Gretchen Rubin’s Writing Routine

Previously, I did a series that covered the writing rules of several famous authors including Octavia Butler, Natalie Goldberg, Kurt Vonnegut, and Steven King. 

I enjoyed creating this series because like all writers, I love to see how others approach writing, what types of routines they’ve crafted for themselves, and what habits or tools make getting to the blank page as easy and efficient as possible. 

The best part? Learning about the routines of others can give us ideas for our own routines.

This time I’m taking a slightly different angle by focussing strictly on the routines of non-fiction authors and this week I’m unpacking the writing routine of Gretchen Rubin. 

Gretchen Rubin is a New York based writer who explores human nature to understand how we can make our lives better. Her best-selling books include The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, Better than Before, The Four Tendencies (her personality framework as it relates to expectations [I am an Upholder]) and Outer Order, Inner Calm. 

The New York Times describes her as the queen of self-help memoir, but Gretchen prefers to think of herself as a moral essayist. 

She posts a weekly podcast with her sister called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and is a devourer of books, sending out a regular ‘what I read this month’ newsletter to her subscribers (which often includes more than ten books!). 

Gretchen’s routine varies depending on which stage she’s in. She posts a new blog on her website almost every day and the bank of material is not that far ahead, so she is constantly working on new content for the site. When she’s working on a book, she aims to have three hours a day of original work, Monday-Friday. 

Though she has a home office, her preferred place to work is the New York Society Library, a small public library located one block away from her apartment. 

Research plays a major role in her work, and part of that includes being well-read. Gretchen reads widely: novels, memoirs, philosophy, and essays, as well as scientific and traditional journal articles. Part of her research occurs through conversation and observation, finding insight in the minutia of everyday life. 

She takes copious notes and is always trying to process information and look for connections. She carries a notebook and will often email herself notes or random thoughts. She also keeps a huge document that is sorted by subject. By copying out this content, she believes it helps cement the ideas in her brain, and she is also a big lover of profound or well-crafted quotes. 

One of her favourite things about herself is that she often becomes obsessed with a subject, conducting countless hours of research to learn more about it, sometimes for years. 

While reading, Gretchen is actively looking for content that is worth noting. If it’s a library book, she’ll mark it with a sticky note, and if she owns the book, she’ll underline important passages. 

Once she’s finished reading the book, then she goes back and copies out all of the notes. 

If it’s an especially profound quote, she will also copy it and paste it into a large file specifically designated to quotes. 

When taking or copying notes, she’s not concerned with organisation. That occurs later, once she begins outlining the book. Instead, she tags each section with a relevant key work so that she can use the search function to locate it later. 

For Gretchen, the real struggle comes once it’s time to start structuring the book. She says that the structure of a book often seems obvious once she lands on the right one, but that it doesn’t seem obvious when first beginning. 

As she says, ‘Structure is so, so, so important – and the structure must serve the meaning.’ For this reason, she can’t always figure out the structure until she’s determined what it is she really wants to say with a book. 

That being said, one of the best things about her note-taking system is that she never begins a book with a blank page, as she already has hundreds of pages to guide her thinking. 

For Gretchen, the most important thing about writing is having something to say. Once you have something to say, the writing comes much more easily, but you still have to actually write it. As she says, Many people have ideas or the intention to write, but what matters, in the end, is what is on the page.

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