Best-Selling Authors’ Writing Habits: Lessons We Can Learn from Them

The most successful writers don’t wait for inspiration to write. What do they do that we don’t? And what can we learn from their habits? Let’s take an in-depth look!

Many writers dream of being best-selling authors. However, writing a book can be challenging, and landing a well-paying publishing deal with a Big 4 publisher is even more complicated. Especially if you’re working a day job to support yourself.

Photograph of Belinda D'Alessandro. Belinda is wearing a red jacket over a red dress and a string of pearls. She is standing in front of windows with shitters
Belinda D’Alessandro

It’s estimated that around 30,000 books are published every year in the United States alone. Yet only about one percent of self-published works make it to the New York Times Best Seller list. In fact, it’s not uncommon for best-selling authors to write multiple books per year!

Aspiring writers are often told to read many books, learn the craft, and get inspired by reading other good authors.

But how do we really know what the best-selling authors do? They tell us! And most of the top authors have a habit of routine!

What is a writing habit?

The most crucial component of becoming a writer is to develop a regular writing habit. It’s more important than talent, and it’s more important than inspiration. If you’re interested in a writing career, you must develop a writing habit.

Your writing habit can be as simple as setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier in the morning and using that time to write out two or three paragraphs of what’s on your mind. Then, wake up an hour earlier, or turn off devices an hour earlier in the evening, to give yourself time to write at night.

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t finish the sentence you’re working on or get a mind blank. If you’re feeling frustrated or discouraged about your work on a particular project, take a few minutes to think about the big picture. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. What are you trying to accomplish?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of work, but if you don’t take a step back occasionally, and ask yourself what it is that you want, it’s going to be hard to keep moving forward. Make sure that you have a clear idea of your goals and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

How do best-selling authors write?

Best-selling authors have a lot in common when it comes to writing. They all have a set routine and devote a significant amount of time each week to their trade. The most successful writers outline before they start writing. Outlining allows you to see the big picture of your project and how to approach it. The average novel takes four to six months to write, so you can’t rush the process.

“No. I mean, there’s real life, I could be working away, and something comes up, and you have to get up … but mostly I try to get the six pages in.” Stephen King in a conversation with George R.R. Martin

Best-selling authors aren’t so different from us. They write in their spare time, take their craft seriously, and have a deep respect for the art of storytelling. They also have a specific process that they follow every time they release a new book, and if you study them, you can learn a lot about how to write the best content possible.

The best-selling authors’ writing routine

There are many different writing habits that successful authors have shared. However, the most famous authors have described their routine, so you can try to adapt it to your own schedule.

Stephen King opens up about his routine in his book On Writing (mentioned in a previous post). He tries to “get six pages a day”. He starts with a glass of water, a cup of tea and his vitamins. He makes sure he is in the same seat every day, and his papers and desk are arranged the same way every day. He keeps his phone and the internet switched off until he’s done working for the day.

He listens to music when he’s writing (he prefers Metallica and Anthrax) and cranks out 2000 words (about six pages) a day. He insists that he will not abandon his daily quota of two thousand words (or around six pages) unless there is an emergency. If he doesn’t, he won’t make an exception, whether it’s Christmas or his birthday.

He usually completes his work between 11:30 am and 1:30 am on a typical day. This leaves him free to do anything he wants, whether it’s reading or watching baseball games with family and friends.

“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou presented a treasure map when she spoke with George Plimpton in 1990 for the Paris Review, in which she famously lay out her daily routine.

She would rent a hotel room for a few months in the town where she lived. She would 6:30am and write until 12:30pm or 1:30pm, taking a break for sherry mid-morning (usually around 11am). She would then go home to breathe and would review her work around five, and then have dinner.

One of the most notable things about her was the hotel room she used as a studio, going so far as to shut the door, unplug the phone, and remove all the artwork from it, allowing only the rubbish to be emptied, to avoid distractions.

Tweet by Michael J. Sidlinger 19.01.2019 about Ursula Le Guin's writing routine:
Michael J. Sidlinger’s tweet about Ursula Le Guin’s writing routine

During the 1960s, when Ursula K. Le Guin began writing, she was a literary outsider in more ways than one: she was a woman writing in a landscape dominated by men, a science fiction and fantasy author in an era that dismissed “genre” literature as unserious, and a westerner living far from fashionable East Coast publishing circles.

It’s hard to believe that Le Guin has been writing for nearly 60 years. Yet, as if that wasn’t enough, she managed to do it all between the hours of 7:15am and 1pm, seven days per week. She’d awake at 5:30am to think, and eat breakfast at 6:15am. After finishing work, she’d read, do some life administration and start preparing dinner and eat around 8pm. After 8pm? Well, she says, “I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.”

Or that’s what her ideal writing schedule dictates, anyway. Writer Michael J. Seidlinger tweeted it as “the ideal writing routine,” and she confirmed the schedule in an interview she gave in 1988 and confirmed it in the book Ursula Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (David Streitfeld, Editor).

What can we learn from the habits of the best sellers?

Haruki Murakami also spoke with the Paris Review, in 2004, this time with John Wray, to describe his writing routine.

He would wake up at 4am, write for five to six hours, go for a 10-kilometre run or swim 1,500 meters in the afternoon, read and listen to music and be in bed by 9pm.

“I know how fiction matters to me, because if I want to express myself, I have to make up a story. Some people call it imagination. To me, it’s not imagination. It’s just a way of watching.” Haruki Murakami

In one of his interviews with Open Culture about his writing on running, he summarises the qualities the good novelist must have: talent, focus, and endurance.

How do the best-selling authors write so much?

Busy cityscapeIt’s the routine. It’s worth noting that best-selling authors, like the ones mentioned here, follow the routine every day, clearly showing their hustle. They have the discipline to wake up and follow the same rigorous pattern every day.

To an outsider, their well-ordered domestic lives mentioned above would seem tedious.

However, these authors were able to produce writing unlike anything that had ever been written before. No matter how different their novels appear on the surface, each author would have recognised what the others had in common: that they knew how to get the imagination fired up and running.

To an outsider, their well-ordered domestic lives mentioned above would seem tedious. However, these authors were able to produce writing unlike anything that had ever been written before. No matter how different their novels appear on the surface, each author would have recognised what the others had in common: that they knew how to get the imagination fired up and running.

However simple we may believe ourselves to be, we all have to start somewhere. The most successful writers started at the bottom. No one wakes up one day and writes a best-selling book. As a matter of fact, the top authors took years to get there. They practised their craft by writing every day, even when they didn’t feel like it.

Reviewing the writing habits and routines of best-selling authors is important for new writers because they show success.

It takes effort to write a book, but it can be done if you focus on achieving that goal. So take the time to develop a writing routine and stick with it. It will help you finish your book faster and ensure that you publish something of quality.

Can aspiring authors follow the habits of the best sellers?

If you’ve considered writing professionally, you’ve heard the advice to write at least once a day. Stephen King recommends it in his memoir, On Writing, as does Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird (she recommends sitting down to write at roughly the same time every day). But is this the best advice for anyone who isn’t a full-time writer? I say absolutely not, and you’re less likely to complete your writing project if you use this strategy.

This can be practically unachievable if you’re not a full-time writer. Whether it’s an early morning meeting at work, a train delay, or an afternoon meeting that goes on for hours, there are a lot of predictable circumstances that can make it impossible to write EVERY day. This can have serious repercussions. First, it tells your brain that your daily writing goal is doomed to fail.

“While we read a novel, we are insane — bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices … Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” Ursula Le Guin

The human brain needs to analyse plans to keep ourselves from procrastinating, which encourages us to act on good plans and deter us from working on bad ones. Unfortunately for aspiring novelists, the brain doesn’t always distinguish between a general aim like writing a novel and a more particular plan like writing every day to achieve that objective.

You lose motivation if your precise plan fails, and your writing endeavour goes downhill as a result.

How to develop your own writing habits

How do you develop your own writing habits? How do you get motivated to write every day? Can you get inspired to write every day? If you want to be a writer, you need to develop your own writing habits. By that, I mean that you need to show up and write.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain

The best way to develop a writing habit is to have a system. Here are some tips:

  • Write at the right time of day for you. In the end, the best time to write is the time that works best for each individual. A writer can only become better at writing by actually doing it. If you commit to writing regularly, you will find that your ideas flow, your schedule opens up, and you gain the experience necessary to positively impact your career and personal life.
  • Write on the proper schedule for you. This follows on from writing at your own best time of day. Just as there is no single perfect time to write for everyone, there is no single ideal writing schedule for everyone.
  • Write in the place where you know you do your best work. Know where you do your best work. Your work environment will affect your writing, and it can’t be underestimated. Best-selling authors know where they’re at their peak. Is your quiet room the best place for you to write? In a coffee shop where you can hear the people around you talking? Or do you prefer to listen to the sounds of the outside world?
  • Set a deadline for yourself. Assign an arbitrary date to when your book must be completed. This doesn’t have to have anything to do with a publisher or anyone else, but it keeps you working towards your goal
  • Write for more than the money. Publishing books and earning a living as a writer can be lucrative, but if it’s all you’re doing, you’ll burn out. If you don’t have a passion for writing, a desire to make a difference with your words, or some other “why,” it will be challenging to compete with someone driven from within.
  • Push through the writer’s block. Don’t let it get in the way of your writing. Concentrating on a single task while blocking out distractions is crucial for success. Successful authors are also able to write in any situation.
  • Plan ahead for future pieces. Writers, like planners, thrive when they have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish in the future. Bloggers, for example, need to think about their future content in advance. Determine if you’re writing a stand-alone book or part of a series before you begin writing. Authors like to play around with foreshadowing in their books, and it’s always fun when they do.
  • Read constantly. Your writing will benefit from reading the work of other authors. Pay attention to how they speak, structure their sentences, vocabulary, and tone of voice.

At the end of the day

Obviously, the writing routines of best-selling authors aren’t ideal for most part-time writers because they have another job along with writing and working this rigorously isn’t possible for everyone.

However, there are some things from their routine that you should include in your writing routine. Like, writing on a schedule or reading daily. If not for four hours, an hour a day maybe. Or his dedication to the craft even after acquiring so much wealth.

The best writers write regularly, whether they wake up inspired or want to curl up in bed all day. They constantly train their writing muscle while getting better at their craft. Then, if it’s a self-imposed deadline (like finishing a chapter for their book) or an external deadline (like a freelance job for a business), they get it done based on their regular commitment to writing.

If this is foreign to you, start writing 500 words a session. Do that for one week. Then improve your words per session to 750 and see how that goes. Finally, push yourself to write at least 1,000 words a session, and you’ll be thankful you did it. There will be times where you may struggle to write, but you can through in these moments by remembering and implementing the habits of best-selling writers.

Final thoughts

What can we learn from best-selling authors? Quite a lot! They have worked hard to get where they are, and it is evident in their writing strategies.

Everyone has their own way of writing. However, there are some essential habits that many best-selling authors share. Find out about these habits and how you can incorporate them into your own writing routine to improve the quality of your work and help you become a better writer.

Have you had any success incorporating some of these writing habits into your own routine? What other practices do you think would help us become better writers? If so, please let us know in the comments section below.

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