Writer's Habits: The Importance of Non-Writing Writing

Writer's Habits: The Importance of Non-Writing Writing

June 20, 2016

A friend recently asked me how many hours I write each day. I gave her an approximate number, which is the response most people expect when they inquire about a writer’s habits. A number is easy to give, easy for them to digest. It’s not the whole story, though.

I’m not the kind of writer who sits down with the goal of a daily word count or number of pages. I tend to be more project-oriented. Perhaps it stems from my previous career as a journalist. My daily question is, “What am I working on today?” I think about deadlines, even if they are self-imposed, and I prioritize accordingly. I go to my desk and I get to work. That’s part of the story.

Here’s the rest: I’m actually writing all the time. But if I told my friend I write 12-14 hours a day, she’d want to know if I thought I was writing another War and Peace.

Of course I’d have to explain myself. Right now, for example, I’m working on an essay. Last week and the week before I did sit at my desk and generate pages. But this week I spent many of those same hours reviewing the paragraphs I’d written and shifting them around to see what would happen to the essay. Some might call this revising but in my mind it’s not really because I don’t have a complete draft. I’m still building the essay, still figuring it out.

I like to call this non-writing writing.

In the late morning or early afternoon, I’ll take a walk to think about the essay—why I’m writing it, what I really think or believe about the topic, what I might be trying to say. I consider this time and reflection vital to my work, but if you saw me by the side of the road, perhaps taking a photo with my phone of some wild grapes, you wouldn’t think I’m writing, but I am—more non-writing writing. I’m also non-writing writing when I’m:

  • Gardening. One Saturday morning I figured out the core message of a speech I was writing, all while weeding the large bed of shrubs and flowers in front of my house.
  • Watching an old movie numerous times. I kept a tape of “Saturday Night Fever” running in the VCR in my office for several days before I eventually I realized I was about to write something connected to the character of Tony Manero, and I did.
  • Driving. When I go to New York City, about 65 miles from my home, I usually drive instead of taking the train. Once I’m on the highway I turn off the radio and settle into the sound of the tires on the road. Eventually thoughts of what I’m writing arise and I’ll puzzle through a scene.

Between my writing and non-writing writing, the hours can really add up.

But here’s the thing: for the non-writing writing to happen, I do have to spend the time on the page. It may not be every day but it is as much as possible. If I’m not writing, then I’ll have nothing to consider in the moments when I’m driving, gardening, or walking. Those quiet spaces will quickly fill with other matters: what to cook for dinner, whether my son has outgrown all pairs of his long pants, when to order our supply of wood pellets for the winter.

It’s all a process. When writers speak to me of being stuck, I usually discover they only write once or twice a week and don’t think much about their work when they are away from the desk. Such habits pave the road to getting stuck. The non-writing writing is what allows you to work through problems—it’s like you’re walking along working a Rubik’s Cube in your mind. If you are stuck, this kind of thinking ensures you won’t be stuck for long. It also keeps your story/essay/poem alive even when you don’t have the written words in front of you.

If the question about your writing habits comes up, answer your inquisitor with your number of desk hours. But then ask yourself: Am I putting in my non-writing writing hours as well?





Sophfronia Scott is author of the novels All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press) and Unforgivable Love (William Morrow) and the essay collection Love's Long Line (The Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books). Sophfronia holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing, fiction and creative nonfiction, from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Currently she is working on her next novel as well as a nonfiction book about her virtual mentorship with the monk Thomas Merton. Her website is www.Sophfronia.com.

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