Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When's the Best Time to Write?

A couple of years ago, a writing instructor at a conference advised us on how to segment a day's work for maximum effectiveness. He told us, "revise in the morning when you're fresh, and write in the afternoon and evening, when you're creative."

Ever since, I've wondered a couple things. Is he right? Is the morning really the best time to do methodical workediting, revising, rewriting? And is the evening really the bright center of our creative minds?

I came across the notion of segmented sleep a couple of years ago in an article by BBC News Magazine called "The Myth of the Eight Hour Sleep." It cites a 90s study on natural human sleep patterns that may shed some light on when human minds are at their ripest for creative work.

Historical evidence suggests that before the introduction of artificial light, people went to sleep around sun-down, slept for a four-hour chunk (called "first sleep"), then woke (often around 1 or 2 a.m.) for a short burst, and then slept for another four-hour chunk ("second sleep") until morning. During this brief "intervening period of wakefulness," people did all their best stuff, including poetry, writing, and art.

I doubt I'm the only writer who has found herself awake at midnight, sometimes 1 a.m., feverishly scribbling down new ideas and buffered by the quiet of the night. Certainly one experiences an outer peacefulness at such an hour that prevents distraction, allowing the tumultuous inner beast to create. Is that the ancestral self emerging, waking you up from a dead sleep with a story you must scribble down, half-blind, in the dark?

There's more to it, though. At night, your frontal cortex (responsible for processing received information) gets, well, a little tired. It stops being quite as interested in what's going on around it--what you're seeing, feeling, and hearing. Your "self-critique" center becomes less harsh, letting ideas generated by the rest of your brain flow more freely onto the paper.

So a little tiredness can go a long way in letting the creative muse run free. Perhaps those 1 a.m. idea bursts are simply your harsh inner critic taking a break. 

And yet, the stimulating effect that "tiredness" produces can even be reproduced with intoxicants that inhibit your working memory (the same function of your frontal cortex inhibited by being tired). For example: alcohol. Explains a lot about all those alcoholic, early American writers, doesn't it?

But it's never good to attempt detail work while tired or under the influence. I don't know about you, but trying to do real editing at midnight usually results in feeling like this:

From this, I think, comes the instructor's suggestion to save editing and re-working of your writing for the morning hours. But that's not the only reason.

I really love this article by Ginny Disguiseppi on why to write in the morning, every morning: "because nothing can derail you." If you make a plan to write first thing in the morning when you get up, and you get it doneyou've done it for the day. You've finished your obligation. It's habit-forming, and you can drink up the milk of your success before noon every day.

So going back to the notion of dividing up your writing day: I go for a little of this, a little of that. Sitting yourself down in the morning to do something writingthat's a great place to start. It's certainly a strategy that ensures you accomplish a little each day, even if that's re-working and finessing something you hurriedly scribbled down the night before.

But if you find yourself struggling to find your muse in those early hours, fear not! There's the later evening to get you through to that creative center. And if you're anything like me, you'll probably just want to take off the afternoon for napping, cleaning, making money, and all the other things life demands of youand maybe to play Pokemon.


  1. It's taken me decades to understand this truth about myself: "Morning hours" are, for me, not the dark hours right after I have unwillingly hauled my carcass out of bed to meet the expectations of the world, but they are the hours between 9-ish and midday. Those are the hours when I'm "fresh," able to focus on putting thoughts together in ways that make sense, and able to sustain some amount of focus. As Socrates said, "know theyself." :-)

    1. Right? It's so important to learn what your best working times are--for the type of work that you want to get done. And then keep that time clear for writing!

  2. Very smart article. I've had this same internal debate regarding exercise before, too. On the one hand, if you exercise first thing in the morning it wakes you up, gets the blood flowing, and it's DONE. On the other, you'll have more energy if you wait until afternoon; you're better hydrated, you're more alert, and it's a nice break in your day to re-calibrate and refresh. On the third hand, if you wait until evening to burn off the stress of the day (and the calories of the day), etc etc...

    The point is, I don't think there is a WRONG time, so long we make it a priority and get it done. Writing and exercise are both things easily put off as extras and luxuries if we're not intentional.

    1. Thank you, Bethany! You're right--making writing a priority is the key to getting writing done. And not putting it off! I suppose that's why the "do it in the morning' argument appeals to me--I get lazier as the day goes on! (Smart to equate it to exercise.)