Writing Routines

Margaret Atwood’s Writing Routine: “All writers feel struck by the limitations of language.”

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, and essayist, as well as the recipient of numerous writing awards, including two Booker Prizes, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Governor General’s Award.

All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.

Margaret Atwood, The Art of Fiction No. 121 | The Paris Review

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When speaking at a 2015 Guardian Live Members’ event, Margaret Atwood was asked whether she considers herself prolific. The Canadian author and poet scoffed at the notion and said “Joyce Carol Oates is prolific; I’m just old.”

However, taking into consideration her 18 poetry books, 18 novels, 11 non-fiction books, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels published since 1961; it’s a little hard to agree with the writer.

A characteristic that has helped her work output over the years is that, unlike many other writers who have set rituals and working conditions, Atwood can write anywhere.

“I’m not often in a set writing space,” she told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about it, except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!”

A frequent traveller her whole career, Atwood is used to writing in the unlikeliest of places, from a remote English village to Afghanistan during a round-the-world trip with her family. She began writing The Handmaid’s Tale while on a fellowship in West Berlin during the 1980s, according to The New Yorker.

Unlike many writers, Atwood does not require a particular desk, arranged in a particular way, before she can work. “There’s a good and a bad side to that,” she told me. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.” The good side is that she can write anywhere, and does so, prolifically.

Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia | The New Yorker

Margaret Atwood’s daily writing routine

On a typical writing day, Atwood usually starts working at 10am, aiming for 1,000 to 2,000 words per day. She wraps up her work at 4pm, although sometimes she’ll write into the evening, “if I’m really zipping along on a novel.”

Describing her morning routine, Atwood said, “I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d handwritten the day before.”

I write in longhand and preferably on paper with margins and thick lines with wide space between the lines. I prefer to write with pens that glide very easily over the paper because my handwriting is fast. Actually, I don’t churn out finished copy quickly. Even though I have this fast handwriting, I have to scribble over it and scratch things out. Then I transcribe the manuscript, which is almost illegible, onto the typewriter.

Margaret Atwood, The Art of Fiction No. 121 | The Paris Review

She also doesn’t like to outline her books, preferring to “jump in, like going swimming.” As a result of this process, she rarely writes a novel in a linear fashion, often happening upon stories in discovery mode.

“Scenes present themselves. Sometimes it proceeds in a linear fashion, but sometimes it’s all over the place,” she explained to The Paris Review. “I wrote two parts of Surfacing five years before I wrote the rest of the novel—the scene in which the mother’s soul appears as a bird and the first drive to the lake. They are the two anchors for that novel.”

When asked what she disliked most being a writer, she replied, “That would be book promotion—that is, doing interviews. The easiest is the writing itself. By easiest I don’t mean something that is lacking in hard moments or frustration; I suppose I mean ‘most rewarding.’ Halfway between book promotion and writing is revision; halfway between book promotion and revision is correcting the galleys. I don’t like that much at all.”

To stay active while writing, Atwood likes to keep an eye on how many steps she gets in each day. She told The Cut she aims for 10,000 steps each day, mainly by not driving and walking to the shops with her wheelie cart. 

At the end of the day, Atwood likes to wrap up her work with dinner with people (“I just did two dinner parties back-to-back recently” she told The Cut. “Then I might watch a really soothing kind of murder mystery. I just watched the new production of Macbeth, which I thought was very well done.”

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