The most pervasive advice writers give and receive is “just write.” It’s insulting in its simplicity but it’s enduring because it’s true. Translating a gaseous mess of an idea into concrete words takes discipline. Even worse, it’s uncomfortable. The portrayal of the writing process in the movies — say, locking oneself in a cabin to write a book — is alluring and romantic, but it’s rarely so simple. Writing is a much sloppier, more frustrating process than that, and far more gratifying, too.

“Just write” is good advice because the biggest hurdle in pursing a creative career is “just” creating. In an attempt to reverse-engineer the alchemy of their work, I asked five writers about the physical and emotional details of their process. It was an impossible pursuit, of course, because who really knows why or how inspiration strikes? It certainly doesn’t wait for you, nor come when you’re ready, but I inquired anyway, because I suppose we all hope that with the right mood, the right sweater, the right space, we can will ourselves to keep chasing it.

Jenny Zhang

Jenny is the author of Sour Heart, a debut collection of short stories from the new Lenny imprint and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, a poetry collection from Octopus Books.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I can be very nomadic about where I write. I’ll go through phases where I want to be in bed, or sitting on my pink velvet couch, or at the kitchen table or by the white desk I’ve had since I was kid. Other times, I like to go to a café where it’s quiet and there’s a lot of light. Sometimes I write on the subway or in the minutes when I’m waiting for a friend and they are running late. The main thing is that I have to feel alone.

What do you love to wear most when writing?

I like to wear vintage silk slips and silk robes because it’s so decadent! Of course, the reality diverges a bit from the fantasy — pit stains are inescapable. Other times, I like to be as comfortable as possible, so big, loose pants, old worn t-shirts, cozy cardigans and sweatshirts. Anything I can fiddle with, like a hole in the sleeve, or sweat pant strings to pull on is great, too. If I’m going out, I like to be anonymous because I don’t want to be bothered. I like to have many layers so can I swaddle myself if it’s cold and strip down to a tank if it’s hot.

What are you most specific about when doing creative work?

The most important thing is that I feel alone, undisturbed. I used to say yes to lunches because they seem so quick and easy — an hour lunch and then back to work! But I can’t do them anymore. No matter how early I wake, I wake with the knowledge than in three hours, four hours, five hours I’ll have to get ready and leave the house. Then the day is bisected. I’m very indulgent and protective of my headspace; sometimes even a late dinner has to be canceled because I need the ability to leave my writing headspace exactly when I want to. Sometimes that happens at 8:16 p.m. but an 8 o’ clock dinner means getting ready at 7:00 p.m. It must sound so neurotic, but that’s how I am. I need a lot of time to be alone with my thoughts, as it often takes a long time for them to become interesting.

What’s something that used to challenge you, but doesn’t anymore? What challenges you now?

Nothing has gotten less challenging, although I will say that all the times I started writing something and thought, “No, no, I can’t do this, I can’t finish,” and then eventually I did finish it, albeit after a lot of bitching and moaning and fretting and sleep loss — that has made me realize that my track record is pretty decent with finishing things. I think that’s the hardest part of writing. Finishing what you started is an act of faith in yourself, and an act of arrogance, and you really do have to summon both to get through it. Now what challenges me is finding the time to write. I suppose this is the pact I’ve made because I’ve published my work and if I want to keep publishing my work there is all this work around the work; writing things to get people to read the original thing I wrote can feel so absurd!

Are you of the write-every-day or write-when-it-strikes ilk?

I’m more of the latter, but also endeavor to be someone who wants to write frequently. I’m also making a distinction now between writing for a publication that has commissioned something from me and writing for myself. Sometimes, I just don’t have time to write for myself because I’m freelancing or teaching or doing talks or doing other jobs. But I’ve sort of internally calibrated myself to crave reading and writing. If I go several weeks without working on my own projects, I’ll start dreaming about writing. I have dreams where I’m literally trying to type on my computer but keep missing the keys, or trying to scribble down something in a notebook but the pen keeps slipping. I wake up and I realize I have to write. I just have to.

Best piece of writing advice you ever heard?

I think when my friend Tony said something like: Chill out. Just do the work.

Stephanie Danler

Stephanie is the author of Sweetbitter, and the creator, writer and executive producer of the forthcoming TV adaptation of Sweetbitter.

Where do you do most of your writing?

This office at Steiner Studios is the first I’ve ever had. I love it. I love the big windows and the views of the bridges and the city. The Navy Yards are a magical forgotten pocket of Brooklyn. I didn’t know about the muscle memory that you get from “coming in to work” – I get here at 9 a.m. and my body/brain know it’s time to focus. The only downside is that it’s hard for me to switch between work (producing, casting, reading scripts, general barrage of emails) and creative work (I’m at work on a book of non-fiction for Knopf). I need to get outside and walk or run. I read, turn off the internet, take a shower, anything to transition.

What do you love to wear most when writing?

I need to come clean immediately: I normally work from home in a robe (it’s a very chic robe!) and glasses and sometimes I don’t brush my teeth until the late afternoon. That is real life. However, working in the proximity of people, I have found looks that are comfortable (top priority) and professional. There’s this funny, preppy, academic look I find myself drawn to in my thirties – silk button-downs under sweaters, floral dresses and cardigans (offices are freezing, FYI). I also love a well-placed crop top with high-waist pants. I wear sneakers every day but keep a pair of mules under my desk if I’m going to drinks after work. The sneakers and my huge backpack make me a look like a perpetual student. I do wonder when I’m going to start looking like the teacher.

What are you most specific about when doing creative work?

Quiet. I mean mental quiet. I spend so much time on my phone, on the internet, listening to music, talking. The talking, the articulating, the narrativizing, is exhausting. I believe the flip side of that is thoughtlessness – not in a selfish way, but literally, to be without thoughts. I have a hard time calling this meditating, but I take these naps that I think of as “black-outs,” where I set a timer for 20 minutes and shut my eyes and quiet everything down. In that same space, reading without analyzing is important and poetry is perfect for that. It’s about letting sensations wash over you without trying to capture or categorize them.

What’s something that used to challenge you, but doesn’t
anymore? What challenges you now?

Saying no to lunch was a huge challenge. What I mean is, when I started to take “writing days,” people though it was a day off. I kind of thought it was day off. I didn’t know how to take my writing seriously. We all have a complicated relationship with making art because it doesn’t follow a typical production model, i.e. there isn’t a direct correlation to money. So I would say yes to lunch, yes to SoulCycle, yes to the farmers market, yes to cooking dinner for 10 people. The key to writing Sweetbitter – and every piece I’ve written since – was to build a fortress around writing time. It’s inviolable. I won’t even do chores. It takes that level of commitment to what you’re doing, even if no one else can understand it, even if you can’t justify it yet.

Are you of the write-every-day or write-when-it-strikes ilk?

I do some writing every day. If you’d asked me this six months ago, I would have told you I hand-wrote in a notebook every morning – and it would have been true! But with the show, it’s not true now. But I’m writing constantly, that’s literally my job, I’m the writer. I will say that with literary writing – fiction, essays – I usually let that build up until I can set aside a full eight hours. I’m okay with going a few days just jotting down phrases, notes. That’s left over from graduate school, where I had two jobs and classes. I had one day a week that was just for writing, and the other days were building toward it.

Best piece of writing advice you ever heard?

Finish what you start. I say it all the time: finish your drafts. Starting a project is so sexy! The middle is so fucking boring! Get to the end. That doesn’t mean hold onto work that doesn’t work. But you have no idea whether you’re a genius or an idiot until you get to the end. You are usually both.

Julie Houts

Julie is the illustrator behind @jooleeloren and the author of the forthcoming book Literally Me, out October 24th.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I have a little studio/office space in my apartment where I do my work. I just moved into this apartment at the beginning of the summer so I’m still settling into it. Previously, I had been working in my living room on my couch surrounded by piles of paper and markers, paints, etc. This is a major improvement! At least I can close a door on my mess at the end of the day.

What do you love to wear most when drawing?

I used to work at J.Crew full time and was in an office every day. I more or less had a full-on look every day with heels, makeup…often a bow… I think most looks could be described as, “Very.”

Since I’ve started working for myself full time, I’ve stopped wearing makeup most days and can easily spend at least the first half of the day working in my pajamas. Sometimes I’ll change out of the pajama top and put on a big men’s button down, leave the pajama bottoms on and pretend like they’re Real Pants, though I don’t think I’m fooling anyone in my neighborhood. I’ll throw on an orange Croc to complete the look. My style since quitting J.Crew is really not far off from Mario Batali’s, to be honest.

What’s something that used to challenge you, but doesn’t anymore? What challenges you now?

I struggled a lot before with just accepting that the work I was making was worth anything. It was a mental block. Even though I was getting a lot of positive reinforcement from both the outside world and those closest to me, I just really believed that what I was doing wasn’t very good, and pretty embarrassing. I pointed a lot to other artists as being “real,” or their work being of value, while mine was just a joke. Looking back, it was extremely unproductive. I still struggle with that, though less so now.

I struggle a bit now with budgeting my time. I do better with less time to work on something rather than more. I have a tendency to kind of hem and haw on an idea if I don’t just put it down on paper quickly and begin working technically on something. I always think there might be a better way to do something that I just haven’t thought of yet.

Are you of the draw-every-day or draw-when-it-strikes ilk?

I have a rule for myself that I have to draw something every day, even if it’s dumb and I throw it away. It’s just an accountability thing. In general, in terms of the work I like, use, show people, that tends to happen more in the moment when whatever it is feels a bit more urgent.

Best piece of writing advice you ever heard?

When I first began work on Literally Me, I didn’t think I’d be doing any writing beyond what I include in my illustrations. My editor pushed me to include several essays, which was really daunting for me. I just didn’t consider myself a writer in that way. I just felt like, “Writers write. I’m not a writer, so I don’t write.” She encouraged me to sit down and see what came most naturally, and to remember that in the beginning, no ideas are bad ideas.

At least for me, it was and is helpful to remember that some idea that seems very insignificant to you and not worth exploring sometimes morphs into a better, bigger idea, or is a Trojan horse for another stronger idea that’s hiding somewhere inside that memory or thought.

Ashley C. Ford

Ashley is a Senior Features Writer at Refinery29

Where do you do most of your writing?

I mostly write at my desk! Over the past year, I’ve worked steadily to make my desk a calm and inviting place for me to write. I have candles, a lamp with just the right amount of light for late-night sessions, some of my favorite books and my grandmother’s jewelry box. Sitting there makes me feel joyful, but also puts me in a state of Ready-To-Work.

What do you love to wear most when writing?

If I’m writing at night, which usually only happens when I have a tight deadline, I have to be very comfortable. I wear sweatpants, a loose shirt, and probably socks that keep my feet warm. I can’t write with cold feet. If I’m writing during the day, I need to be dressed comfortably, but also presentably. There’s just something about working in daylight while wearing pajamas that I can’t abide.

What are you most specific about when doing creative work?

I am a pretty consistent morning person. I wake up between 6 and 6:30 every morning, and try to be in full typing mode by 6:45. I am super specific about my lighting source, and that I have water close by. My fiancé usually cleans the house so I’m able to focus while I write and not be super concerned with chores (which I will absolutely do instead of my writing).

What’s something that used to challenge you, but doesn’t anymore? What challenges you now?

I used to have a hard time writing when I wasn’t “inspired” to do so. Now, I know that if I start writing, the inspiration will come. Or it won’t. Either way, at least I got something done. Something that challenges me now is self-editing. Ask me for 1,500 words, and there’s a good chance I’ll send 2,000 and hope we can make that work. I’m trying to do better with this, though.

Are you of the write-every-day or write-when-it-strikes ilk?

I write every day, but it’s not a rule. If I need to take a day or a couple of days, I take them. I trust myself to come back to the page and find my rhythm again when I need to.

Best piece of writing advice you ever heard?

Done is better than perfect!

Marissa A. Ross

Marissa is the author of Wine. All The Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking and the wine editor of Bon Appétit.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I do 90% of my writing from the far corner of my couch. Writing there makes me feel at home, mostly because I am, but I find freedom in its safety. It is a safe space for me to be truly present with the wines, to experience and connect with them without outside distractions or influences, and have ten glasses on the table without looking like a crazy person. It’s also a safe place for me to just do me. I can drink all the sparkling water I want, listen to my records, record rambling Instagram stories. I also have one remaining piece of a stuffed animal I slept with every night as a child I like to keep with me while writing, and since I’m not inclined to look like an overgrown Linus out in public, yes, my couch is the best place for me.

I’m actually pictured on Man Repeller’s office couch here because I live in Los Angeles. I felt nearly at home, though, aside from being distracted by all the beautiful things and awesome ladies hanging around.

What do you love to wear most when writing?

I am almost always in Adidas sweats or shorts and a t-shirt. Perhaps if it’s cold enough, I might get wild and wear a sweatshirt, maybe even some socks. I just like to be comfortable, and to be able to sit cross-legged.

What are you most specific about when doing creative work?

I need wine! Well, I don’t need it, but it’s harder and less enjoyable to write about wine without it. Whatever the subject is, that’s what I want to be drinking, or a chilled, light red. Because of this, I’m very specific about my schedule. I use my mornings to do all my life shit, and then fully dedicate my afternoons and early evenings to my wine writing. And sparkling water. Lots of sparkling water.

What’s something that used to challenge you, but doesn’t anymore? What challenges you now?

I used to hate writing drafts. I always wanted to knock it out in one sitting. I think this comes from being a lifelong procrastinator and always getting away with everything at the last minute. Now I’m a lot better about getting things on paper and coming back to it. My biggest challenge now is getting better at writing while traveling. I travel so much for work lately that I would love to be able to write on a plane, or even just in my hotel room at night. I’m terrible at it, totally a creature of habit/my couch.

Are you of the write-every-day or write-when-it-strikes ilk?

I attempt to write every day, but it’s still mostly when it strikes.

Best piece of writing advice you ever heard?

Don’t let “perfect” stand in the way of “good.” “Good” is better than “not done.”

Photos by Edith Young.

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  • Arden

    Haley what the heck how did you know I spent my entire therapy session ln lamenting about how I am too scared to actually sit down and do the writing I want to do?? You’re a mind reader for real. This piece is so helpful!

  • Coco

    This was so interesting, thank you!!

  • Nicole

    Hey FYI when I hover on the tab of this article it says “right” instead of “write” idk where in the source code that would be, loved the article BTW!

  • Hayley

    What is Stephanie’s sweater in her photos??

  • Abby

    so all 5 of these writers write in their NYC apartments…I get that it’s easiest for you guys to interview people in New York but some variety would be nice!

  • Amelia Diamond

    I cannot wait to come back to this article over and over again, probably forever.

    • Marie Webster

      My thoughts exactly and I’m not even a writer.

    • SeeW

      Yes! Same here! I saved it to my Evernote. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in awhile.

    • alexia

      Same! Phd student and, among other things, happy to know there are some people out there that also cannot do “lunch” because it’s too distracting!

  • Hilary

    This is fascinating, such a great read! I especially love how almost everyone had the same “best piece of writing advice.” Also I’m obsessed with Julie Houts, SO glad you included her.

    • SeeW

      Same re: the piece of writing advice. Trying to make it perfect instead of just getting it done is my biggest problem.

  • I have been wanting to write this exact article forever, but, seeing as I’m seemingly more interested in learning about (obsessing over?) the creative writing processes of others, rather than my own, it never happened. This was a freakin delight to read! Thank you, Haley, and the other awesome women above, for “just” doing all the things, so I could read about them this morning, in my stretchy pants.

    • Ingrid Hanna

      lol I do the same thing

  • I really liked this! Really,really liked this one.

  • Madeline

    pit stains are inescapable

  • prairie dogs

    I love Jenny Zhang! If you haven’t caught her Another Round episode, listen to it!

  • Hannah Dylan Pasternak

    Ok real serious question that I’ve been struggling with — if you have a “day job” or even a job in media that doesn’t involve creative writing, but you’re a creative writer at heart, how do you carve out the time and the place? I need to either write in my underwear or in a café at 8am and have a solid six hours free to not be freaking out, and that is 110% impossible for me with a 9-6 office job (even in magazines!!). At what point do you transition from your day job to that freedom of a writing day and how?

    • Hey Hannah! Honestly, I think you’re thinking too far ahead! Don’t consider how to take a whole day to write – that’ll easily overwhelm you – rather carve out 15, 20 minutes a day to put something together, or an hour if you can manage it. In my experience, the idea of starting to write was a lot more difficult than just doing it. I wasn’t writing at all a year and a half ago, and now I’m writing daily. It just takes time to build up to where you want to be, and it will get easier. Don’t focus too much on the future, try to use the time you have today – it’s always possible! Set a timer, give yourself 15 minutes and just do it!

  • This is an amazing article, thank you so much to all these ladies for sharing their writing stories! I have almost the exact same process as Jenny, and I have to feel absolutely alone when I’m working. I’m easily distracted by people hovering, asking questions, or even just their presence, and I have to feel like I’m in an impenetrable bubble to get the words to flow. I thought for a while that maybe I was overly sensitive, or weird, but reading some of these ladies’ opinions has made me feel much more normal!

    I can write from anywhere, bed, couch, desk, coffee shop, but I need to feel like I’m solitary. I also usually need to feel like things are generally in order (bed made, desk tidied up), but lately as I’ve been writing more this has gotten less important. I like a hot drink too – having a tea when you sit down to write feels like the beginning of something important.

    I would have loved to hear more about how each author deals with inspiration! I find that inspiration comes when I’m falling asleep, or in the shower, and if I don’t catch it and write it down, I can lose it forever. Do they have other tips on how to keep ideas flowing?

    Also great advice: better done than perfect. Always true!

  • cecilrahn

    love that Ashley and Marissa shared the same piece of advice! definitely going to keep it in mind!!

  • SeeW

    Oh, gosh. Where to start? First of all, this is an amazing article. I am OBSESSED with reading about other writers’ processes.

    Secondly, I’m especially glad to learn that I’m not alone with my writing neuroses and having a style that “is really not far off from Mario Batali’s, to be honest.” 😂 I’ve been chuckling about that for the past 10 minutes.

  • Amy L Campbell

    Yay Haley I love it!

  • Annika Løbig

    Absolutely loved how this article reinforced my theory about how there’s an inner masochist in writers, since there’s always couple of hours of suffering (and in some cases a couple of glasses of wine) involved in our writing process, but we somehow manage to love it anyway. At least we can suffer and get drunk together.

  • Shea

    How did I not know that Sweetbitter is becoming a TV show?? Also, great article, great women, great advice.

  • i’ll read this whenever i feel little, so inspiring!!!!

  • Pandora Sykes

    This is great! I love JooLee Loren a lot.Liked Sweet Bitter; excited for Sour Heart.

  • Lindsey

    It’s good to know there are plenty of writers who still are the “write when the inspiration comes” type and they’re not *all* the “write every day” type. It always seems like “real” authors (whatever that means) say that consistency is the most important thing, and I think that can be true, but when writing isn’t your full time job, sometimes that just seems impossible, and overwhelming.

    I constantly have to remind myself that I actually do love writing (the process can be so awful sometimes, it’s easy to forget), and that if it is something I’d like to do more of, that means working in addition to my full time job. I am a fierce guard of my time outside of work, so more work feels like an impingement, even if I’m excited for the opportunity. Does that make sense? Can I even call myself a writer if it feels like such a chore/I only do it when I’m super inspired (which is once every couple months)??

  • Jessica Amento

    This is by and large my favorite MR story*, possibly ever. Thank you for that! *internet story

  • Chelsea Salvador

    I felt the Mario Batali comment on a spiritual level. The dude knows how to be comfortable!

  • rosaryblue

    love, love this article.

  • Ingrid Hanna

    HALEY! Thank you SO DANG MUCH for this article! I needed this more than anything today and feel about 68% better about myself. Love reading all of your stuff, too! It makes me feel more sane and nOrMaL! Write a book!

  • So true! Good is better than ‘not done’. Interesting how two ladies note the same thing as their best advice.

  • Kyra

    Ahhh thank you so much for this article. As someone who writes for a living and freelance and for myself, it can be super daunting to just start it and then finish it! Plus, it’s nice to see that I’m not the only one that a) was a professional procrastinator in a past life and b) is terrible at editing my own work!

  • D. Broussard

    Ahhhh as a writer who can’t seem to figure out WHY I haven’t been able to write lately this is SO REFRESHING. This has totally inspired me to simply put words on a document and worry about the rest later. Thank you so much! :))

  • lmaase

    I absolutely love this! So helpful and encouraging. Not to mention I feel a lot less guilty about becoming a hermit when I have to write something haha. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Just read this piece while struggling to finish something at work and it made me feel soo much better. All of these ladies are awesome.