writing schedule

Although he wasn’t the typical anthropologist, doing years of fieldwork, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) belongs to the most well known thinkers of his field. He became widely known with the publication of his memoir Tristes Tropiques in the 1950s and his name became synonymous with the structural method applied to kinship and myths.

He wrote his PhD in New York during the Second World War. Each morning, he went to the New York Public Library to read all he could about anthropology. He would leave at lunch time, ate and went home to write. As a cultural attaché after the war, he spent the mornings in the office and the afternoons at home writing. With this schedule, he managed to finish his thesis. It helped, that his office was in the same building as his apartment.

Years later, back in France, he used a different writing schedule in order to work on his four-volume Mythologica. Between 1964 and 1971, Lévi-Strauss rose between five and six in the morning and worked the entire day. He didn’t rest on weekends or take holidays. He worked that hard in order to not lose touch with the hundreds of myths he analyzed. A team of researchers provided the myths, read and proofread his drafts and transcribed his lectures. Even his wife helped with the work.

Working on his memoire, as well as with the myth project later, Lévi-Strauss had a fast writing pace. In the former case, he wrote the book in a few months, simply writing down whatever came to mind. The first edition, however, gave evidence of that, because there were many misspelled words. In the case of the myth project, Lévi-Strauss wrote several hundred pages a year, because he wanted to be done with the books before his death. While writing, Lévi-Strauss listened to classical music. He said that listening helped him think.

You might think that someone like Lévi-Strauss must have loved writing. Otherwise, how could he have spent years of non-stop work on thick volumes? Didier Eribon, who interviewed him, asked, whether he felt joy and satisfaction when finishing a book. Lévi-Strauss answered, that he felt satisfaction, but that writing wasn’t associated with joy for him. Instead, it was connected to anxiety and revulsion. He was no stranger to having the empty page in front of him: he needed several days in order to find the first sentence. Even when he had felt satisfied, a finished book became a foreign, dead object to him. There was only one case when Lévi-Strauss enjoyed writing a book (the small myth-volume The Jealous Potter). In general, he didn’t consider working more fun than not working. However, time went by without him noticing.

Lévi-Strauss’ writing strategy differs from those of other famous researchers. Having used the strategy during his time in New York, Lévi-Strauss used his lectures at the Collège de France to test his ideas. After giving a lecture based on an outline, he would transform the material and insights into a text.

Lévi-Strauss admitted to having been more of a desk than a fieldwork anthropologist. But because of his broad interest in ethnographic material from all around the world and his perseverance while sifting through hundreds of myths, he contributed some of the most influential and controversial insights to 20th century social science.

Eribon, Didier (1991): Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wilcken, Patrick (2010): Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Poet in the Laboratory. London: Bloomsbury.


Famous for his unrelenting effort to develop sociological systems theory and the theory of society, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) produced several dozens of books and many more articles in his career. While that in itself was impressive, he was that prolific despite being a single parent of three after his wife died.

Although Luhmann complained about the lack of time in general, he still managed to use his available hours to the fullest. In an interview, Luhmann explained his writing habits. He obviously didn’t have a regular writing schedule. However, when he was home and didn’t have anything else to do, he was writing all day: 8:30 a.m. until lunch time; 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.; and in the evening until 11 p.m. Between the writing sessions he walked his dog, took a nap in the afternoon or did other things. While working for so many hours, Luhmann never forced himself to do anything he didn’t like. He preferred to work on things that were easy for him. As soon as he didn’t know how to proceed, he changed the task. At this point, the interviewers were curious, because it seemed that Luhmann was talking about doing things unrelated to writing. But they couldn’t be more wrong: when coming to a standstill with one text, he just switched to another one, even if that meant to beginning a new book.

Luhmann understood his strategy, which we can call patchwork writing, well. It allowed him to work on different texts in parallel, while avoiding being blocked. Although patchwork writing might not sound that organized, Luhmann knew what he was doing. Since he worked with his famous Zettelkasten (a card system or slip box), he only needed a plan for a text and to find the required cards and then write. He stated that organizing the card system and retrieving the required cards took the most amount of time; writing a book took him less. After finishing a manuscript, he usually didn’t revise it. So most of his time went into organizing the content of a text and then writing and not, as in the case of other researchers presented here, into revising a manuscript several times.

Using the patchwork writing strategy and leaving aside the revision phase might be one reason that many students and researchers have trouble reading his texts. As Hans-Georg Moeller put it, Luhmann’s texts are “extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing” (p. 10). As I will indicate for other researchers as well, the writing strategy of a researcher can have an effect on the writing style.

Luhmann represents a writer who didn’t try to seek the perfect text, as he himself said. He instead kept on writing and refining his ideas from text to text. He seemed to have understood his own habits and used them to his advantage. Writing was not a chore, he said, but rather a need to let out all his ideas. He would even have preferred to work on different things at the same time, with 30 hours a day on hand.

Luhmann, Niklas (2002): Biographie, Attitüden, Zettelkasten. Interview. In: Luhmann, Niklas: Short Cuts. Frankfurt a. M.: Zweitausendeins. 7-40.
Moeller, Hans-Georg (2012): The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

If a role model for working morale and writing habits were to exist, it would be the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). What he did with rats and pigeons in his experiments, he seemed to have done to himself: he trained himself to write regularly by organizing his day and work environment as practically as possible. While I admire his work habits, the way he organized things nevertheless can seem odd at times.

Skinner slept and worked in the same room of his basement. One side of the room contained Skinner’s writing desk; the other was a cubicle where he slept (in his day, it must have looked quite futuristic). For several decades, Skinner would wake every morning to an alarm that rang at 5 a.m. He then worked until another alarm rang two hours later (one connected to his desk light). That was the place where he wrote most of his books and articles. Later in his life, Skinner would wake up between 6 and 6.30 a.m., and would start work at around 7 a.m. After finishing his writing work, he would go to the office. In the afternoon – in later years at least – he would work in the garden, take a swim, or meet with friends. Some days he would do some work again after dinner. He always went to bed around 10 p.m., but would wake for one hour at midnight, during which he took notes on a clip-board. He obviously enjoyed waking up for a short burst of work. As Skinner’s biographer says, he worked no more than five hours a day, including office work. Though he never wrote for more than about three hours a day, he did so every day, even during holidays.

Skinner monitored his productivity by means of the timer. He had some kind of diagram, which he plotted every twelve hours. He also counted the number of words he wrote. This diagram and his work routine were all to aid in reinforcement. The rest of his non-working hours were meant to support his work.

Regarding his writing strategy, however, there is not much information: He seemed to have drafted a text first by hand, then revise and rewrite it several times (including his books). But because he wrote every day, he nevertheless accomplished a lot in good time.

There’s hardly anybody else with such a strict routine. I know that I could not do it for the simple fact that I would get into trouble with my family and friends. For Skinner, this did no seem to be a problem. Maybe his behavior influenced and reinforced his family and friends’ behavior as well.

Bjork, Daniel W. (1997): B. F. Skinner. A Life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

The French literary theorist, philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes (1915-1980) not only wrote about writing, he also deliberately organized his own writing environment and habits. In an interview, when asked whether he had a working method, he pointed to the fact that talking about working methods is taboo – which is still true. The taboo, however, might indicate how important working methods are. Luckily, Barthes then explained his own writing habits.

Barthes wrote both longhand and on typewriter. First, he would write by hand, following a visual impulse or similar. Writing by hand provided him with a work ceremony: he liked to change pens during writing. Afterwards, when preparing the text for readers, he would type it on a typewriter. He conceded, however, that he could only type with two fingers, but started to practice typing on an electronic machine every day. While this two-step process was sacred to him, the new tool changed his ritual.

Similar to the process, he maintained an organized work space as well. Whether at home or in his country house, he divided the space into three areas: work, music and painting areas. The work space itself was divided by different wooden tables for different functions: current work, notes and plans, the typewriter, and an index-card system.

Like many other writers, Barthes had his regular working hours – 9.30 a.m. until 1 p.m. – which worked better for him than simply working whenever he felt like it.

Barthes seems to have been well organized and structured. However obsessive he was, his work and writing habits were well thought through and seemed to have worked well for him.

de Rambures, Jean-Louis und Roland Barthes (1985): An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments. In: Barthes, Roland: The Grain of the Voice. Interviews 1962-1980. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 177-182.

Learning about other people’s writing habits can inspire us and inspire reflections on our own habits. Usually, however, it is easier to find examples and anecdotes about literary writers than about researchers (see Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, 2013), despite the fact that academic writers can learn from the former as well. I wanted to gather information about those writers who are famous for their research and theories. I wondered how the people I used to read during my studies had worked. What were their thoughts on writing and reading? So I started to read interviews and biographies of researchers and thinkers. So far, I have found information about a few famous social scientists, psychologists and philosophers. Convinced that others might be inspired by these examples, I will write a series of posts about the writing habits of these researchers.

My sample is still small and thus far only includes men: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, B. F. Skinner, Karl Popper, Jacques Derrida, Norbert Elias, Niklas Luhmann, Clifford Geertz and Slavoj Žižek. I am still looking for other examples to present here. So, if you know of a book or an article about a researcher with information about his or her writing habits please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

It is one thing to plan when you want to write. Another is to know what it is that you want to spend your time on during your writing session. If you don’t plan well in advance, you need to know what to write about the evening before your scheduled session at the latest. Despite your best intentions you might change plans in the morning, because you don’t know whether you can write about the planned topic (as happened to me today). The easiest solution for this problem would be to just stick to a topic you already know enough about. Instead of changing topic and discarding your plan for the upcoming session, however, you can choose a middle way: write about the reasons why you don’t want or cannot stick to your initial plan; inquire about the problems you face when thinking about the topic. Through writing, you might find the solution or reason enough to start writing about the topic in your next session. If not, you still sat at your desk and wrote something related to the planned topic. In other words, you stuck to your writing session plan, even though you did not entirely stick to your thematic plan.

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