Some Healthful and Practical Writing Advice

by James Scott Bell

We here at TKZ care about writers—how they write, of course, but also how they can stay healthy. Today I bring you some venerable wisdom on both counts.

First, on health:

Over at Project Gutenberg I happened upon the definitive treatment of the healthy side of coffee, published in London in 1721, with the snappy title of The Virtue and Use of Coffee With Regard to the Plague, And Other Infectious Distempers. We all know coffee gives you a lift in the morning, among other benefits. But until I read this little book, I had no idea of the number of infirmities a daily cup of joe can overcome. To wit:

[Coffee] cures Consumptions, Swooning Fits, and the Rickets; and it helps Digestion, rarefies the Blood, suppresses Vapours, gives Life and Gayety to the Spirits, prevents Sleepiness after eating, provokes Urine and the Catamena.

It contracts the Bowels, and confirms the Tone of the Parts, being drank after Victuals, provided it be fresh made; for if it stands but two or three Hours, it loseth much of its Virtue. … It is an effectual Remedy against Worms in Children; so that if the Mother drinks frequently of it when she is With Child, the Infant will not be troubled with Worms, during its first Years.

’Tis likewise useful to such as are afflicted with Rheumatick or Gouty Humours. The Dutch Physicians commend the Use of it in Intermitting Fevers, and hold it to be good against Infection; because of the great Refreshment it gives the nobler Parts of the Body, and its sudden Effect upon the Spirits, which are wonderfully recreated by it. And it is apparently the Opinion of all Physicians who have yet wrote concerning the Plague, That such Bodies whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections. And again, That the Spirits must be refresh’d only by such Liquors, or Preparations, as will not promote Inflammations. And of this nature, say they, is Coffee, which by a right Use supports the vital Flame, and defends the Body from Pestilential Infection. And as such it is generally recommended, as a necessary Drink, at least twice a day; the first thing in a Morning, and at four in the Afternoon.

Got that? Drink coffee first thing in the morning and at four in the afternoon, and your kids won’t get worms.

Now, about writing. Louisa May Alcott wrote this letter sometime in 1878:

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.

Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an earthly Providence to those we love.

I hope you will win this joy at least, & think you will, for you seem to have got on well so far, & the stories are better than many sent me. I like the short one best. Lively tales of home-life or children go well, & the Youth’s Companion is a good paying paper. I do not like Loring as he is neither honest nor polite. I have had dealings with him & know. Try Roberts Brothers, 299 Washington St. They are very kind & just & if the book suits will give it a fair chance. With best wishes for a prosperous & happy New Year I am your friend



What is your beverage of choice when you write?

Where are you on the “long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials” road that we call the writing life?

What part of writing brings you the most joy?

35 thoughts on “Some Healthful and Practical Writing Advice

  1. Good morning, Jim. Thanks for those historical notes on the healthy writing life.

    Writing beverage: Coffee, in the morning, sitting on the mug warmer and trickled in slowly over the course of the writing. I drink a cup after lunch, but still need some exercise to keep away the postprandial snooze. If I drink coffee too late in the day, it interferes with my sleep, but it does wake up the boys-in-the-basement.

    Location on the long an winding road of trials and tribulations: Ten years of studying the craft, first book in my Mad River Magic series published. Expecting little notice. Hoping to have a series written over the next 5 years, so my grandchildren will have it to read when they reach middle-grade years.

    Most joy: When adults read my book and say, “Not my genre, but I was surprised that I was drawn into the story.” Or when a young beta reader returns the manuscript with few comments, except “Sorry I didn’t write much. I got sucked into the story.”

    • Ah, Steve, those comments are indeed so satisfying. Young beta readers are the best…and completely honest. I once ran a YA project by several ten year olds (provided by a homeschooling group) and got it straight and to the point. My favorite was, “He uses the word ‘butt’ too many times.”

  2. “… though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.”

    Great to see a writer of books that became part of the “canon” taking the side of the pulps over the artistes.

    Thanks Jim!

    Oh yes: two cups of coffee in the morning. Nonfiction traditionally published and indie published, not yet making a great dent in my expenses. Most joy: telling stories in my yet-to-be-published fiction.

  3. I’m afraid I’m one of those scandalous few who doesn’t like the taste or the smell of coffee. Love Barq’s rootbeer but since, unlike coffee, is has no positive benefits except flavor (and not enough caffeine!) I try to limit and just drink good old ice water with lemon.

    Health: I especially plead with writers to see to the health of their hips/knees. We spend most of our life sitting and the tightening of hip flexors, among other things is wreaking havoc. And since there is zero preventative care regarding the lower extremities that provide us with mere mobility, it’s up to us to learn how to take care of them.

    One recent writing victory: I have an extremely boring day job (Admin Asst). Rarely does anything interesting come my way, and certainly almost never writing related. But in the past month I’ve had a chance to write some narrative for two imaginary people as part of a case collaborative that will be used as a training module for medical personnel working together across disciplines. That was fun!

    Interesting/Maddening Project: Also am researching/writing brief bios for two people buried in one of our cemeteries here in the state. One of them has turned out to be a great mystery–the gent went by 2 names but despite hours researching, I haven’t been able to find out exactly WHEN he changed his name or WHY. The suspense is killing me. I will continue to dig into this man’s history well after the bio submission deadline in a few days. I’m sure he changed his name just to taunt me many decades later. 😎

    • BK, there is a great deal of quality online mobility advice & exercise/stretching regimen availability, much of it specifically constructed for those whose occupation requires 8+ hours of sitting at a desk. A few years ago both my left hip and left shoulder were stiff, painful, and movement restricted. I had to experiment with different exercise/stretching routines on offer to find what worked for my physiology. It was almost instantly apparent to me which were useful, just by how the movements feel, and within a decent interval I was able to regain full range of painless motion. Through regular practice I have determined the frequency/duration of practice necessary to maintain this joint health since I began just over 5 years ago (I’m 68 yrs old). Not everyone is the same, but for me a few minutes of movements every couple of hours throughout the day does the trick.
      I also do an hour of exercise, either aerobic or resistance work, daily, and incorporate thoughtful joint movement into this effort. It used to be painful to swing my leg over my motorcycle seat, rise from a chair, bend down, and reach, but now I make those movements at any time with no fear of experiencing pain twinges or limited and slowed range of movements.

      • Awesome. That is what I love to hear–when people have found a method that works for them and keeps those twinges and movement restrictions at bay. 😎

    • Re: the back. I have a Total Gym (Chuck Norris forever!) and use it not just for strengthening, but as an inversion table. I’m telling you, that does wonders for lower back pain and is probably one of the most helpful things you can do for your spine.

  4. Beverage: coffee, is there any better drink on the planet than a good cup of joe?

    My location on the writing path: I don’t stumble as much as I used to, but I haven’t reached the first summit (publication) yet. I think I’ll be more steady on my feet after I’ve written a million words.

    Most joy: I like to write ghost stories, so when my husband said he refused to read any more of my stuff because it was too scary, I was like, “YIPPEE!”

    • Priscilla, remember that scene in Woody Allen’s SLEEPER, where he wakes up in the future? The doctors tell him that things like tobacco and deep fat were once thought to be unhealthy, “Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

      Coffee has had a run like that. But I think it is beyond dispute now that moderate intake does indeed have great benefits. Poor Balzac went way overboard.

  5. Beverage of choice? 2-3 cups of sweet and creamy coffee in the morning, first one around 5A.

    Where am I? Not making a dime yet. Have three creative non-fiction books out there, 2-3 WIP in the hopper (hoping to release first novel in 2020), and learning, learning, learning about all things authorish.

    What do I enjoy most? When my characters do not do or say what I want. When they do and say what they want, it often turns out so much better than I could have done. 🙂

  6. Hi, Jim

    My beverage of choice: black tea, especially Earl Gray and Assam. Straight, no sweetener or milk. We visited Iceland and Ireland last month, and the first thing we did after coming home was to order an electric kettle like the ones we’d used on our trip. I now understand why Europeans shudder at our microwaving water for tea. Nothing bits reaching a true boil.

    Where am I on that long road? I’ve just crested another hill, having finished my latest novel, which will be published in two weeks, after a challenging year spent writing itt, longer than I’d like by far. But it’s done now, and after making it as good as I can, I feel like I’ve leveled up again (as we say in role-playing games 😉

    What brings me the most joy? The satisfaction of completing a novel. It used to be drafting, but now it’s that completion, when I’ve done the final edit and the book is truly finished. I’d thought about dropping the current book several times in the past year, but stayed the course, and now I get to savor that satisfaction. Plus, take what I’ve learned and finish the sequel, which is partly drafted.

  7. What a delightful read. I drink coffee, too. Steve has a mug warmer? Where do I get one?
    My joy (satisfaction) is to be able to cut a paragraph or two and still retain the meaning while adding pace. I also like feedback—if it helps me cut or keeps me motivated. I just received a note that said, “I have been savoring your words since I read them.” Ah…

  8. Loved the historical notes.

    The beverage: A cup of Earl Grey in the morning, Mio flavored water all day. I’ve considered brewing loose tea, but it’s not a “thing” with me. Now, winter mornings I’ll have coffee or Ovaltine (remember the decoder rings?).

    The physical: Start with one hour in meditation, then 2-mile run. Three days a week add 20-minute gym workout for core. Walk the dog 1/2 mile with wifey. At 78 the regimen is burned in. BTW, my 85 yo neighbor walks 2 miles in the mornings when he’s not doing 18 holes of golf. Retirement community? Pah!

    Writing props: When my paid beta reader apologized: “Sorry I’m not giving you much, I’m in page-turner mode.” And my lady friend at the gym, after reading my historical prequel, with an eye roll, “I LOVED that book!” I can fly through the rest of the day on those laurels.

    Have a great Sunday!

    • Wow. Dan! That is some regimen.

      An hour of meditation? Amazing. You need to go sit on top of a mountain and give people answers. I admit my Western mind is restless most of the time.

  9. Little Woman was one of my favorite books as a child. I was fortunate in that my father worked at the Penn State library in the film department, during the 1940’s. Since then, I have never seen a library I didn’t love.

    Regarding coffee, I am a retired nurse anesthesiologist and needed coffee to stay awake, so my patients stayed asleep. It became a habit, albeit I drink less today than when I was working.

    My work in progress is a medical malpractice thriller that has twists and turns. My writing coach and critique group are pressuring me to finish it. I just purchased an espresso machine, so just maybe the strong coffee and the nudges from other writers will work its magic.

    Thanks for the great columns.

  10. I’m allergic to coffee, so I can’t follow suggestion #1. Tea is my beverage of choice. My favorite part of writing fiction is the act of writing. I love sliding on the headphones and escaping into my fictional worlds. I also miss that freedom while writing true crime, although I am enjoying that process as well.

    Great post, Jim. Enjoy the game today!!!

  11. My beverage? Dragonwell Green tea straight, but I love the smell of coffee.
    My health? Our condo has a small gym and I work out 4 to 5 nights a week.
    Where am I on the writer’s path? I have a new two-book contract with a London publisher. I’m so lucky to have an editor who likes and understands my work. He made me rewrite the end to build more tension, but he was right. I’m currently reading the page proofs and praying I catch those pesky typos.

  12. Drink of choice? Two cups of coffee with hazelnut creamer in my Yeti and then another 2 when that’s gone. Later in the day I might drink either Lady Grey or Earl Grey tea.

    Health? Water aerobics twice a week and Pilates another two. Walking when my knees allow it. 🙂

    Where am I on the trail? Since 2013 ten trade-size books have been traditionally published and I’m working on another series due to be released in the next three years. I feel blessed, but of course I don’t seem to do anything but write. lol

  13. One cup of coffee, cream, no sugar before I start to write. If I need a beverage after that, it’s water or a little sweet tea if I start to sag.

    My weekly health goal is three days of running (total 20 miles), three days of cross-training, and one day of rest. I rarely meet the goal, but it’s there.

    I have one published novel and I’m working on a second one in between learning all the secrets to marketing a book and checking my sales rank. ?

    Oddly enough, I think I get the greatest joy from rewriting. When I finish a chapter or an article and go back later to revise it, I cherish the feeling of tightening the message, of choosing just the right word and creating a satisfying cadence. It’s a unique experience and one I love.

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