“People seem to think there’s a magic formula in writing, I just write one word at a time,” said Stephen King.
People asked me about my creative process—how did I publish a book within a year, and how do I continue to write weekly? Do you wait for inspiration to strike before you write?
Some imagine writing as a solitary affair that happens in a vacuum, with the writer locked up in a room typing away. Others believe that writing comes naturally to “real” writers—the words just pour out when a writer sits down to put pen to paper. Here are some observations from my own writing process.
Commitment is the Foundation of Great Accomplishments
Writing is about accountability. When I first started, I had a developmental editor whom I met every Monday to discuss the progress on my draft manuscript. Every week we’d agree on a certain number of words that I’d write during the week to meet the manuscript submission deadline with the publisher.
In the first weeks of writing, I couldn’t imagine writing a book, let alone a chapter.
So my editor and I started small. My initial targets were between 500 and 700 words a week.
“Write about why this topic is important to you,” she urged. She did not care about plotlines nor inflection points at that stage, just that I put lines on a page.
The writing was terrible, lacking depth and structure. Just words on a page. But it was a start. I committed my Sundays to write to meet my weekly target with my editor. I didn’t want to disappoint my editor, and I didn’t want to break my word.
A study found that you are more likely to complete a goal by 65 percent if you commit to someone. This probability increases to 95 percent if you have a specific accountability date.
Imagine that you want to complete a marathon, but you’re not yet a runner. You may be out of breath the first few runs and may only complete short runs. To help you achieve your goal, you’d need a training plan. And you’re more likely to keep to that training plan if you tell your friends to cheer you on during the big day. Better yet, set up running dates with your friends or trainer that will help you keep to the plan. This is how you can set yourself up for success to complete a marathon.
Similarly, when I started my book manuscript, I increased the number of words I delivered to my editor on Mondays over time—from 500 words to 1000 words to an entire chapter.
Sharing your goals and committing to them can help you reach your creativity goals.
Creativity is a Wild Eye and a Disciplined Eye
While having targets and deadlines helped me submit my manuscript on time and publish weekly, I also find that I’d procrastinate when writing. I could use all week to write. But almost every week, I’d see myself typing away hours before the deadline.
Does dragging my feet produce lower-quality writing?
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, found that procrastinating was actually good for creativity. When you have an unsolved problem, you are more likely to develop creative solutions when you ruminate on it over a while. Lin-Manuel Miranda, producer and playwright of Hamilton and In the Heights, revealed that he’d write material only hours before rehearsals—letting ideas marinate in his head for a long time before writing.
This is not to say that I’d recommend waiting until minutes before the deadline to start writing. If you’d prefer multiple re-writes before hitting “Publish”, letting things ruminate would be too stressful. You should understand yourself and how you can deliver your best creative product.
Boredom is the Birthplace of Genius
John Lennon once said in an interview that the law of the universe is this: leave a space, and something will fill it. Buy more closet space or a bigger house, and you find yourself buying more things to fill it. Build a big office, and you end up growing the team to fill up the empty desks (pre-COVID days anyway!).
The same thing happens with ideas. Think back to the thoughts you’ve had in the shower (Archimedes discovered the physical law of buoyancy while he was having his bath)—you are more likely to think in a non-linear way at this time than doing other tasks. After a run or swimming laps, I find that I have a fresher perspective on any complex task that I am tackling at the time.
Numerous studies have found that mundane or passive tasks could help us think more creatively—an idle mind will seek a new toy. Boredom enables problem-solving because the mind has the luxury to wander and daydream. Other studies have pointed to being still—meditating and being mindful—boosts resilience and improves attention. This, too, leads to creative problem-solving.
There is Nothing New Under the Sun
But here comes the plot twist. While there are times during the week I fill with “nothingness”, I also read voraciously across different topics. I enjoy keeping up with global sports, business and technology, and learning about art. Having diverse interests enables me to bring in a different lens on topics and shed perspective on ways that may not have been done before.
There are two benefits to doing this. First, generalists, as David Epstein discussed in Range, are more innovative than specialists. He found great innovators can connect disparate pieces of information from many different sources. This helps with a creative mindset overall.
Second, my reading habit helps me to remix and transform ideas. It is about collecting materials from different sources and making something new. To quote Mark Twain, “There is no such thing as a new idea… We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Other times my weekly reading raises questions that I turn into writing material. The questions start me down a path of reflection and research. Ultimately it is about being curious and asking questions and then sharing those thoughts with others.
My best writing advice: just start.