Are You a Lark, Hummingbird or Owl?

I was reading the other day that MP and novelist Nadine Dorries wakes up at 6am (eek), goes downstairs, lets her dogs out, makes a cup of tea, takes it back to bed, the dogs jump on the bed and then she gets her laptop out and writes.

She usually manages 1000 words before the alarm goes off at 8am. And that’s how she writes 2 books a year! Easy, eh?

I’m a kind of ‘lark’ (stop laughing, those who’ve seen me first thing in the morning!) – in that, I hasten to add, I write best first thing in the morning, before the distractions of the day begin. But I’m the first to admit that I’m not one of those people who naturally wake up bright and cheery and ready to start work, so I’d struggle to do what Nadine Dorries does (also, our dog’s not allowed on the bed!).

This brings me neatly to another one of the articles that I wrote once for Writing magazine: ‘Lark, Owl or Hummingbird: What Kind of Writer Are You?’

Are you a lark, most creative in the early morning, before the rest of the world’s awake? Or an owl, happiest burning the midnight oil and writing into the small hours? Perhaps you’re a ‘hummingbird’, flitting about somewhere in between and at your best in the middle of the day?

It’s worth considering the time of day (or night) when you feel most energised. If you’re not sure, try keeping a daily note for a week, of the times when you feel most alert. It’s likely to be your most productive time for writing.

Of course, your lark or owl tendencies can be skewed by certain factors: if you suffer from insomnia, have a newborn baby or work nights, for example.

Over time, your body clock may also change (many people turn into larks as they get older, for example). Scientists are divided on whether it’s possible to change yourself from a true lark to an owl and vice versa because your ‘am’ or ‘pm’ preference is likely to be genetic. But if you’re a ‘hummingbird’ – somewhere in the middle of the two – you might be able to train yourself to get up earlier or retire later, in order to write.

Try setting your alarm earlier (for would-be larks) – or go to bed later (for owls) – in gradual, 15 minute increments. And remember, it takes about a month to form a habit.

If you’re quick to rise and generally cheerful in the mornings and if, (time permitting), you like lingering over breakfast, you’re likely to be a lark. Larks often wake naturally, without needing an alarm and are most productive in the mornings and most alert around midday.
Nobel-prize winning lark, Ernest Hemingway, chose to write, ‘every morning, as soon after first light as possible’ because, then, ‘There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.’

Owls, on the other hand, often struggle to wake and get up and can be tetchy in the mornings. They often skip breakfast because mornings can be a real rush for owls. If you regularly watch TV or surf the internet after midnight, then you’re probably an owl. Owls are most alert around 6pm and most productive from late evening onwards.

Famous owls include Marcel Proust, who lined his bedroom walls with cork so he could sleep through the Paris day and write at night and Barack Obama, who, when asked how he found time to write his books, admitted, “I’m a night owl, so I usually wrote after my Senate day was over and after my family was asleep, from 9:30 p.m. or so until 1 a.m.”

Which raises another point. Regardless of their body clock, many writers have no choice but to write when their work or family commitments are over for the day, or haven’t yet started.

Novelist Toni Morrison started her career by writing before dawn, because she had young children but then later, realised that she was actually “clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent, in the morning.” Writing at the start of the day, which started out as necessity, became her choice.

I asked 25 fellow writers if they were ‘larks, owls or hummingbirds’ and they turned out to be a fairly even mix. It was clear though, regardless of their preference, most writers don’t have the luxury of choosing when to write.

Jackie Sayle said, “I’m an owl. I have to be because I don’t get a moment’s peace in the day to write.”

And Simon Whaley quipped, “It depends on the deadline!” As a full-time freelancer, he can’t afford to be choosy about when he writes.

It was clear too, from the responses, that if necessary, writers can be adaptable.

Elizabeth Ducie, a lark, had convinced herself that she couldn’t write in the afternoon. “However, I have recently done some challenges with writing buddies and found that I can actually write whenever I want to: I just have to apply my posterior to the chair and my fingers to the keyboard.”

Alison Wassell agreed. Her favourite time for writing – mornings – is now spent working, but she’s discovered that she can, indeed, write in the afternoons and evenings. She recommends trying to write at different times. “You might be pleasantly surprised at what you can achieve.”

Ian Smith admitted that he doesn’t have the luxury of being a lark or an owl. “When I’ve got ideas and it’s falling into place, nothing else is more important than capturing that opportunity. Maybe I’m more a bird of prey, seizing the chance to get on with it?”

And perhaps that’s the answer. Lark, owl or hummingbird, it really doesn’t matter, as long as we get our talons into whatever time and opportunities we have, to get writing.

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12 Responses to Are You a Lark, Hummingbird or Owl?

  1. I’m an Lark and Owl, both for different things. I’m a Lark for writing, going to the kitchen table to write before the world starts helps to focus on just the writing, also helps hubby not an early raiser. But with my photography I’m better as an Owl when it comes to editing and selected photos. I have tried it the other way around, nope doesn’t work for me.

    • Thanks for your comment, Caroline. That’s interesting! Clearly you’re using a different part of your brain! Having said I’m a ‘lark’, I actually get the urge sometimes to write in the evenings (like now…)!

  2. pennywrite says:

    Had heard of lark-writing and owl-writing… but not writing as a hummingbird!
    Have done the 5 or 6 am thing on occasion (the weeks of NaNo, for example) but probably couldn’t keep that up as a way of life. But sometimes, and if the only way to secure uninterrupted writing time, then yes! An interesting post, so thank you.

  3. I know what you mean, Penny. I’d love to be able to get up and write at 5am or 6am every day but I would just be too kn*ckered!

  4. Jackie Sayle says:

    Have to say that, despite being an owl (and thanks for using my comment, Helen) I agree with what Ian Smith says. In that time between sleeping and waking I often come up with ideas, snippets or even whole stories and have to write them down immediately I get up before speaking to anyone or doing anything else. If I don’t get things that come to me in that time down they often burst like a bubble and disappear forever. My son bought me a new digital ‘dictaphone’ to help after my old one with a tape in went kaput but, one year on, I still haven’t mastered it and usually resort to pen and paper. Same applies to ideas that come to me in the day through overhearing something or reading something – pen and paper out, get an outline down. So, I suppose I’m a writer all of the time really but need to be an owl to sit and properly formulate the ideas.

    • yes, that time between waking and sleeping is supposed to be when your subconscious is most readily ‘tapped’ for ideas! So definitely worth having pen and paper (or dictaphone!) to hand, so you don’t lose them!

  5. Jackie Sayle says:

    Oh, and a tip for those who get ideas in the middle of the night. Keep a torch handy by your bedside if you’re a pen and paper person or, next morning, you might find yourself staring at a spider’s web of illegible sentences which, despite you thinking you had moved the paper down, have all been written one on top of the other. And, if you use a dictaphone, be sure your bed partner isn’t freaked out by hearing you whispering, ‘I’m going to kill you and bury you in the garden,’ or ;*Name* (not his name), give it to me, big boy!’ or suchlike. My bed partner has been trained over the years not to react to stuff like that, but does obey the commands, ‘Get on your own side!’ or ‘Stop snoring!’ 🙂

  6. juliathorley says:

    I used to be an owl, but now I’m a lark. I do set my alarm, but usually wake up at 6.30 – even when I could have a lie-in, which is rather annoying. I find the sooner I get up and crack on, the more I achieve. (I’m typing this at 9.30am on Saturday morning, still in my dressing-gown, however!)

  7. Wendy Clarke says:

    I am a hummingbird. I’m okay at waking up in the morning and am always the one to get up and make the tea. I am lucky in being able to write just as well in the morning or the afternoon. I choose not to write in the evenings as I consider that to be time to spend with my husband. I have set myself a target of 1000 words (5 days a week) to get the novel written but this will be at any time of day.

    • That sounds a good plan, Wendy. 1000 words a day is ‘do-able’ isn’t it (and it’s a nice round number!) and I don’t blame you for giving yourself the weekends and evenings ‘off’!

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