Do you really have to write every day?

What does an ideal writing life look like? We asked successful authors to share their essential goals, habits, and routines.

Time to write
Time is always of the essence for writers. That is why we asked several authors to share insight into their routine.

When time permits

Joan Silber:

“Develop the habit of showing up.”

Joan Silber
Author Joan Silber. Photo by Shari Diamond

Joan Silber is author of eight books of fiction, including the novel Improvement, which won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction as well as the 2018 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and her teaching schedule fortunately permits whole afternoons to write on a regular basis. “These hours can shrink and stretch, depending on how well the work is going,” she says. “I would say four is a good day. I like having a specific time of day for work, so it’s not a matter of decision.”

But don’t worry about how long your writing session is, she advises. “I’ve known writers who got by on two hours daily and others who insisted on long eight-hour spurts. Young writers should develop a patience with their own ‘blocks’ and assume that is part of the process.”

For Silber, the ideal place to write is her writing desk: “​It’s just a plain glass computer desk with a few reference sources for whatever I’m writing shelved underneath.” She lives near a busy New York street with the steady sound of traffic, but she’s hardly aware of it. To complete her homey atmosphere, her dog is close by. When she’s traveling, she takes notes, but that’s all – no writing. “I can take notes on the road – I always have a notebook with me – but I only attend to the actual pages when I’m at my desk.”

She sets no page goals. “I don’t work in drafts the way other writers do,” she says. “I tend to revise sentences as I go, exactly what students are told not to do. I think the way I work is closer to the way painters work on paintings.”

Her emphasis is on the writing itself, not on how many words or pages she might be able to generate. She recognizes that having a page goal might help motivate a writer, but for her “the emphasis should be on content – is this scene going as far as it can? – [and] on deepening the meaning of the material. We don’t talk enough about the writing process as a way of gathering meaning.”

She’s grown to depend on her regular afternoon writing hours, but if something intervenes, she’s nonetheless flexible. “I do give up my writing time if something else important is happening – a beloved friend has arrived from out of town, for instance. Now that I’m older, I’m a little less worried about missing a writing day – I don’t have the sense I once had that ideas will be lost.”

For Silber, “The main thing is to develop the habit of showing up.” In her case, that habit has come from years of dedication, from a long, regular practice. “As a young writer, I had to overcome internal resistance every time I sat down. Eventually, that resistance goes away.”

Virgil Suárez:

“It’s creativity all around.”

Virgil Suárez
Author Virgil Suárez

The author of novels and story and poetry collections, Virgil Suárez won The Book Expo America/Latino Literature Hall of Fame Poetry Prize for the Best Book of Poetry for his collection Banyan in 2001. With his flexible teaching schedule at Florida State University, like Silber, he’s also freed up to write; in fact, he devotes most of his time to writing, which is by and large poetry these days. He follows a strict regimen, trying to put in a full day Monday through Friday. “Mondays are hard because of the break for the weekend, but the rhythm is similar to other hard work regular folks perform. Like my father, a blue-collar factory worker most of his life. He got up and went to work every Monday. No exceptions.”

The rhythms of the day, as well as his chosen writing place, make a lot of difference in terms of his production. “Back in the day of the typewriters,” says Suárez, “I had a formal desk and work room in which I got all my writing done. Surrounded by books, reference, etc.…but for the last 20 years or so I have used a laptop, which, on perfect Florida days, I like to sit with outside with a cup of coffee and my comfortable pajamas and work on the porch table, taking small coffee breaks.”

This might sound like ordinary lounging, but not so for Suárez: “I get a lot of work done this way.” He takes a break for lunch and then sets up at the kitchen table with his laptop to continue writing – until dinner, which presents another opportunity: “Sometimes working on dinner allows me to tap into something specific about a scene or movement I am looking for in my narrative. It’s creativity all around,” he says.

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Dependent on this writing routine, Suárez resists anything that takes him away from it. Traveling is “an interruption,” he says, and he doesn’t “do well emotionally and mentally” when he’s off his routine. For those writers who can manage it, he advises a rigorous schedule similar to his own: “I think the sooner a young writer establishes a writing routine (which should include long periods of reading and meditation), the quicker they will perfect their craft.”