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Owls are the quintessential image for the night person

Writers can use hours of the day when little is happening. Their jobs may leave them no choice.

At what time of the day do you prefer to write? Do you have a choice as to when you do your writing or are you limited by a day job and other important responsibilities? Constraints can be a problem since writers often have unusually strong preferences for when they like to get the work done. In fact, it may go beyond being just a preference. There is good evidence from creativity research that people function best at certain times of the day, and what time that is varies on an individual basis.

As for preference, there are two main camps: the morning crowd and the late evening / nighttime set. There are even philosophical and psychological arguments supporting the two strategies.

Those who favour the early hours claim it is best to write while the mind is well rested, sharp, and vigorous. Writing, these folks say, requires organization, clear thinking, and sound logic. A tired writer makes mistakes, may be dull, and works more slowly. By rising early and getting down to work as soon as possible, the morning brigade maximizes the effectiveness of their primary writing instrument – their brain. Writers in this camp will sometimes write before breakfast.

Writers who prefer the late hours take a very different view. They maintain that the logical function can actually get in the way. Writing in the morning, when the mind is fresh just enhances the logical function’s ability to act as a block or filter, a kind of censor, to the more creatively-useful associative function. Therefore, writing late in the day, when the brain is tired reduces the effectiveness of the filter thereby allowing the associative function greater freedom. The creative ability can flower more abundantly. This is a classic “less is more” argument.

Another huge factor in when a writer prefers to work is feeling tone or mood. Some writers enjoy the energetic vigorous “feel” of the morning when dynamic power and efficacy are available. Others like a softer atmosphere, something warm and cozy, a nice quiet stint beside a glowing lamp where they can feel mellow and relaxed. Those who drink a little (or a lot of!) alcohol or coffee or who eat nuts or other snacks while writing usually prefer the late shift.

Classic authors provide abundant examples of either kind of writer.

H. G. Wells rose at 5:00 AM, got his writing done, and then had the rest of the day to do as he pleased. He usually spent his afternoons dealing with his correspondence. Ernest Hemingway had similar habits, but started his day at 7:00 AM. After the writing stint, he fished, hunted, or drank. Vladimir Nabokov was also an early riser and, like Wells and Hemingway, did his writing in the morning. He wrote on filing cards and gradually copied and expanded his prose while periodically rearranging the cards until they became his novels. Daphne du Maurier was yet another who wrote in the early part of the day. After her marriage and the birth of her children, she reserved two hours every morning for her writing. She would lock herself in a bedroom and refuse to come out until she had clocked her allotted time. Going farther back, Tolstoy and Rousseau both preferred writing in the morning.

Virginia Woolf caught the appeal of writing late in the day when she wrote in a letter to her friend and fellow author, Vita Sackville-West, “I’m rather excited about Orlando tonight: have been lying by the fire and making up the last chapter.” Hermann Hesse liked to work in the evening when the world had grown quiet and the lamp’s soft glow made his writing room cozy. Among the Russians, Feodor Dostoyevsky wrote in the nighttime. France’s Marcel Proust had asthma so he wrote at night when the attacks became milder. His compatriot, Balzac, also preferred to work in the peaceful overnight hours. He kept himself awake with numerous cups of strong black coffee. American novelist and short-story writer John O’Hara chose to write between midnight and morning. He slept during the day.

Curiously, biographers and creativity researchers make little fuss of writers who work in the afternoon. The demands of a day job may explain why so many writers choose to work very early or very late. Alternatively, it could be an example of the creative use of time. Since creators are able to exploit hours when little is happening, they opt to do just that and use the day’s “prime time” for other purposes. It may simply be the case that unusual work hours seem more worthy of mention. As my online friend, Catana, has commented, we have early birds and night owls, but there does not seem to be an “afternoon bird.”