How to Write After Midnight

Ha! You thought I’d open with a clever bon mot about torturing your kidneys with pots of coffee here, didn’t you? Silly! I’m going to do that later in the post. No, first we need to talk about the best time of day to write. Simple: Any time you can. Of course, if you’re a freelancer like me, some projects require you to grind through successive hours, some can be grazed over a period of days, a paragraph here and a transitional phrase there, and some can be surveyed and then dispatched: I saw the hill of that essay, I saddled up my sentence steed, and I surmounted it, verily!

In that regard, learning how to parcel out your time when you’re working on multiple projects is a valuable skill, and one that will endear you to your clients. It has taken me a while to be able to judge how long it will take me to edit a 200-page book, write a case study or come up with an ad’s headlines, but now I’m much more comfortable about projecting (and meeting) deadlines. Until it’s second nature, it’s a good habit to track how long it takes you to work with a certain type of writing. One good method with new clients is if you’re given something lengthy to write or to edit, work on the assignment for an hour or two to see what it tastes like, and you’ll be better equipped to know when you’ll finish eating. Don’t give them your milestone schedule until you’ve snacked on the copy a bit.

Morning Becomes Electric (Coffeemaker)
Related to how much time you can or must spend on a project is what times are most suitable for for the spending. I’m a morning guy, love to get up early, coffee in bed with a magazine to start the day, and then to the computer before 7. Unless there is something truly pressing, I’ll sift through email, check out the antics of fellow Tribesters on Seth Godin’s Triiibes site, glance at the news, vomit over the news, and then begin work on whatever’s workable.

Now when I say working, I mean working with clients if I have some, or working on essays or magazine/newspaper pieces if I don’t–or a combination when everything’s clicking. I normally have a number of queries out to various editors, and also some just at the note-taking stage. Some of the material that goes into a query is boilerplate (like your writing credentials/clips and your sign-off), so if you know well the core of your proposed article, the meat of the query can be massaged (oooohh!) a bit and then quickly stitched with the boilerplate. It might take as little as 30 minutes to write an article query, so if you find a gap in your day, why not? Of course, it might take 30 months for an editor to answer your query, but we won’t address those sins here.

Back to those morning pages: I write with more focus in the morning, and with renewed focus after the afternoon nap (really, the miracle of the 20-minute refresh), but not with any real afternoon sustain. Thus, when my monitor’s eye begins to look as bloodshot as my own, I start to crank down its shade in the waning afternoon hours. Then, I’ll often do the busywork of cleaning out the inbox, boxing with the outbox, and wondering if I need botox. I’ve never been one of those types that can merrily scribble away in the evening hours. I’m both fascinated and horrified by (and middlin’ jealous of) those industrious souls who can bang out another five or six hours of writing after the five o’clock cocktail-hour bell has rung. (Though perhaps my religious adherence to that magic hour is what makes liquid all my after-hours writing resolve?)

In the Midnight Hour (Softly Snoring)
So, how to write after midnight? There is that coffee-pot cascade that I was talking about earlier. But since too much of that stuff makes me sneeze out automobile parts, I’d rather sleep. The only way I can write after midnight is to let the pinball machine of my brain zing around the bumpers and ping-ping-ping the lights while I snooze. I really have found that if you nest on a writing problem in the sunlight hours, you’ll sometimes find a fresh egg of a writing solution in the morning. Of course, that doesn’t help when you need a gross of eggs to finish a book, but it might help you realize that your main character should be named Zeke and not Arbogast.

(Oh yeah, I do keep a notepad by my bed and indeed I have jumped up to madly scribble an idea a’borning. But so often when I’ve eagerly scanned it in the morning, I see that I’ve inscribed something like “Blizzard muffins not naysayers. Harken Wheaties. Bilge, breathless, truth.”)

Better wait for the sun to come up; at least I spell better in the mornings.