Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alex Morris: 10 Famous Writers and Their Writing Habits

I'm pleased to welcome Alex Morris here today. He's a writer and researcher for Office Kitten in Manchester, where he works avidly behind his office desk and keeps an eye on toner cartridges. Not too often do we see a savvy business guru with a heavy knowledge of literary masterpieces, so I'll step down now. You're up, sir!

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For many writers the process of getting your thoughts down on a page can be daunting. If you’re attempting a full scale novel you can find yourself becoming quite lost in your story, forgetting key events or, even worse, struggling with writers block. It is important to remember that your work is unique – you are telling your story and it is solely yours. However, it is interesting to look back on past writers and examine their, often unusual, techniques to lift their inspiration in order to write their words down. Although many of these methods could be construed as eccentric, they were simply employed by their practitioners to get the job done.

1. Jack Kerouac

The Beat Generation writer famously taped 120ft worth of paper together so that his stream of consciousness writing style would not be interrupted by the need to add a new sheet of paper to the type writer. He typed so quickly, and worked so fervently, that he completed a draft of On The Road in 3 weeks. The now legendary roll of paper is often toured on display to the public. He wrote all of his books this way, receiving acclaim and criticism for his technique in equal amounts.

2. Virginia Woolf

With her husband, she leased a house in London and converted the basement into an office. This is where she would do most of her writing, amongst musty old files and stacks of books – the idea being, it seemed, to be for peace and quiet. The unexciting setting did little to curb her creative genius as she wrote numerous classics, such as Mrs. Dalloway.

3. Philip K. Dick

A science-fiction writer of incredible imagination and productivity, Philip K. Dick boasted he could type 100 words a minute. Dick also claimed to have unusual visions, hallucinations and interference from a higher order, but this can be attributed to his addiction to prescription drugs. Perhaps most famous for Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the novel which would become the famous film Blade Runner, 10 of his novels have been adapted into Hollywood films.

4. John Steinbeck

Steinbeck wrote in pencil and, as an author of some 27 novels, the Nobel Prize winner was vociferous in his use of them. His friends claimed that he was obsessive of them, often using as many as sixty a day. He wrote the acclaimed Grapes of Wrath, as well as East of Eden, the latter taking up more than 300 pencils in its creation!

5. Hunter S. Thompson

Thompson created the Gonzo journalism technique which saw him inadvertently become central in the story he was writing. Witness Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an excellent example of this; Thompson traveled to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, but managed to immerse himself as the key element of the story as he deciphered the American dream.

6. Toni Morrison

The author of Beloved had to work around having children in her life. She solved this problem by rising very early in the morning and being active, claiming she couldn’t be clever or witty in the evening as she was too tired. This is also a technique used by J.K. Rowling, who would rush out to a cafe whenever her child was asleep!

7. Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway claimed he wrote only 500 words a day (typically in the morning), and would stop mid-sentence, in order to be able to craft a perfect novel. The technique worked – The Old Man and the Sea won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. There is, however, his thunderous alcoholism to take into consideration. Rising in the morning to a breakfast of gin and absinthe shots, he would go on to consume at least six bottles of wine, and regular shots of whiskey or vodka. He would do this every day! It is highly advised all authors avoid this technique.

8. Vladmir Nabokov

Despite being fluent in English, French and Russian from an early age, the author of Lolita never learned how to drive, type, or use a telephone. Due to this he was another obsessive user of pencils and would often revise everything he wrote numerous times. Most of his novels were written on 3 x 5 index cards and stored neatly away for easy access. He also enjoyed soaking in a bath tub as he wrote.

9. Truman Capote

Capote claimed to be unable to think as a writer unless sanguine – to achieve this state of mind he needed to be horizontal. He would lie in bed and write in pencil, smoking and drinking coffee or brandy as he went along. He would write longhand in pencil his first draft before moving to a type writer. Highly meticulous, his most famous novel, In Cold Blood, took seven years to complete.

10. Mikhail Bulgakov

Most famous for the wild tale The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov had a bizarre and fraught time writing his novel. He clashed with the communist regime he was writing under, as well as struggling with personal misgivings. Having had enough of battling himself he tossed the manuscript into a fire! Eventually he changed his mind and started the whole thing again from memory. This is a lesson to all writers out there; never destroy your novels!


  1. Yay for the pencil! That's probably why they still sell them. =) Great post!

  2. What an amazing collections of writing talent! How cool would it be if in twenty or so years our names will be linked with theirs!

    KEEP DREAMING MICHAEL ... lol. Hey, I'd be happy if it was any one of our incredible blogger friends. One never knows where life will lead us.

    Hope you're doing well David,

  3. Amazing how many write longhand first. Or had no choice!

  4. Looking forward to Philip K. Dick's reboot of Total Recall this summer. Or I guess that's Hollywood's reboot. However, he gets credit for having originally thought it up. What a brilliant mind drugs can create.

  5. These were great, it's fun to read what their quirks were.

  6. After just typing an essay (not mine) that was written in pencil, I have to say that I'm not a fan of that method.

    Interesting post. I like Capote's method the best.

  7. Oh that's so awesome. I still handwrite my drafts and just looked it up recently to be sure that I wasn't a weirdo. Now I'm struggling with my draft though because much of what I wrote in the beginning of my novel was written over ten years ago. *sigh* Now the real work begins. I hate editing/rewriting.

  8. This is great! I think it's easy to take for granted how easy it is to write on a word processor nowadays.

    Another one is Graham Greene. Each of his novels was meticulously researched by his visiting all the settings, so they provide a snapshot of these places in the era he was writing.

  9. I can't even imagine handwriting anything anymore. I learned from an early age how to type 100+ WPM and I type about as fast as I think out words so... I barely manage to handwrite notes! Then again I guess that was a different time, eh.

  10. I turn to the #2 pencil and a sheet of paper when I need to give my brain something new to look at so it feels inspired again. Usually takes only a page to get the creative juices flowing smoothly again, then I turn back to my lap top!

    Loved reading these! Thanks for visiting David's blog, Alex.

  11. Interesting! I don't use a pencil but I have a certain type of pen I prefer when I write longhand - which I often still do.

  12. I'm so glad I read this, as I know almost nothing about Bulgakov but I loved The Master and Margarita. I must try writing in the tub someday. Just kidding.

  13. I really enjoyed reading about the different techniques these authors employed. I guess each writer has to find what works for them! I like the tub idea too!

  14. Now there's some interesting trivia.


  15. @Nick Wilford: Now Graham Greene had the right idea.

    I usually write the first draft in pen or pencil and, as I complete each chapter, I type it into the computer and back it up on a separate memory device, even e-mailing it to myself. Don't want to lose anything.

  16. what a great bunch of background! love it!

    i use pen & lots of notebooks. love a good pen & scribbling out rewrites & edits!

  17. This was an awesome read. LOL at the prescription drug use that may have led to Philip Dick's hallucinations. I guess that's one way to find inspiration!

  18. I found this post very inspirational! I think all writers have their oddities when writing (some weirder than others), but it's nice to read what some of the greats did to bring about their creativity.

    I'll admit, I do love pencils -- and sitting next to my bookshelf, which is crammed with all sorts of memorabilia (like my Harry Potter 3D glasses from the last film).

    Thanks for the post!


  19. This was awesome, thanks for sharing! I feel like now I need to go acquire some goofy writing habit, or at least make one up. ;)

  20. Wow, those are all so fascinating! I was shocked about Mikhall Bulgakov threw his ms in the fire!!! Ah!!!

  21. Loved this! Also, it makes me feel incredibly normal all of a sudden...

  22. Wow. These are great. I guess we all have our quirks. Whatever it takes, huh?

  23. Hi Julie! Yes, Philip K. Dick was a bit of an eccentric. He would struggle to eat in public, apparently, and though the FBI were after him. Clearly he was very paranoid. I decided to avoid out most of the writers who resorted to alcohol for inspiration. Despite that Hemingway, Kerouac, Thompson and Capote made it in there! Inspiration can be found elsewhere, I believe.

  24. And thank you everyone who has enjoyed the article! These are some of my favourites (although I've not read any of Nobakov's work yet) and I hope they can inspire you all in your writing.