Writing Ritual and Routine

I always write to music, but a problem arose recently that made me question my writing ritual.

But I love writing with my headphones on, music blocking out the world around me. There’s no better way for me to strike the right mood in the WIP. I create a playlist for each book, with overlapping “series songs.” Songs I listen to only while writing books in that series. Since my series are vastly different so are the songs in each playlist.

As soon as I slide on the headphones, the music transports me back to my story world.

The problem I ran into recently was with writing true crime. I’d created a playlist for Pretty Evil New England. But for this new book I veered away from my usual writing routine and threw on Pandora.

Big mistake.

I struggled. The words wouldn’t come like they normally do. My mind felt cluttered and bogged down. Hence why I wrote my last post about multitasking and the brain. Frazzled, I panicked. Why I couldn’t reach “the zone” with my WIP? The beginning had been so easy, words flowing like Niagara, paragraphs in perfect harmony with one another. Had I finally lost my writing mojo?

The answer seemed clear. Only it wasn’t an answer I could accept. I emotionally degraded myself, exercised, read . . . I tried everything I could think of to breathe life into my muse, dying next to two unfinished WIPs. And yet, every time I slid on the headphones and clicked Pandora . . . total brain block.

After several grueling days (felt more like years), I stumbled across a blog post that advised writers never to listen to music unless it has no lyrics, background instrumental music. In other words, the total opposite of my music. But I’ve written all my books to music. What changed?

The metaphoric lightbulb blazed on.

By switching to Pandora, not knowing what song would play or when, my brain couldn’t interpret the music as white noise.

As soon as I went back to YouTube and clicked the playlist for Pretty Evil New England (since I’m writing true crime), my fingers could barely keep up with the flood of creativity.

I’m back!

Writers have writing rituals/routines for a reason. The ritual or routine encourages focus and has the ability to get us back on track if we drift off course. The familiarity snaps us out of the funk and reminds us that yes, we can finish the WIP, just as we’ve always done. It also allows the words to flow. Rituals help us find comfort and balance and sets the tone for a solid writing session. Routine is especially important. Employing a consistent writing routine can be the difference between hitting our word count or staring at a blinking cursor.

If your writing comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, a change within your writing ritual or routine may be to blame.

For me (obviously), it’s sliding on the headphones with a familiar playlist cranked. Emphasis on familiar. An argument could be made that I’m not really listening to music. Rather, the playlist morphs into white noise and acts as the gunshot to start the footrace. Although, strangely, I’ve tried the white noise app and it’s not nearly as effective (for me). All my research is done on my iMac, but I switch to my MacBook to write. This was a subconscious act. I wasn’t even aware of the ritual until I focused on changes within my writing routine.

For others, the writing ritual may include an environmental change, like shutting the door to the office or sitting outside in a special chair. Some writers trek to the local coffee shop or settle in at their designated desk in the university library. *waves to Garry*

Some of our most celebrated authors had/have consistent writing rituals and routines.


Joyce’s ritual included crayons, a white coat, and a comfy horizontal surface. For word flow, he would lay flat on his stomach in bed. Since he was severely myopic, crayons enabled Joyce to see his own handwriting more clearly, and the white coat served as a reflector of light.


In her own words:

I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind.

I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.”

So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.


The creative genius behind In Cold Blood was a superstitious man. Capote’s writing ritual often involved avoiding things like hotel rooms with phone numbers that included the number 13, starting or ending a piece of work on a Friday, and tossing more than three cigarette butts in one ashtray.

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Even so, Capote stuck to his writing routine because it worked.


In stark contrast to James Joyce, Hemingway was a firm believer in standing while writing. While working on The Old Man and The Sea, he followed a strict regimen.

“Done by noon, drunk by three.”

This entailed waking at dawn, writing furiously while standing, and eventually hiking to the local bar to get hammered.


Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally.  When she’s close to finishing a manuscript, she’ll sleep with her WIP.

“Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.”


In his own words:

I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.


Check out Vonnegut’s writing routine:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.


Picoult doesn’t believe writer’s block exists:

Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Wise words. I agree. Nothing motivates quite like a looming deadline, self-imposed or contracted.


Most writers would do anything and everything to get rid of writer’s block. According to The Da Vinci Code novelist, Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure writer’s block. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we can’t argue with the results. If Brown didn’t hang like a bat, imagine all the amazing thrillers we would have lost?

Bats can’t launch into flight until they’re upside down. Why not Dan Brown? He says he’s more productive and creative afterward. He also does push-ups and stretches every hour. Not only has he found the cure for writer’s block, he’s in tip-top shape.

Writers are complicated beings. 😉

Do you have a writing ritual and/or routine? Tell us about it.

My publisher ran a sale for Pretty Evil New England last week. Not sure how long the sale will last, but for now the ebook is $1.99 on Amazon.

32 thoughts on “Writing Ritual and Routine

  1. Oh,Sue. I loved this, especially because I knew where you were going.

    I too listen to music while I write. I love Pandora — I’ve been with them since Day One but NEVER use it or any sort of random/shuffle button when I’m writing for the identical reason that you stated. I thought I was just weird. I’m not, apparently. Or maybe we are strange in the same way. As Boozo Chavis would tell his band, “Y’all jus’ pick up and follow behin’ me an’ if I be wrong we all be wrong togedda!”

    I also enjoyed the collection of famous authors’ writing routines. Re: Kurt Vonnegut… Joe Queenan tells a story about how he and Vonnegut were at one time living in the same city. Queenan used to see Vonnegut on those morning walks and wondered why Vonnegut always looked so desperately unhappy. Queenan got his answer when he found out that Vonnegut’s daughter was married to Geraldo Rivera.

    Thanks for a great post, Sue. Happy listening!

    • Twinsies! I love Pandora, too. It’s simple and easy. But since I created all my playlists in YouTube, I’m stuck with it while writing. 🙂

      Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter married Geraldo? Wow, I had no idea. Thanks for brightening my day, Joe! Write on!

  2. Good post, Sue! And my routine?

    I rise at 2 or 3 a.m. (I take my 6-8 hours from a different part of the day), grab a mugga coffee, and walk about 150 feet to my Hovel, an adobe shack with 3-foot thick walls. That gives me the sense that I’m going to work. I go to work every day with (usually) one day off between novels.

    Inside, I have my business computer with internet, etc. and my writing ‘puter with only my fiction, a niftly little 13″ that feels a lot like a typewriter.

    On the business computer, I check emails, read TKZ et al, respond to my mentoring students. When necessary, I create covers and write sales copy. Finally I file my daily Journal for my subscribers, then I take a 10-minute break (or so) at the house and head back to the Hovel and to the writing ‘puter.

    When I sit down at the writing ‘puter, my creative mind knows it’s time to play. I read back over what I wrote the day before (usually 2000 to 5000 words), allowing myself to touch it here and there as I go. That gets me back in the story, and it allows me to catch up with the characters. (They’re almost all younger than I am.) Then I sit back and wait for the fun to happen.

    And my characters take over. After all, it’s their story, not mine. I believe their story is going on even when I don’t check in with them (just as my neighbors’ story is going on even when I don’t know what it is).

    When I do check in, they’re kind enough (and I’m lucky enough) that they allow me to run through the story with them trying to keep up. In return, they allow me to be their recorder. And off and on for the rest of the day I have a ton of fun. Best gig in the world.

    • Love the Hovel idea, Harvey! Working from home has its challenges, and having a set place to write helps a lot. I would love a treehouse office. Someday…

      Thanks for weighing in, Harvey. Your routine obviously works. You’re a prolific writer. 🙂

  3. I used to have a playlist. Ran for 1 hour, and as you said, the familiarity helped set the mood. When I shifted series, I stopped using it. When I was writing Remaking Morgan, with a classical pianist protagonist, I played classical piano music to get an idea of some of the pieces her student would be playing. Turned out the dog liked it, so I have a couple of playlists with classical music that might be running in the background, but mostly, my routine (not a ritual) is to get the mundane things that will nag–email, quick trip through social media–no more than 15 minutes–a check in via Hangouts with one of my crit partners, get semi-presentable, and then I sit at the computer and write. It’s the job, and I show up for work.

  4. Great post, Sue. It’s interesting to read how other writers turn on the muse and tune out the world.

    My routine involves writing in the morning before the “cares of this world” can intrude. I usually get up about 6 am, shave/shower, eat breakfast, then make coffee to place on the mug warmer and sip all morning. After checking in at TKZ first thing, I make a quick check of emails, then head for the writing chair. I read, years ago, about an author who thought he was more productive/creative when he reclined while he wrote. Samuel Clemens wrote, reclining on his bed, then handed off the long hand written pages to his typist sheet by sheet. So, I write in a recliner, with a MacBook, my coffee at my side, and a view of my “enchanted forest” out the window. I try to be at the writing by 8 or 8:30, and write until about 12:30. Afternoons are for editing, writing posts, and other “cares of this world,” which are many.

    My office is at one end of the house and usually quiet. I used to listen to music on a CD player before I moved. I haven’t set it up yet. I need to look into online services for music. I’m eager to read what music sources other writers are using.

    Thanks for presenting this topic. Very interesting!

    • Thanks, Steve! There are numerous online music apps. Apple Music is another I’ve heard writers use, but I’ve never tried it so I don’t know if you can create playlists. Alas, after the disruption to my writing routine, I doubt I’ll veer away from YouTube anytime soon. Learned my lesson. 🙂

  5. I always write better when I’m outside iat my garden table. I need the sound of nature, birds and squirrels coming by their feeders, butterflies coming to call, flowers in bloom. Fortunately I live in Florida so the weather cooperates most of the time.

    I did my best writing on our pier at the beach. Unfortunately we haven’t lived there in forever. Saving up for when I retire.

    • Sounds delightful, Cynthia. I’m the opposite. I work in the sunroom, surrounded by wildlife. I unwind and drink my tea while watching them play and eat, but I can’t listen while writing. We have this neighbor cat who stalks into our yard to hunt my chippies, and he drives me insane. Or the hawks soaring in and my crows defending their turf. It’s a soap opera out there! LOL

  6. I get up at 3 am. Every day. Put on the coffee, and drink 3-4 cups while I do my rounds son social media. I eat breakfast, then edit what I wrote the day before to warm up, and then tackle my daily word count. I write until I get those words in – on a good day, two hours – on a bad one, 6.

    I listen to classical music while I write. It’s the backdrop to every book I write.

    • The early bird catches the worm! I love writing in the early morning hours, too, when the house is quiet and the demands of the day haven’t intruded my thoughts.

      Lots of writers love listening to classical music. But it always reminds me of Hannibal Lecter. Jazz = Bosch LOL

      Have a great day, Laura!

  7. Excellent, Sue. And love all the famous-author quotes on the topic. Especially Angelou’s Big Mind/Little Mind and daily trips to the hotel room. And didn’t know Vonnegut’s a swimmer—just like me! (I get some great ideas while staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool)

    I’m in my routine now and will start writing soon…

    • Thanks, Harald! I didn’t realize Vonnegut was a swimmer either before I wrote this post. I adore Maya Angelou. What an inspirational lady.

      Enjoy your swim and happy writing!

  8. I do like ambient noise when I write. I bounce between Coffitivity and YouTube’s New York street sounds. For special occasions I have playlists made up of movie soundtracks, to help with the mood of an intense scene (e.g., the Hitchcock scores by Bernard Herrmann).

    No special ritual. I sit down with a mug of java and open up to the previous day’s writing for a light edit. I may cast a glance at the photos I have of two writers I admire: Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) and John D. MacDonald. They tell me to get to work.

    • Haha. Love the glance! Nothing like superstars to motive you.

      Funny you listen to NY street sounds. I love the woodlands soundtrack. 🙂

      Have a great day, Jim!

  9. I definitely need to fine tune my own writing ritual. These days I get up around 5AM-ish, take care of the cat, brew some tea, read, eat a snack, then head into the writing room to check on TKZ, then work for an hour or two before my wife gets up.

    During the week, mornings post-breakfast are for exercise, chores, fun things together like puzzling. Then after lunch, I head into the writing room for my extended afternoon session while she crafts (spins wool, makes lace, knits etc) for 3 or 4 hours.

    Saturday and Sundays I have the same first thing in the morning routine, but write for two hours after breakfast before we do yoga “class” together.

    I sometimes think about going the route a lot of other writers seem to take, which is to get up and write straight through to lunch or beyond, but having a break between sessions does help, and allows “clearing the decks,” especially exercise. I’ve been working on treating the afternoon start time as more like time to show up for work.

    Oh, and music helps me get in the writing frame of mind–I use both instrumental and vocal music. For the werewolf novella I’m writing, I’ve put together a playlist which includes King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight”, songs by the Dropkick Murphy’s, Savatage (which the founders of Trans-Siberian Orchestra were in), and Halestorm. For my 1980s mystery, it’s a whole lot of 80s music 🙂

    Thanks for another inspiring post.

    • Your routine sounds great, Dale. I could never start in the afternoon. If I’m not at the keyboard first thing in the morning, I can’t restart my day later on. No idea why. Probably a psychological quirk. Once we find a routine that works we need to stick to it, as I learned the hard way. 😉

      Write on, Dale!

  10. *Waves back with a wink and a little tap somewhere* You know Sue, my routine has been completely f’d up with this pandemic. The university has been off-limits since March 2020 so I had to reinvent my swing (ergo Tiger Woods for his 2019 Masters win). I started writing at home again and, by God, it worked.

    I can’t listen to anything except my own ego when I’m in the zone. I lock myself in the spare bedroom which is soon being remodeled with part of it being like a 1920s detective office. Call me weird or crazy, but I’m into method writing with this new hardboiled City Of Danger series. I’ve already got a bunch of prompts (tchotchkes) like the perfect old oak desk, chair, and coat tree. I picked up a 20s dial phone, the green and brass lamp, a working tube radio made in 1923, and a whole bunch of other vintage stuff including an original Humphrey Bogart Maltese Falcon movie poster. A manual typewriter? You bet. I got a pristine Underwood that’s to die for. I’ll send you a pic.

    Oh, yeah. Your question was about writing routine. When I’m in creative mode, I start at 8am (the once-library opening time) and shoot for 3500 words which takes about 4-5 hours with breaks. Then I do publishing stuff and a bit of shameless self-promotion. By 4-5pm, I’m done and it’s Hemmingway time. Enjoy your day. BTW, excellent post, my BFF.

    • Thanks, Garry! I wondered if COVID messed with your writing routine. Your new office sounds amazing! Nothing like immersing yourself in the story world. I also believe in method writing, like locking myself inside an oil drum to experience my MC’s terror. 😉 Even when I leave the house I listen to the music my characters enjoy. Works great!

      When my writing routine came crashing in on me, Bob said, “I don’t recognize those songs.” I should’ve know then, but of course, I had to take the long, hard road to learn my lesson.

      Have an amazing day, sweet friend! Stay out of the demonic kitchen. 😉

  11. Music with words or instrumental songs I know the lyrics to are Writer’s Block 101 for me. Nothing happens because I’m focused on the words or the words that should be there. So, I prefer the silence and natural sounds around me, literal white noise from a machine, or, very rarely, classical music. Otherwise, I’ve never been picky about writer rituals.

    It helps that my first novels were written, long-hand, on legal paper anywhere I had a chance to. My St. Bernard’s hips were failing so I’d sit near him outside and write. When he needed help getting up, I’d put the writing down, help him, then move the chair where he settled again, and start writing again. Good training for not being tied to a ritual.

    • God love ya, Marilynn. I wish I could write anywhere, under any circumstances. Although, I do scrawl copious amounts of notes on my phone while I’m away from my computer. I’ve written whole chapters that way.

      At my core I’m a creature of habit. So, it doesn’t surprise me that I developed a set routine and writing rituals. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 🙂

  12. Fascinating to read so many different approaches to a writing routine. I especially enjoyed Maya Angelou’s renting a hotel room!

    I prefer to write in the morning, between breakfast and lunch. However, schedules change sometimes, so I try to be flexible.

    Like Harvey, I have different laptops for different purposes. One is for general use (emails, home stuff), one is for self-publishing apps and files, and the third is my writing MacBook. When I close the door to my office and sit in my recliner with said MacBook on my knees, it’s like Pavlovian conditioning. Time to write. I rarely listen to music. If I do, it’s classical that fits the mood of the part of the book I’m writing, but I can get caught up in listening rather than writing.

    I’ll throw something else in the mix: some of my best “writing” occurs during my outside running. No, I don’t take a pen and paper with me, but I’ve come up with some good ideas for a new scene or a nuance to a chapter while out on the trails. When I get home, all I have to do is write down what I’ve already worked out in my head.

    • I do the same, Kay. Only I use Notes on my iPhone. I’ve written whole chapters on my phone while away from my computer. I find it fascinating that so many writers get ideas in the shower or during exercise. This proves our writer’s brain never drops the story thread, which I find comforting. 🙂

  13. Fun way to start the a.m., Sue, thanks.

    For me, up early, coffee, check email and TKZ. Funny how many of us check in first thing with TKZ. Probably an important step in our rituals to get us in the writing frame of mind.

    More coffee then to work on the laptop on the dining room table (you mean other people actually EAT at their table? How quaint.).

    No music. I need quiet to concentrate.

    Like Harvey, the subconscious is my most important tool. It’s usually been at work all night and has something new to dictate to me. That material gets used up by mid-morning, when I either go to zumba or for a walk.

    I’ve written before how walking is problem-solving time (https://killzoneblog.com/2019/02/eight-tricks-to-tap-your-subconscious-for-better-writing.html). I never come back from a walk w/o a solution or a new scene in mind.

    Depending on what’s going on in real life, I may or may not write in the afternoon. It’s not usually as productive a time as morning so it’s a good time to run errands and do chores. Or work on nonfiction which is a different mindset from fiction.

    In the evening, I usually knock off a few more words. I don’t have a quota per se but I keep track of the increasing megabytes in the WIP file. B/c I put in the hours every day, word count doesn’t matter that much.

    • Yes, I agree, Debbie. Word count becomes less important for those of us who write every day. I prefer other measuring sticks, like counting scenes and/or chapters. Plus, I never could figure out how to keep track of words. I suppose one could jot down the starting page count, then subtract end of day word count. Though I’m sure there’s an app for that. I’ve just never bothered.

      I’m impressed that you return to the keyboard at night. Once I close the computer, my day is done, except for scrawling Notes on my phone. Can’t let ideas slip away! 🙂

  14. Routine and writing space is vital and I had to change mine drastically during the pandemic – moving to the basement and having to block out distractions and noise associated with having 3 boys in house all the time (including hubby!) I realized I write and paint in pretty much complete silence which is a bit odd but it’s how my brain can focus. My boys have been on a 12 day Boy Scout trek and the silence has returned and the words and paint flow a lot easier!! I’m also reading a great book called Atomic habits and it’s fascinating to rethink my writing in terms of habits. Maybe I just need to make new habits ( though I doubt that will include listening to music or writing in coffee shops any time soon!)

    • Whatever works is the perfect routine for you, Clare. That’s the cool thing. We’re all so different in how we approach writing. As long as we’re creating, no one way is the right way.

      Nothing like a global pandemic to upend the routine, right? Let’s hope we don’t go back into lockdown come the fall. 🙂

  15. Fun post, Sue. It’s comforting that the newbie’s routine resembles all y’all’s…tells me maybe I’m on the right track.

    Up by 5:30A, 16-24oz of water before my first cuppa joe with my husband, then we go our separate ways. Me to my office, he outside to muck around on our property.

    Open my computer, bring up my monthly content calendar to see what I’m supposed to be doing today; then a daily check-in with my Chief, then emails & TKZ. Then a 2 mile walk with the man and the smartest dog in the universe. (Although, my husband had a frightening 6 week bout with Covid, so he’s not fully back to the 2 mile distance, but getting there.)

    Then, at it, either creating, editing, or, reserved for certain days and times, marketing tasks.

    Music? Soundtracks: Braveheart, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves are my favorites.

    It works.

    • If it works, Deb, it’s the perfect routine for you. No one way is the right way. 🙂 I toyed with the idea of listening to movie soundtracks, but after disrupting my routine once, I’m in no hurry to do it again.

      Sorry to hear about the hubby. Hope he’s feeling better!

  16. Loved reading about the different routines, Sue. I used to write to music. I do have a lot of familiar music on Spotify I do sometimes write short stories to. For longer works, I find it distracting. I usually also listen to music when reading my emails, visiting blogs as it sits in the background and allows me to concentrate better.

    • Me too, Traci. I find writers’ routine, rituals, and process fascinating.

      Gee, I forgot about Spotify. Can you make a playlist? I would love to get away from YouTube, but I’d need to be able to create the exact playlist.

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