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For Your Most Productive Writing Sessions, Nine Questions

By Noelle Sterne, PhD

When we’re in the middle of a writing project, scholarly or otherwise, it’s hard enough to start, much less continue. I’ve found that asking ourselves some important questions and acting on the answers helps us more easily sneak up on the current project and get started or continue, and even finish.

The questions and answers are completely between you and you, and you have the best and only answers. Whatever other advice you may have read or heard, or however loudly others swear theirs is the only way, it’s your own answers that matter.

For my writing and that of the dissertation- and article-producing clients I serve, I’ve found the following questions are the most crucial and tell us what we need to know about our working preferences. Answering the questions below and others that may arise and you will likely diagnose your perfect work environment.

Do I work better in one-hour or three-hour sessions?

My optimal session for any writing at my trusty desktop is about an hour
and a half. But sometimes my brain bubbles like a hot spring, and the rest of the world disappears. I can work for three hours straight without hearing my stomach growl.

My academic coaching client Rachel stands up automatically after thirty minutes and has go to the window, look outside, swig some chocolate soy milk, and circle the TV three times before settling back down.

Do I function best with a 5- or 10-minute break, or a 15-minute jog around the magazines?

Some time management experts advise sessions of an hour: 45 for working and 15 for a break. For me this break is too long, and I’m tempted to yield to the ever-present list of nonwriting things. So I limit my breaks to five or ten minutes. Experiment with yours.

When you go back to work, maybe you’ll sit and stare at the wall or your knuckles will languish motionless on the keyboard, and you wish the time would pass so you can get up. But don’t succumb to the next break too soon. Stay put. As with so many successes in life, your breakthrough is just on the other side of not giving up.

Do I work better in the morning, twilight, or silent, silken midnight?

You probably know about morning or evening people. Do you know which you are? (Holiday hangover days don’t count.) Pay attention.

A scholar colleague says she’s clearest first thing in the morning, and she means 6:00 a.m. I need at least an hour and maybe two to warm up. A writing buddy does her administrative work all day and then works on her novel from 10:00 p.m. to at least midnight. And she’s published five books and is working on the sixth and seventh.

I’ve developed a split personality body-clock. I’ve always hated the mornings, but when I got serious about my goals, I started working in earnest before noon. Then, as I became more serious, I got a second wind after 5:00 p.m. until night gym (or TV) time. Again, experiment (even if you need a little nap; I won’t tell).

Must I have total silence when I work? Or do I like music (Bublé or Brahms, rap or Rachmaninoff, heavy metal or Mozart) or the soft roar of other people nearby?

Play what pleases you. You can use earbuds or headphones or, if you work at home with no one in the room, blast your speakers. I love Handel and Telemann and Vivaldi, and YouTube is rich with these Baroque masters.

Do I feel best working in my home study, the bedroom, kitchen table, office, university library, public library, a restaurant, café, hotel lobby, bowling alley, or  car wash?

I used to love going to the mall Starbucks to write. I’d pack up my clipboard and plaid school pen-and-pencil case, buy a venti latté, commandeer a whole table, and, despite the distracting parade of shoppers, lose myself in my writing. Then, when the Starbucks closed in favor of a ghastly center-court multicolored, multi-jet fountain, I transferred to—of all places—home. When I change from client to writing session, I get up, walk around, sometimes change clothes, and sit back down at my desktop. It’s a new environment.

Must I absolutely work on my laptop, desktop, or iPad? Or with my cardboard-backed yellow lined pad and favorite pens? Do I need a combination?

Use the writing equipment that pleases you. Many celebrated and prolific writers are proudly low-tech (yellow lined pads are a favorite) and attest the hand-heart connection. The poet Charles Simic observed: “Writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process [than typing] and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought” (New York Review of Books, October 12, 2011).

Writing guru Natalie Goldberg (1986) in her classic work Writing Down the Bones said this: “Handwriting is more connected [than hardware] to the movement of the heart. . . . You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses” (pp. 7, 50).

I’ve found Goldberg’s observations wonderfully true when I write on my clipboard and yet I can now write and edit easily (and happily) on the computer too. Even Goldberg said she could imagine herself typing on a computer, “closing my eyes and just typing away” (p. 7). I’ve often done this, and it is electronic bliss.

Must I have food, tea, coffee, or jalapeno-flavored water at hand? Or not a single drop or crumb within ten miles of my workspace?

Again, respect your preferences and what feels comfortable and nurturing. I keep a mug of green tea nearby, just out of reach so the danger of catastrophic keyboard spills is reduced and I’m forced to get up periodically for sips.

Must I work at a completely clean surface (no extraneous files, paper clips, scribbled notes)? Or do I like the coziness of my other, ever-multiplying project files jostling for elbow room?

Let others fling around pejorative labels like “obsessively neat” or “hopelessly cluttered.” Have the workspace you like; your goal is to produce.

While my brain is bubbling, do I like to stare at a blank wall with no knickknacks? Or must I gaze at a small meaningful totem nearby (the lapel pin your endowed professor grandfather gave you; an icon of Nisaba, the Sumerian goddess of writing; a pressed leaf from the woods where you became engaged)?

The English novelist W. Somerset Maugham wrote in a London studio with a spectacular view. But he positioned his writing desk so it faced the wall. A prolific scholarly writing colleague of mine swears the majestic mountains outside her window talk to her through the mists and tell her what article to search out next.

Your answers to these questions will help you recognize your preferred work times, settings, and fetishes. Honor them and ignore the ridiculing comments of your partner, kids, neighbors, dog.

A major secret to consistent accomplishment is to feel relaxed, nourished, and cared for in your space. Choose and arrange what helps you become more productive and less exhausted. Then you’ll look forward to writing and will keep coming back until you complete your current project and launch into the next one.


Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing down the bones. Boston, MA: Shambala.

Simic, C. (2011, October 12). Take care of your little notebook. New York Review of Books. Retrieved from

© 2024 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published many pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at

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