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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Writer Productivity Tip: Have a Routine

This is a continuation on our series on tips to make the writing process and your writing career more organized, less stressful, and more effective.

Almost every parent I know understands the importance of the “bedtime ritual.” The components are usually something along the lines of: bathe the child, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read a couple of stories, get a drink of water, sing a song, say no to a second glass of water, say good night, say no to the next two requests to get up and get a glass of water, the child falls asleep. When the schedule is disrupted, even if it's late and the child should be exhausted, getting the child to sleep is much harder.
The bedtime ritual works because of a psychological function called cognitive cuing. The child’s brain has essentially wired itself to understand that the endpoint of the bedtime ritual is sleep. The process of relaxing into that state begins with the bath, and each step in the ritual is a conditioned step toward sleeping. There’s nothing intrinsically sleep-inducing about most of the steps themselves—brushing your teeth is not, independently, a cue for your brain to prepare for slumber. The key is simply the existence of the ritual.
Not surprisingly, when researchers have tried to examine the ideal situation for creative writing, what they’ve largely found is that the presence of a routine—cognitive cuing—is essential. In his book The Psychology of Writing, Cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explains:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness.
In other words, going to the same place at the same time, then doing the same thing (writing awesome prose) when you get there, teaches your brain to expect to write. Instead of wasting a page or two “getting into the zone,” your brain eventually wires itself to know, “It’s six-thirty AM, I brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee with my sexy French press, and ate some fruit, Now I’m sitting at the desk with my fingers on the keys, it must be time for awesome prose to explode out of my fingertips.
Substituting a different time of day to meet your scheduling needs wouldn’t harm anything (or much, Kellogg talks about time of day, too). You can swap brushing teeth for a regular chat session with a CP or turn that desk into a local coffee shop. Ultimately, what will yield results is your mind associating the routine with being deep inside a character, deep inside your novel. A place you can start writing from by giving your mind those cognitive cues that it’s time to be there.


Stephanie Faris said...

Great advice! It seems when I went to an office every day, I had an easier time putting part of my day aside for working on my novels. Now that I write for clients all day, making time for my own fiction writing seems to be very difficult for me to do! It becomes more of a luxury just to work on my novels.

My agent is on maternity leave until April, too--so that's the main reason I'm not really pushing very hard. I just have to rewrite three chapters in the next two months! If I do anything else, I'll just end up having to sit on it for six months or so until she's finished pitching these three chapters.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Great tip, Michael. I totally agree with this. I had never equated it with a children's bedtime ritual before, but it really makes sense. I go down to our river house when I am under real writing pressure because I can knock out lots of words there. Not only am I isolated and not interrupted, I have had great word count success there, and everything in me anticipates re-creating that success. I am going to read more on this topic now. Perhaps I can come up with my own writing time ritual that will capture what I have here at the river house.

Adriana Mather said...

Awesome post, Michael! The only way I can move through a novel is by setting a routine and having a system... otherwise I would get lost in cute cat pictures and never return.

Unknown said...

I am so used to email notifications that I have comments on my blog that it never even occurred to me to pop in here and look for comments. So the neglected responses were oversight, and a big OOPS.

I sprained the heck out of my ankle, though, which is good for catching up on this kind of stuff :)

I'm glad the tip helped!