The Standard Writers Interrogation List: Larks vs Owls

This blog is part of a series I started earlier this year. Whenever two writers meet for the first time, there is a typical set of questions they ask each other. These questions mostly relate to processes, habits and superstitions. I’ve come to think of them as the Standard Writers Interrogation List. This blog tackles the ‘time of day’ query: Early bird or Night Owl?

We’re all pretty aware of our natural rhythms. Some of up wake-up early and prefer to get the bulk of the day’s tasks done before noon. Other wake-up slowly (and often cranky), hitting their stride in the afternoon. Social scientists have, cleverly, dubbed these optimal-times as Larks (morning) and Owls (night – dah).

Personal anecdote time! I was a total night owl back when I worked in hospitality. My shifts

often finished at 2am, which meant I was hitting the hay around 3-4am. I worked split shifts, like most waitresses, so I’d get up at 10am for the lunch shift. Thankfully, those days are over and I’ve had the luxury of being able to find figure out my personal optimal-time. It didn’t take long to realise that I was a total lark: bed by 9pm and up at 5am. Over the last three or four years, I’ve discovered that my best writing happens between 7:30-10:30am. During this brief three-hour window, my energy and focus are at their height. I strive to get the bulk of my ‘priority’ writing done during this time, because after noon, my mind tends to get a bit gooey.

There are plenty of days when I extend beyond that magic window, locking in 4-8 hours of writing; BUT the best stuff still happened during that first three-hour session. And yeah, life happens, so there are days when I’ve agreed to meet a friend for a morning coffee or made an appointment. Whenever my writing session is pushed back into the afternoon, the writing is always harder; the words flow less and the clever connection that can occur during a morning stint almost never happen.

Through various studies, scientist have discovered the strengths and weaknesses of being a lark or owl. While Larks tend to be happier and more productive, Owls generally have higher IQs and libidos (though they often suffer from addictions such as smoking or alcoholism – them’s the breaks). However, a 2011 study conducted by psychologist, Mareiki Wieth and Rose Zacks, revealed that creative thinking may be stronger during off peaks times. Through various exercises, the psychologists discovered that their test subjects had stronger analytical abilities and experienced greater insights outside of their optimal times.

Though that may be true, I’m still sticking with my window. Thanks.

New York Times best-selling author, Rob Bell, has admitted that he finds “writing exhausting” and that his best work is done between 9am and noon. Like me, author Charles Sailor says his mind turns to mush after lunch. Elizabeth Stout has the same problem, which is why she sometimes pushes lunch back until 2pm. Entrepreneur, Seth Godin, says that three hours of writing a day is “plenty”; he also prefers to write his blogs in the morning. Similarly, Steven Pressfield, says that if he closes up shop after two or three hours of morning writing: “I figure I’ve paid my rent on the planet.”

Then there are the night owls, Dean Wesley Smith wakes up at 3pm before tending to his massive online writing community and then writes between midnight and 5am. This guy is prolific, setting himself regular writing challenges. For the month of July, Smith is planning to write four novels (eBooks) plus a ‘How to write four novels in a month’ manual – ha! Diana Gabaldon and Junot Diaz also write between 12-5am, as did George Orwell and Vladmir Nabokovn (though the later was an insomniac, so maybe that doesn’t count).

One obvious plus to being a writer owl, is the minimisation of distraction. Everyone is asleep and shops and services are closed (especially if you live rurally). Any distractions that occur between 12-5am is self-made: internet, television.

However, while researching for this blog, I quickly discovered that most writers prefer to do the bulk of their work in the morning. The writers who do continue on after lunch, usually reserve their afternoons for lesser tasks such as editing, research, blogging and replying to emails.

I’ve always been fascinated about the time of day other writers work, because your optimal time may not be the most practical time. A lark who works full-time, Monday to Friday, can’t write in the mornings. An owl with three young kids can’t stay up until 5am and sleep all day. Maybe Wieth and Zacks study will bring some comfort here, in the belief that we can still produce good work outside our optimal times.

I enjoy delving into the Standard Writers Interrogation list as much as the next pen scribbler; and the reason why these same procedural questions come up again and again at writers meeting and author Q&As is because deep down, we want there to be some secret. Some bullet proof step-by-step outline on how to take an idea and turn into a real-life book. Though there are crossovers between author, no-one ever has the same answer when it comes to describing their writing routine.

You just gotta figure out what works for you.

And on that trite and cliché note, I bid you farewell; gotta go get me some worms.

*image: Interrogation – Samuel Leo

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