On Writing Schedules, Routines, and Daily Goals

by Dianne Van Dien

Several books I’ve read suggest that authors should set daily writing goals, perhaps two pages or 500 to 1000 words per day. So in the survey I sent to the press’s authors, it seemed logical to include the question “How many words or pages did you try to average each day when working on your book?” But it turned out that not one of the survey respondents set daily word or page goals. All of their responses could basically be summed up as: “I don’t write like that.”

However, when it came to describing routines and setting schedules (or not!), their answers became much more nuanced.

Cover image for the book New Children of Israel. Couple from Africa marry in Jewish ceremony.

Nathan P. Devir, New Children of Israel

“I tried to focus on doing two hours a day of solid writing, five days a week. And then, the same amount of time for editing and revising. I find that my brain doesn’t function well for more than two hours at a time.”

“I made sure to turn off email and the phone during the sacred two-hour writing block. No disturbances, no interaction with anyone else; just me and the screen”

Image of frank J. Cannon with background image of capitol building.

Val Holley, Frank J. Cannon

“I always feel that morning is the time to write. While Frank J. Cannon was in progress, I lived in eastern Queens but had office space at the New York Public Library’s Wertheim Study room, which opened at 10 a.m. I would take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan and arrive at the Starbucks at 35th Street & Fifth Avenue, just east of the hotel which Frank Cannon always used as his New York headquarters—usually by 8:30 a.m. This was the time for proofreading the previous day’s work. Then I would walk seven blocks up Fifth Avenue, in time for the Wertheim’s 10 a.m. opening. I generally worked until 3 p.m. (with an hour lunch break), then catch the railroad to go home.”

Close up of tan or blonde fur

Donald K. Grayson, Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats

“I’ve never had a schedule for anything I have written. It is always whirling around in my head, simmering away. When the time comes, I just start writing whenever there is a block of time to write. I haven’t given myself a deadline for years and years. I stopped doing that a long time ago, when…I realized that I had only met that deadline because I gave myself a new deadline each time I had missed a previous one I had set for myself. I realized that deadlines are easy to meet as long as you are willing to change them often enough. Since that is the case, I never set one for myself again. Because of that, I don’t set a writing schedule for myself either—those are just little deadlines.”

Close up of and analog clock with 12, 3, 6, and 9 visible; Clock reads approximately 4 o'clock

Scott Abbott, Immortal for Quite Some Time

“Because the writing itself was precious to me, precious because of what I was learning about John [Scott’s brother who had died] and about myself, I kept at it for nearly twenty-five years. There was no real problem finding a schedule to write because there was no pressure to finish, and the meditations kept adding up. The extended time allowed me to gather photographs and family documents, to interview people who had known John, to read books John had mentioned in his notebooks, and to read books by gay men, books written in response to lost members of families, and books about the Mormonism John and I shared for the first quarter-century of our lives.”

Close up photo of a Prairie Dog standing upright in a grassy background

Theodore Manno, The Utah Prairie Dog

“I treated writing the book as a second job, scheduling “writing time” each night and adhering to the schedule no matter what. I don’t see how I would have been able to teach full time and then write part time during nights and weekends if I had children at home.”

Stormy waters with foggy weather and low visibility

Jennifer Sinor, Ordinary Trauma

“I made myself write in the moments that were available rather than choosing, say, a nap, or television, or even time with friends. When I am seriously working, I put into place parameters that help me write. In whatever time I am given, I turn off my phone. I refuse to check email or the internet for the period of time that I have. I promise myself to do nothing other than write. Period. And then I let myself write whatever I need to write—as long as I am sitting there it counts. I can journal. I can revise. I can draft. The stakes are low. Just words on the page. Words on the page. And then when the time that I have is up, I let it go and return to my students, my family, my job. It’s like I enter an unseen room and shut the door and then give myself the pure and perfect gift of being entirely present to language. Perhaps I spend the time ranting in my journal about how I never have any time to write, but I know that I have to do that in order to arrive at what comes next—that moment when a sentence rises from the page singing.”

Desert canyon landscape in the background with yellow flowers and rock art in the foreground

Jerry Spangler, Nine Mile Canyon

“I am what you call a binge writer. I can sit at the computer 14 to 18 hours a day and churn out 30 or 40 pages of text a day. Not final text, but good enough to be groomed and massaged later. Binge writing only works if you know the topic backwards and forwards (and have your citations well organized). In most instances, I can have 90 percent of the book in rough draft format within a month or two. But it also means no interruptions (turn off the phone, have a spouse who understands and refills the coffee mug, and get used to microwavable meals). When I do a deep dive into writing, my wife knows I will not come up for air for another month or so. As I aged into my 50s (when I started writing books), I found it was impossible to multi-task with any precision whatsoever.”

Deer standing in river in the middle of a forest in the Northern Rockies

Frederick H. Swanson, Where Roads Will Never Reach

“My approach to writing has always been to spend some time at it most every day and not worry too much about a schedule. I typically spend two or three hours at the computer each morning and continue in desultory fashion through the afternoon and evening. I have no strict routine, and the inherent interest of the subject matter keeps me engaged. That said, I often find it easiest to resume work if I leave a section unfinished, waiting to be taken up again. New ideas often come to mind when doing dishes or weeding the garden, and I have to go back upstairs and resume writing.”

Whether one follows a writing schedule, binge writes, or just seizes free moments as they arise, eventually every author will need to revise his or her work. Watch for our next post to see what our authors have to share about revisions.

This article is part of a series called “What Does It Take to Make a Book?” See previous posts:

How Do Writers Make Time to Write?

Books Take Time

Dianne Van Dien began working for the University of Utah Press (UUP) in 2010 as a graduate fellow while earning a MS in Environmental Humanities. Later she shifted to her current role as UUP’s freelance marketing associate. She lives in rural Missouri, from where she also writes and edits for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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