University Writing Center Blog

Posted on March 19th, 2019 in Opportunity, Writing Strategies by Rachel Cox

Written by: Rachel Cox

Hello, writers! Following up Stephanie M.’s wonderful post  On Writing, the Writer’s Block, and Becoming a Writer  (which you should definitely read), I thought it might be useful to expand on the usefulness of establishing a routine.

As someone who has dabbled with writing since I could put pencil to paper, I’ve always found it extraordinarily difficult to actually do so on a regular basis. There’s always something more important to be done, or I’m just not feeling inspired. I used to think that establishing a writing routine would kill my creativity, and that scheduling my art would turn it from being a passion into being work. Anything that came out of a routine simply wouldn’t be good enough compared to what came from some intangible lightning strike of inspiration sent down from the heavens (groan). But I was so, so wrong.

One thing that I’ve found over the years is that I’m most productive with clean surroundings. If I’m surrounded by mess, my attention will spiral onto the chaos around me. I’ll then get overwhelmed by the endless to-do’s and get nothing done. Having one little corner of calm, devoted to work and writing, where there is nothing in the space that isn’t relevant to the task, is essential for my own peace of mind. This also prevents a lot of (but not all) procrastination. If your area is already relatively clean, your phone is shut off and in another room, and all other distractions are minimized (within your control), this all can help you dip your toes into a productive writing session.

Doing so at a regular time can also help call forth the mysterious and elusive creative flow. According to Wikipedia, creative flow can be defined as, “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” This state is so elusive, in fact, that many people sometimes question its very existence. But studies show that over time establishing a routine, for instance my own after-dinner butt-in-seat, pen-to-paper habit, will help call forth the flow. This is due to the fact that our brain is really good at associating repeated activities together. Sitting in a particular area at a particular time every day and forcing yourself to write something can serve as a trigger to the creative process.

And for proof that these triggers exist and can be the simplest, weirdest things, I present to you the Toothbrush Phenomenon. This is what I call my propensity for getting (what I think of as) good ideas while brushing my teeth. I don’t know when exactly it started, but nearly every time I brush my teeth in the evening I think of a sentence or idea that at that moment just seems perfect. I then have to repeat it to myself over and over in order to remember it. As soon as I rinse I grab my notepad or phone and write it out, and that in turn usually starts my own creative flow. Oftentimes what I thought was perfect turns out not so great, but the work that follows that one idea can turn out to be better than what I started with.

Another hurdle that is hard to overcome is perfectionism. Getting started on any writing project is difficult if you’ve already put the pressure on yourself to write the best thing you’ve ever written. One thing that has helped me overcome this attitude is to think of writing differently­– writing isn’t about building a house brick-by-brick with a solid foundation at the outset. For me, writing is more like jumping into a river and seeing where it takes me. It doesn’t matter if my dive into the water is swan-like or a belly flop, what matters is that I’m in it.

No single routine works for everyone, and not everyone has access to the same quiet and solitude. But finding what works for you and then doing it repeatedly can help you develop that habit and hopefully make writing less of an arduous task. There are also many resources here at IUPUI that can help you, such as quiet spots on campus like the Quiet Floor at the library, the fifth floor of Cavanaugh, and the Ruth Lilly Law Library at our own McKinney School of Law. And if you’re needing ideas or advice in general, there’s always the University Writing Center (cough, cough).

So dive in, people, and go with the flow.


Resources/Further Reading:

The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily RoutineMaria Popova for Brain Pickings

Anne Lamott on Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity – Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

The Creative ‘Flow’: How to Enter That Mysterious State of OnenessScott Barry Kaufman for The Huffington Post

7 quiet places to study on campus – Samantha Thompson for Campus Life at IUPUI