How to begin: rituals for writing success

Over the years I’ve tried many rituals to kick off productive and profound writing sessions. Some of them have been effective, others not so much. All of my writing rituals have been incredibly mundane, but I don’t think such things need to be exciting. They’re simply meant to put me into a mindset that is conducive for focused production of text.


I solidified the best and current version of my set of rituals in the Fall semester of 2016. My “final exam” for an upper-level political science class covering the political history of modern (1945-present) day Germany required a total of 20 pages of essays to be completed in approximately five days. As you can imagine, I needed a way to kick myself in the ass and get going.


Firstly, I cannot write anywhere other than at my own desk, typing on my own personalized keyboard. There are LEDs underneath the keys set to a brilliant purple color, and the light travels in waves across the keys, bouncing from side to side at a steady pace. Purple is my favorite color, and the wave pattern gives me something pleasant on which to focus. The keys themselves are set on mechanical switches, rather than rubber domes, which gives them that late 1990s clickety-clack, IBM type sound.


Secondly, it is important for me to be totally comfortable. In the warmer months, this means wearing basketball shorts and an undershirt. In the cold months, sweatpants and hoodies. I can’t work in jeans; I don’t know why.


Thirdly, a beverage is important. Coffee, an energy drink, water, you name it. I need something to sip on.


With these tools, I’m usually able to produce some sort of useful writing. However, as I’ve written these steps out, I notice that while I practice many preparatory rituals, I have no finish line, no congratulatory obligations. Perhaps I would feel more motivated to reach the end of whatever segment I’m working on if I knew there was a mini-reward waiting for me. Should it be a favorite snack? An episode of whatever I’m currently binging on Netflix? A smoke break? I’ll be trying out some of these ideas over the next few days; I’m almost always working on something. Maybe I’ll post a followup about how each ritual felt. Let me know if you have any suggestions, please.

3 thoughts to “How to begin: rituals for writing success”

  1. I understand wanting to feel comfortable and hoping that a nice environment will bring upon some creative genius. However, I have never thought about a reward system and I really want to steal that idea from you. It would be very helpful in my own process of jumpstarting a piece. It gives you control. Question, though: do you think you’d ever give yourself too much slack? That’s a concern for me personally and am wondering what you think about a self-controlled reward system going wrong.

    1. I actually have sort of the opposite problem; I tend not to reward myself for progress made or milestones reached or what-have-you, so I tire and burn out more quickly than I think I otherwise might. I think one can easily determine where the boundary lies between gratuitous reward and small congratulation. Much like the Supreme Court Justice who commented on what categorized obscenity: “You know it when you see it.” I’m often driven to complete tasks by the fear of the consequences of failure. I know for certain that I would be able to tell if I were putting myself in a situation which ripened the opportunity for failure to occur. If you do not feel that you could manage this impulse by yourself, perhaps it would be useful to survey roommates/classmates/friends about they think an appropriate mini-reward might be. That way you know you’re not granting yourself any sort of leeway another person would not.

  2. Keith,

    I really enjoyed reading this post! I could really identify with how you function best while you are most comfortable. I have the same tendency to wear sweat pants and a comfortable shirt when I write. For that matter, I wear the same thing when I go to class.

    It is in this mindset that I feel at peace. Everything surrounding me seems as if it is exactly where it is supposed to be. This feeling allows me to relax and focus on the material in front of me.

    Another aspect of this post that really made me reflect on my own writing process is when you referred to creating a congratulatory obligation after completing an essay. I really like this idea! While I have never used this tactic, your post has challenged me to come up with one for myself. We can bounce some ideas off of each other next class, but I really liked your Netflix idea, maybe I could even add a good meal to further enhance my positive feelings.

    I do have some questions about your process. First, while I could really resonate with your current writing process, I couldn’t keep myself from wondering how this differed from some of your previous, even “mundane,” rituals. What are some ones that were not effective? Did you use these experiences to shape your current ritual, or did you just do away with them? In addition, briefly describe some of the other successful rituals you alluded to? Why did you go ahead and change them, even though you had success?

    Once again, awesome piece!

    Looking forward to hearing back,


Leave a Reply