Jun 30, 2023

What I Learned From Famous Writers | Melbourne Copywriter

Writing is hard. It's damned hard. Even for a professional copywriter like myself. We're all trying new tips and tricks to help us squeeze out the best we can put on paper. Writers have struggled to write since the dawn of the medium. No one knows why; it is just the nature of the work. Some writers even insist that writing should be hard. They say that if you enjoy writing, you're doing it wrong.

My favourite quote is from Hemmingway; "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

So how have famous writers across the ages solved this problem? This article explores iconic authors and their unique writing routines and spaces. Hopefully, whether you’re a copywriter, an author, or a poet, you'll find your own inspiration and let your creativity soar!

George Bernard Shaw

Before researching this article, I only knew George Bernard Shaw as the rotating writing hut guy. But, of course, he was much more than that. He was an intensely prolific writer whose sheer volume of work has spawned its own Wikipedia page

He was a playwright, political commentator, novelist, and critic. How did he have the time to manifest over sixty plays, five finished novels, a few unfinished works, and political writings? That's where his writing hut comes in.

George Bernard Shaw would wake in the morning in his home in Ayot St Lawrence, then head out to his writing hut. His hut was kitted out with all the facilities he would enjoy in his primary study. The difference? No distractions. When Shaw went to his back garden and into his writing hut, he was writing, period. He would even instruct his family to tell callers that he was in London, which he called the hut.

So, when you've taken time to write, you write. Barring emergencies, no distractions should take you out of your flow.

Robert Hawker - Hawkers Hut

Robert Hawker was an eccentric and a poet, in that order. He was known for his bright clothes and built his writing hut, called Hawkers Hut, with driftwood from shipwrecks. In the hut, he would write poetry and smoke opium. Quite the combination.

The hut itself is unadorned and quite plain. I can imagine it being cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Yet, Hawker would spend hours in the hut writing. Hawker's approach shows that writing need not, or should not, be comfortable. Forget the fancy office chairs, keyboards, computers, and mood lighting, and simply write.

In the past, I've taken this so far as to write in my deliberately uncomfortable tool shed just to snap myself into the work.

Virginia Woolf

While Virginia Woolf would constantly be taking down ideas, her favourite place to write was at her home in East Sussex. Here, she mainly wrote in a shed in her garden. I'm sensing a pattern here.

The shed was largely unadorned. All it had was a desk, a simple chair, and an armchair. Woolf often sat in the armchair with a piece of plywood on her lap and used a dip pen and ink to write. She would type up the results later. She mainly wrote in the mornings and was described as having the regularity of a stockbroker. Woolf would have breakfast with her husband, then head off to work promptly at 9.30 and work through 1pm.

Woolf was a prolific worker. Her simple yet effective routine shows that a writer's time to write is as important as what they're writing. You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn or write through the night on drunken binges like Hunter S Thompson. If a writer chooses, they can live a relatively normal life. The key is consistency. Whether it's after work, during a lunch break, or promptly at 9.30am, like Virginia Woolf, consistently sitting down and writing is the key to longevity and proficiency.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is one of the world's most popular children's novelists. His writing routine contradicts that of Robert Hawker. Roald Dahl was all about comfort in his writing hut in the back garden of his home in Buckinghamshire, England.

Dahl thought that he couldn't work in the house. Too many distractions. Kids, vacuum cleaners, and visitors coming and going. It's a tale as old as time. So he cleared out his garden shed and installed a desk, a bench, a filing cabinet, and, most importantly, an armchair. He was very particular about his writing position, in particular, the position of his feet. He tied his footstool to the chair so it couldn't move.

Every morning, Dahl would go to his shed and sit in his chair to write. He would have a blanket over his lap, and in winter, he would get into a sleeping bag to keep warm. He would use six pencils that had to be sharpened before he started. He would have a thermos full of tea or coffee and a packet of cigarettes nearby.

So while Hawker's approach shows us it doesn't matter where you write or if you're comfortable. Being comfortable in the right way brings on a sense of process and helps immerse a writer in their work.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings was the most significant influence on fiction writing in the 50s and 60s. But he was different from Virginia Woolf in his regularity of sitting at the desk. This makes sense as most of Tolkien's time was spent teaching linguistics at Oxford University.

It's clear through studying the original manuscripts of Tolkien's work that he took a dribs-and-drabs approach to his creative works. While he was prolific in creating the world of Middle-Earth, the stories came a bit slower. For example, it took him 12 years to finish The Lord of the Rings.

What is peculiar about his habits, however, is his participation in a literary discussion group called The Inklings. This informal group met at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford and discussed literature and other things over a few pints. In other words, Tolkien loved going out with his mates and tearing up the town. The Inklings would often read their own works aloud to be criticised by the group. It's said that The Lord of the Rings was first read at a meeting of The Inklings.

The takeaway is that writers must live their lives outside of the page. It's also essential to encourage and not compete with your fellow writers.

JK Rowling

To my knowledge, JK Rowling doesn't have a specific place she goes every day to write. She wrote the end to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a hotel room in the Balmoral Hotel.

However, she says your writing time should be protected 'like a Hungarian Horntail guarding its firstborn egg.' 

You've felt this; you know how easy it is to mow the lawn or shop for office supplies you don't need. You also know how easy it is to deal with family matters first and put your writing on the back burner. Or go out with friends just once, which ultimately turns into a weekly or nightly routine. If you fall into these traps, your work will suffer.

Or if you're a successful working writer, it's easy to take meetings or start new projects and neglect the thing that got you into your position. Make sure to prioritise your writing and protect that time with everything you've got. It's not easy, but it's necessary.

Hunter S. Thompson

From protecting your writing time with all your might to doing everything possible to avoid it, Hunter S Thompson is the exception to all the rules of writing. You may have heard Joe Rogan reciting a passage from Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson by E. Jean Carrol, and it sure is a wild ride. It's important to say that this isn't an actual day in the life of Hunter S Thompson and merely a fictionalised representation of what his day could be.

Thompson lived first and wrote second. Or third. The effect of this enriched his writing with such palpable lived experience you could almost feel it. Thompson's writing is like orange juice with extra pulp.

His 'routine' wasn't all party and fun, however. Through his works, Thompson constantly complains about writing binges to meet a deadline. We're all familiar with this, but Thompson would need to write whole books in a matter of weeks. Sometimes he wouldn't even submit writing and would instead submit tape recordings of his escapades for the editors to transcribe.

So if none of these work for you, make up your own routine, or simply make it up as you go along. Thompson's approach doesn't lend itself to longevity. As a Melbourne copywriter, I won't wake up at 3 pm and drink Chivas all night while writing.

Find Your Writing Hut

Whether you find it easiest to write in a rustic hut, a bustling pub, or by binging all weekend to suck in the pulp of life, remember that it's all personal preference. It's crucial to craft your own path and set your own routine. Whatever you decide to do, remember that it's in service of the work first and foremost.

Go out there and find your writing hut, your sacred space, and let the words flow. Embrace the process, your individuality, and write, damn it, write.