I grew up watching the Utah Jazz play basketball in the late 90s. This was their heyday, when they reached the NBA finals twice (only to be beaten by Michael Jordan’s Bulls).
One of my favorite players was a shooting guard named Jeff Honacek (current coach of the Phoenix Suns).
Hornacek had a signature move. It wasn’t a fade-away or flashy dunk—every time, before he shot a free throw, he wiped his hand across his forehead once and then down
his cheek twice. Every. Single. Time.
His free-throw ritual was unique, and it remains the single thing that I remember about Jeff Hornacek years later. In fact, when I was a kid I used to mimic him when shooting my own free throws in pick-up games.
Rituals are important to free-throw shooting. In fact, Jeff Hornacek holds the 13th highest career free throw percentage in NBA history, at 87.7%. He made over 90% of his free throws for big stretches of his career.
Maybe Hornacek felt silly when he was first developing his free throw ritual. You got to admit, it looks a little funny, especially for a pro-basketball player in his prime. But you can’t argue with his production. The ritual gave Hornacek results and helped him become the elite athlete that he was when the Jazz were going to the NBA finals.
Developing a pre-writing ritual
One of the biggest challenges writers face is coming up with consistently great content. In writing, as in all areas of life, we’re usually not at the top of our game 100% of the time. Sometimes the words flow out of your mind and onto the page in a glorious stream of prose, but other times many hours are spent staring at a blank page or blank screen in absolute frustration.
But writing is a skill, and like the skill of shooting free throws, it can be developed.
Knowing the mechanics of language is a big part of developing writing skills—just like a basketball player works on the mechanics involved in shooting the ball. But even if you are an expert grammarian and storyteller, you can still get stuck staring at that blank screen.
This is where rituals come in handy. Jeff Hornacek’s strange free-throw ritual didn’t actually help the ball get in the hoop—it only helped his body prepare itself to execute the complex series of motions necessary for sinking the shot. It was a cue to his muscles to get ready to perform. It was an entryway into the perfect free throw.
So while you’re still going to have to develop the skills necessary to becoming a good writer, having a pre-writing ritual helps you put those writing skills into motion.
Don’t be ashamed of having a wacky pre-writing ritual. As long as it works
Personally, my pre-writing ritual consists of sitting at my desk with my second cup of coffee. I’ll look on YouTube for a full album of instrumental jazz to listen to (I’m digging Grant Green’s “Idle Moments” of late), and then I’ll have set the right mood for myself to start whatever writing project I’m currently working on.
There’s nothing too wacky about my writing ritual, but it does seem to give me a pretty good batting average. Other infinitely more talented writers than me had bizarre routines that were often utterly illogical.
For example, James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, using a large crayon to scrawl his literary masterpieces on cardboard. Friedrich Schiller kept rotting apples in a drawer in his desk, claiming the stench inspired him.
So no matter what your pre-writing ritual, wear it as a badge of honor. Stick to it with reverence and madness. You might not be able to write Ulysses, but you should be able to improve your productivity and create the right conditions for consistently doing your best work.
Do you have any pre-writing/pre-work rituals? How do you put yourself in the zone to produce your best work? (Please share your stories in the comments below.)