At the end of last year, I submitted the manuscript for my first traditionally published book to my editor at Penguin Portfolio. Originally, I was going to revise and expand my self-published book, The Art of Being Unmistakable. When my editor asked if I could have it done in 6 months, it didn’t seem unreasonable. Two weeks into starting my book, we realized I was writing a new book from scratch.
I did the math in my head. 1000 words a day. 45,000 words. 6 months. That assumed I could produce 1000 usable words every day that flowed and connected. Regardless, I wanted to hit my first deadline of November. It was basically Parkinson’s law at work. I completed the work in the time I was given to do it. Below I’ve dissected what made it possible to write the manuscript in 6 months.
Masters of the form quake before the page — Dani Shapiro
I’m by no means a master of the form. But when I finished the outline and it was time to get the first words down on paper, I was overcome by a bit of anxiety. “How in the hell am I going to get from this blank Google Doc to a 45,000 word manuscript?”I imagined worst case scenarios like my editor and agent thinking they had made a huge mistake. Then, I remembered these words from Dani Shapiro.
Start small. If you try to think about it all at once, the world you hope to capture on the page, everything you know, every idea you’ve ever had, each person you’ve met, and panoply of feelings coursing through you like a river — you’ll be overcome by paralysis.
So I started writing whatever came to mind. I started to chip away. I wrote shitty first sentences. In a big writing project, the first 10,000 words are the hardest. But with incremental progress and small wins, you start to develop momentum. At a certain point, there is less in front of you than there is behind you.
I became process focused much more than outcome focused. Were the words any good? It didn’t matter. I kept the deal I’d made with myself. And if what I wrote was shit, I could always come back tomorrow and rewrite it.
2. Treat Editing and Revising as a Separate Process from Writing
Kurt Vonnegut had this great distinction between bashers and swoopers, bashers being the people who write perfect sentences one at a time, and they don’t move on until they’ve nailed each one. And swoopers just churn out a bunch of thoughts. They treat editing and revising as a separate process. If you look at all the evidence in the past few decades about what it takes to be original, it consistently says that quantity is the best path to quality — Adam Grant on The Unmistakable Creative
Some people spend their days trying to craft perfect sentences that hit people in the face with a crowbar. They try to generate and revise at the same time. But as I’ve said before the secret to becoming a good writer is to become a prolific one. You can always come back and revise tomorrow.
During my writing sessions, I didn’t attempt to revise any of my ideas. My outcome was simple. Get words down on the page. Sometimes I would warm up by riffing on my reaction to a quote or passage in another book. Other days the words would just flow.
3. Have a Daily Ritual
Structure and process are critical to increasing creative output. And rituals make you more prolific and productive. At a certain point, I had to develop a ritual specifically for working on the book. It’s not much different from my daily ritual.
- 10 minutes of meditation
- Listing gratitudes in the Five Minute Journal
- Reading Before I write
- Write 1000 words (some of which made it into the book and some of which didn’t)
After coffee and breakfast, I would shower. I’d put on Focus at Will and then I would do a full read-through of the manuscript. Unlike a blog post or an article, you have to maintain a constant arc and narrative throughout a book. If you introduce new ideas they have to connect to things you have previously mentioned. So it helps to reread what you wrote so far every day.
4. Build in Time for Creative Renewal
No matter how prolific you are, you have to build in periods of creative renewal or the work will inevitably suffer. On a daily basis, I would completely shut down in the middle of the afternoon, go to Starbucks, and take a walk while reviewing the latest episode of the Unmistakable Creative, which often served as inspiration for many of the ideas in the book. Then I would come back and jot things down in a notebook, on notecards, and in Evernote.
Midway through the book, I also took a surf trip to El Salvador. Given that the book was organized in surf metaphors, I knew an extended period of time in the water would be good for me and the work.
5. The Power of Visual Reminders
People at the top of their professions, in particularly those known for their creativity and effectiveness, use systems of attention and memory external to their brain as much as they can — Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind
A few years ago I saw an outline Mark Schaefer was doing for his book. The whole thing was on a cork board with index cards. My system ended up being a combination of that and Ryan Holiday’s notecard system. For each big idea, I would write one word on a card and put it on the cork board. Underneath the big idea, I’d put up cards with examples, quotes, stories, and more. Anytime a thought crossed my mind I put it on the cork board. You can see an image of it below.
It provided a constant visual reminder of the book and allowed me to externalize my ideas. A visual reminder of your project is just one element of designing your environment for optimal creative output.
6. Eliminate the Need for Willpower, Decision Fatigue, and Distraction
I’ve written extensively about how I’ve optimized my life for deep work, and set things up in order to increase my creative output. Here are a few things that might help you
1) Setup everything the night before. Because I always read before I write, I chose the book that I was going to start the next day with before I went to sleep. That was one less decision I had to think about.
2) Wake up at the same time. If you repeat the same behavior at the same time day after day, your subconscious will eventually decide that “this is what we do at this time.” When I sit down in my chair and crack open a book, my brain knows that it’s time to write.
3) Block distracting websites, don’t multitask and plan your day the night before.
7. Read A Lot
There are some authors who don’t read while they’re writing because they’re afraid they’re being influenced. I was the exact opposite. I read tons of books while writing my own. They all served as sources of inspiration and enabled me to steal like an artist.
8. Working with a Writing Coach
In his post about how he wrote 3 books in 3 years, Ryan Holiday mentions working with an editor outside of the one from his publisher. I ended up doing the same, with an editor named Robin Dellabough and it was worth every penny that I had to allocate from my advance.
She constantly pushed me, challenged me and forced me to level up. From a tactical perspective, I’d write every day using a Google doc, then share the document with her. Because she was on the East Coast by the time I woke up in the morning to write, I had her comments to review. It’s hard to see the flaws in your own work because you’re too close to the material. That’s why it helps to have a sounding board.
- She caught patterns that I had.
- She called me out on places where I repeated myself
- She told me when things didn’t make any sense
This made the difference between the book being good and the absolute best I was capable of producing. There’s no question I’d do this again for writing a book.
It’s been said before that we overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. While I finished the book in 6 months, treating prolific writing as a practice for so many years served as preparation for writing a book.If you found this article helpful share or recommend it.