Tag Archives: writing process

„Rehearsals are where you can screw up and feel safe to experiment.“
Bruce Dickinson, What Does This Button Do? An Autobiography, 2017 Read More


Academic writers would like to work as efficiently as possible. That’s one reason why they participate in my courses. Depending on their idea of efficiency, however, they may leave the course early and disappointed. My ideas of efficiency do not match theirs.

On the one hand, there is the idea that writing should be a streamlined process, comparable to a conveyer belt in a factory. You start with one process, finish it, and go on to the next one, until that one is finished and so on. For some writers, this idea works well in practice. For many others, this idea creates challenges. Their expectations about the writing process do not match how they are actually able to work. They’re disappointed because they don’t live up to their own expectations and, they think, to general expectations of efficiency.

My idea of efficiency is rather different from a streamlined process. My idea of efficiency has more to do with knowing how you work best, what your goals and tasks are, and then doing the work you set out to do. Whether this happens in a streamlined process or not doesn’t really matter. As long as you use the available time the way you planned it, you should do fine. Instead of following a process you imagine to be very efficient – because others say so or it is thought to be the ideal model – and not being comfortable with it, you would do better to choose your own.

Find out in which way you can best accomplish a goal within a limited period of time. If your strategies work, stick to them. If they don’t work, adapt them.

Throughout his career, French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was overburdened with writing projects, teaching and other work. Although he voiced his complaints, he nevertheless did what he had to do. He was one of those thinkers who dedicated much of his time – even during holidays – to his work.

Derrida woke around 6 a.m., drank a cup of coffee and worked for the next three hours. At 9 a.m. he joined his wife for breakfast. Sometimes he declared to have already done his work, meaning having prepared his seminar. However, he often worked on until lunch, even though the house wasn’t as quite as it had been in the early morning. When he was alone at home, he wore his nightdress. He lost his sense of time and didn’t take breaks to eat.

Derrida had a few peculiar writing habits: After having compiled notes, he would usually write his first drafts in longhand. If the text was important to him, he would use a quill and not an ordinary fountain pen. Only after having written several drafts, would he begin to transfer the text onto his typewriter. The text needed the right tone and perspective, in order to be typed.

Although Derrida worked for three hours in the morning, he didn’t spend them all sitting at his desk immersed in his work. He would write for fifteen to twenty minutes, after which he would get up, walk around or read a book. Derrida said that the more he was interested in something, the sooner he would interrupt his work again. Movement and changing positions influenced his thinking: he took notes after waking from a dream; he took notes while running; and he would use the notes and ideas when sitting at the desk. He knew that being on the move gave him good ideas.

Becoming increasingly famous, Derrida was asked to write texts. These writing occasions, as he liked to call them, almost always came from outside. He rarely wrote a text that he had initiated himself.

Whether due to him being a philosopher or due to his writing strategy, Derrida had a distinct writing style. He used language carefully to analyze and deconstruct an argument, thereby constructing complex and sometimes literary prose. After the publication of the book The Post Card (1980), a journalist complained that it is no longer possible to understand Derrida, even though reading his texts has been difficult all along.

Peeters, Benoît (2012): Derrida: A Biography. Cambridge: Polity.

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.

Text Recycling Research Project

A multi-institution collaboration investigating the practice of scholarly text reuse

Mast 31 | Fabian Leuthold

Schaut über den Tassenrand hinaus.


- eine Klostersimulation für Schreibende

Explorations of Style

A Blog about Academic Writing