Internet for research. I can find a playlist of popular songs for 1954. I can see hundreds of photographs of the bombing in Bali. I can read the front page of the New York Times on the date my character decided to leave the country. But I do that research in the afternoon or evening--not during my writing hours. Because I know that soon enough the research will lead me to some web page about Italy and within minutes I'm researching the most charming inn on the Amalfi Coast for my dream vacation.


Many years ago a writer friend told me about the unit system, which is based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing their interminable theses. Here's how it works:

Divide your work time into units. Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. You do nothing but write. You don't stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a fifteen-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn't allow you to actually do the work. During my fifteen-minute breaks I might water my garden. I might brush my dogs. I might put in a load of laundry. I might get the tomato sauce started. Sometimes I do a few yoga poses. But I don't make a telephone call, I don't check e-mail, I don't critique a student manuscript. The fifteen minutes work in mysterious ways; I've been amazed by what happens. While I'm gardening or cooking or brushing the dog, I'm not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for Unit Two, I'm suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment. It takes the work you've done and, just like that pot of tomato sauce on the stove, it begins to simmer. We all know the value of tapping into unconscious thought, but we don't often know how to do it. The fifteen-minute break does it for us.

There are all kinds of side benefits to the unit system. I have a bad back. I've had three spinal surgeries and I'm still in pain. Yes, I sit on a fitness ball while I write, because it improves my posture and takes stress off my spine. But better than that, the unit system forces me to get up off my butt every forty-five minutes and walk around. My back needs that break, and my mind works better when my body isn't in pain. Apparently, even folks without a broken back benefit from a stretch every hour.

There's something else remarkable that happens when I'm writing and I hit a rough spot in my novel. I look at the clock. I see that I have thirty more minutes in my unit. "Okay," I tell myself, "you can sit here for a half hour and struggle through this tough terrain." Without the unit system I would see two and a half more torturous hours looming ahead--and I might give up. I might decide to go see a movie or meet a friend for a hike. But anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering--and there's the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end. The unit system breaks down the long block of time I've set aside for writing into manageable segments. And it seems to break down my resistance to doing the hard work.

I also have an easier time keeping my focus for forty-five minutes. I can let myself live completely in my fictional world, because I'm not overwhelmed by the demands on me to do that. I know that I'll have fifteen minutes to let my mind do what it loves to do--to drift, prance, flit--and I don't get mentally exhausted by my work. The fifteen-minute break replenishes my creative energy and I come back to the desk eager and excited to work again. This might sound as if I'm dipping in and out of my project all morning, but the opposite is true. The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. It's a time to access a level of unconscious thought. When I come back to my desk, I return to my fictional world as if I've never left. I slide back in through another door, one that lets me into an even richer world.

For all those reasons, you can't skip the fifteen-minute break. If the writing is going really well--if it's one of those rare moments when your fingers are flying across the keyboard and the characters are speaking clearly in your ear--you might want to keep going. Don't. Take that break. Walk around. Be nice to your back and your creative energy. You won't lose momentum. When you come back, your characters will be so glad to see you. They'll take up right where they left off and they might even have more interesting things to say.


We all know how hard it is to reenter a writing project after a long vacation. If I've taken a break for a week and then return to writing, those first couple of days are pure torture. I reread my pages as if I'm reading someone else's work. Who are these people? Why are they behaving this way? What the hell is supposed to happen next? I've lost the ability to live in my story. And if I can't live in my fictional world, how can my reader live in that world?

Yes, we all need vacations. (Remember that charming inn on the Amalfi Coast? I love vacations.) But that's my only good excuse for not writing. I write five or six days a week, every week. Discipline is key to success. Novels don't get written when inspiration strikes; novels get written on days when you're feeling lousy, on days that you'd rather be doing anything else in the world. They even get written on those glorious days when you have a reason to open a bottle of champagne for breakfast. Save the champagne for dinner instead.

If I'm writing every day, four pages a day, then the novel stays in my mind during all the hours I'm not writing. During my afternoons and evenings, when I'm teaching or practicing yoga or reading a novel, I'm also writing. Sometimes it's very unconscious. I might wake up in the middle of the night with a plot breakthrough. It's similar to what happens during the fifteen-minute breaks in my writing unit: I'm thinking about the story on a deeper level. Sometimes it's very conscious. For example, I'm waiting for a doctor's appointment and pull out my notebook because I have five minutes to work through some literary problem. In an odd way, the true answer to the question, "When do you write?" might be, "Always!"

Novelists, especially, need to write daily. It takes a lot to hold a novel in one's head. At every point in a first draft, I'm trying to figure out how things fit together, how they evolve, how they twist and turn and end up at the last page. In my latest novel, French Lessons, I discovered when I reached the end that I had already woven motifs through the novel. I managed to do that because I wrote the manuscript without distraction, without any long breaks, without a lot of mind clutter. In the last section of the novel I realized that I had already planted all the necessary plot elements to pull everything together at the end. I was able to do that because I was living so intensely in the novel and working on a deep unconscious level as well. I don't outline my novels ahead of time. I let myself discover story and character as I write. And so I have to stay very focused to contain that fictional world.

Because I write without a map, I often get lost. That's part of the process. And here's another benefit to daily writing: If I have to rewrite a hundred pages of the novel, I know I can do it in a month. I don't despair as I would if I wrote a couple of pages one day and a couple of pages a week later. I just dive back in and get the rewrite done--a thousand words a day, six days a week. A great side benefit: I'm willing to take real chances in my writing. I'll risk a new structure, a daring point of view, a challenging plot line. If it works, fabulous; if it doesn't, I sit my butt down the very next day and start over.

I don't want to make this sound like it's a simple process. Life gets in the way. Work, kids, rejection letters, everything conspires to derail you. Over time daily writing does get easier; it becomes a habit. The payoff might not be a huge publishing deal, but it will most definitely make you feel better about yourself. You're working on that dream. You're not a wannabe, you're not a fraud--you're a writer.

Sometimes I envy those folks who go to work, who clock in and clock out, who are told what to do and how to do it. But I would survive in a job like that for about a day. I need to write. And so I need to show up for work every day, even if my two dogs and my cat are the only ones who pass me in the hallway. I need to create my systems and rules and rewards (the charming inn on the coast of Italy) so that I'm good at my job. At the next party I know how I'll answer that guy. "I'm a writer," I'll say, "and I have one hell of a demanding boss. Still, I love my job."

ELLEN SUSSMAN is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel French Lessons (Ballantine Books, 2011) and On a Night Like This (Warner Books, 2004). She is also the editor of two anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex (Bloomsbury, 2008) and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave (Norton, 2007). She has taught at Pepperdine University, University of California in Los Angeles, and Rutgers University, and now teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies as well as in private classes. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A272245764