I usually don’t get going until the afternoon. I like to save my mornings for reading, researching, and thinking about my writing agenda for the day.
Definitely a word processor–I haven’t written much on paper since elementary school (with the exception of blue book exams in college, which I hated). I’m pretty indifferent between different word processors.
I prefer quiet, but if I need to drown out background noise, I’ll listen to some classical music. I’m particularly a fan of Handel, but the important thing is that the music can’t have words, or else I won’t be able to concentrate at all.
My favorite part of the work day is sitting down with a cup of coffee to read whatever book I happen to be reading for fun. Things seem less daunting when I can start off with something I’m really looking forward to.
I aim for 1,000 words a day–it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s remarkable how quickly it adds up if I can stick to it every day. I also make sure to start fresh every day: I don’t beat myself off if I didn’t make it to 1,000 words the day before, and I don’t take it easy if I wrote extra the day before. Most of what I write ends up seeing the light of day, mainly because I write at a fairly slow rate–I’m always trying to write and edit as I go. Sometimes I think I’d like to be one of those people who writes thousands of words every day and the only keeps the best, but I’ve never been able to work like that.
Usually I alternate between staring at the screen and wasting time on the internet for several hours until panic sets in. The good news is that it sets in pretty reliably.
I mentioned that I try to write deliberately as I go so that even my first drafts will be presentable and polished, but the most useful thing for editing is always getting feedback from people you trust. For books, it’s always good to exchange feedback with my co-author, Jimmy Soni; for academic work, there are always works-in-progress seminars and conferences to take advantage of for feedback.
It really depends on the genre of work I’m doing–I always try to keep models in mind, though the model will change depending on what I’m working on. For the book on Cato the Younger, Jimmy and I were constantly referring to Tom Holland’s book on the Roman Republic, Rubicon; for our book on Claude Shannon, to James Gleick’s The Information and Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind. For my academic work, people like Danielle Allen are great models.
Usually it looks like procrastination getting out of hand, when I spend way too much time reading useless things online rather than getting down to work. I imagine I’m especially prone to do this when I’m particularly anxious about whatever I’m working on that day–but it’s a recurring problem. The most important thing is not to unduly beat myself up about it, and to remember that I get to start each day with a clean slate.
I’d recommend anything by my college advisor, George Gopen, particularly The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective. It’s one of the best guides to the basics of composition, though I was fortunate to get most of the material in it directly in the classroom as an undergrad.
I think I’ve written in some form or another for as long as I could remember, but the first time I really started to think seriously about writing was when I wrote a regular column for my college newspaper. I don’t know if those columns stand the test of time, but they were definitely the first time I started to take really seriously the idea of getting better at writing.
Two big ways: first, I learned very quickly that when you’re a speechwriter, you have to produce words on a tight deadline, regardless of how “inspired” you happen to be feeling that day. That was great practice for developing discipline as a writer. Second, the process of getting speeches approved–usually by several senior staff members and then by the member of Congress–helped me to develop a thick skin about being edited.
It helps to remember that good, clear writing is the same everywhere, even if the expectations of the genre you’re writing in are different. I hope that writing in several different areas makes my writing in all of them stronger–for instance, in avoiding jargon in my academic writing, and in trying to make my popular writing more rigorous and thoughtful–than the reverse.