I traded a 9-to-5 routine to work like a night owl for a week. Here's what happened.

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Mel Burke tried writing her novel at night for a week.
Courtesy of Mel Burke
  • Mel Burke is a culture writer and current MA student at Johns Hopkins University.
  • She recently took on writing full time and decided to try only working on her novel late at night.
  • Although she was quite productive, she doesn't think it's worth missing social activities.
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Approaching writing as a full-time job, for me, has meant scheduling my day like a traditional 9-to-5. I usually try to be at my desk by 9am and quit in the late afternoon or early evening.

While this structure has been the most productive as of late, a full day dedicated to writing is a newly acquired luxury. Until recently, I'd always written at strange hours wedged between daytime responsibilities.

When I was 14, between the hours of midnight and 3am, I would sneak down to the family PC, load up RealPlayer with my anime soundtrack midis, and work on my "novel." In college, after shifts at whichever of the four jobs I was working that day, I'd sit down to write essays. When I moved to an expensive city after college, I wrote between 6pm and 9pm to meet freelance deadlines after my day job.

Many successful and prolific writers have preferred to start their day after everyone else called it a night. Honoré de Balzac and Franz Kafka wrote in the early morning hours, and modern writers like Stephanie Meyer and Danielle Steel wrote after their kids were in bed (when their kids were still young).

In my latest incarnation as a wanna-be novelist, I've tried a few different routines, and so far the closest I've come to evening work was one hour before bed when I pretended to be VE Schwab for a day. I hated it, but I only tried it once, so I decided to give evening creative hours a more intensive trial.

For one work week, I wrote after my day was done, starting between 7 and 8pm and continuing until my eyes crossed. This resulted in my entire workday shifting later and later as rising before 9am after writing until midnight became impossible.

Monday kicked off with a bang

Night one started rocky, sitting down at 8pm with a cup of tea to try and fuel some focus after a full day of freelance assignments. My husband is naturally a night owl, so I'd already eavesdropped on a phone call and had to pry myself away from what he was watching on TV. I had plot-point goals for the evening, and I settled into a series of word sprints.

I wrote for about two and a half hours, hitting 2,300 words - over my goal of 2,000 for the day. Given how mushy my brain felt, I imagined drifting off to sleep immediately. But my brain was twitchy and confused by the late work until about 1am.

On Tuesday, I exceeded my goal again

I did a kick-line dance in the living room to a self-serenaded "I hate writing at night" song before my husband shooed me away.

I sat down at 7pm after another day of freelance work. My husband took a turn cooking dinner, which allowed me to start earlier than yesterday. I got two writing sprints in before taking a dog-walking break. A little past 8pm, I started to find my groove.

I stopped around 10.30 pm, which gave me three-and-a-half hours total for the night, 2,091 words sprinted, and four chapters edited or revised. Again, I was over my goal for the day.

On Wednesday, I faced the challenge of writing while tipsy

I had drinks planned after work, so by the time I sat down to write it was past 10pm, which made this my latest writing sprint not only for the week but in a long time.

My neighbour and I shared a bottle of champagne to celebrate the end of a long, tedious water-damage mess in our building, so my husband was surprised when I kissed his cheek and announced I was off to work. I figured there must be something to the age-old adage of "write drunk, edit sober," and I tried a few word sprints.

I made it about two hours before I hit a massive plot hole. I was sleepy from the champagne, and although I tried to push through for another 1,000 words before bed, I didn't make it, just barely landing my goal of 2,000 words for the night.

As it turns out, Hemingway never actually advocated for writing drunk, so I have no one to blame for my tipsy antics but myself.

By Thursday, I ran out of steam

I had social plans again, this time for a movie night with friends after work. I imagine writing regularly at night cuts into your social life. That, or more writers were drunk on the job than I'm fully aware of.

I was starting to slow down from the late nights all week and there was a nameless phantom stress hanging over my focus - like I still had a final to pass or rent might be late, issues I hadn't had in several years that seemed to be hiding in the muscle memory of sleep deprivation.

Ultimately, I caved to the exhaustion and frustration I'd been feeling about my week. Despite the ceaseless insistence that writers "write every day," sometimes you just have to take a day off. My word count for the day was zero and it still took me until 2am to fall asleep.

But on Friday I finished strong

A reader I'd asked for feedback let me know when they'd be available, so I had a fresh fire under me to finish up the plot hole that had been killing my momentum.

I sat down around 7.30pm with the promise of a mostly empty weekend stretching ahead of me.

The first two hours moved as easily as they did earlier in the week, and I was reminded of the power of taking a break. Three hours later, I'd reached the two-thirds mark for editing my book, and I called it a night.

Overall, I didn't hate night-writing as much as I'd anticipated

It was freeing to have flexibility in my schedule and approach my creative work without the nagging worry that I hadn't finished paid work first. I was surprised, too, at how much I was able to get done despite having already worked a full day.

However, writing is already an isolating profession. Losing out on social engagements in favour of writing at night isn't going to be worth it to me - and neither is writing buzzed after seeing people on a regular basis.

I'll be going back to my daytime routines knowing that, if I need it, the late hours are always there.

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